Are You Disagreeable?

July 29, 2021


The best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell thinks people should be more disagreeable. “A disagreeable person (as defined by psychologists) is someone who does not require the approval of others in order to pursue what they intend to pursue.” In a recent podcast conversation, Gladwell shared this particular unpacking of such individuals. In praise of this character attribute, he furthered that perhaps we, as a culture, sell short just how integral this trait is — particularly for people who “endeavor to improve our world or drive innovation.”


If you are someone who can’t move a muscle unless the world aligns behind you and pats you on the back, there’s a limit to what you can accomplish.”


Offensive, unpleasant, obnoxious, and abominable… all words which could seamlessly be swapped out for “disagreeable" in its familiar interpretation. The term is customarily lodged in such a light, yet as Gladwell posits in the above language, the characteristic is the X factor in terms of breakthrough. Through the ages, nowhere has this trait been more critical than in the creative life where innovation is endlessly driven. We make art to move ourselves and possibly to move others. In staying true to the former, we make the work that at some point may achieve the latter. Losing the “please” factor liberates our practice and our process and opens a truth fluency in our creative pursuits. It is precisely how we get to extraordinary. 


Archie Bunker, Larry David’s character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Lucy (sister of Linus)… all amply embody the “obnoxious” quotient and could be deemed consummate disagreeables. But, in looking through the trait’s alternate lens, Vincent van Gogh, Zadie Smith, Jackson Pollack, Miles Davis, Jack Kerouac, David Lynch and the likes might be as well. Absent any concern for applause, in their creating, grammar is defied, lines are blurred, mediums are mixed and instruments are unconventionally rigged and tuned, all in order to artistically express themselves in the only means the know how.


Singling out the painter Mark Rothko, I devote a chapter (titled, Who Cares) on this truth in my new book SUPERFLOW Light Up the Artist in You (Nine Rivers, 2021). For the first twenty-five years of his career, Rothko made his paintings on nights and weekends — due to his day job as a teacher—selling zero to few works well into the 1950s. During this chapter of his life, he simply had no interest in defending his work to an audience that could not understand him and his bolt from tradition. Rothko refused to let their confusion derail his world of imagination. So, he continued his slow probe of layers and color blocks, insisting on a creative dialogue that included only him and his art.

How is a “disagreeable" nature integral to our art making? As modeled by Rothko, by refusing to let one’s brushstroke be directed by some external source (i.e. praise), songs and poems and plays are incubated and gestated from the interior — that field of pure imagination. Can you imagine the wonders of which the world would have been swiped had Rothko allowed his inner wisdom to be hijacked for the sake of the high fives of another?

We can practice being disagreeable through the ongoing checking of our personal motives. It’s a powerful probe to pause in whatever creative thread you are following right now and inquire in to weigh the degree to which any external approval might be compromising your true vision. This is not an exercise in which to beat oneself up, but rather just to notice what you notice and in that recognition perhaps dial back that diversion.

“An artist is a person whose hunger refuses yesterday’s bread.”
                                                                                                                       Jane Hirshfield


Today’s group think culture is endlessly pounding home a message of compliance. Of course conformity makes sense in certain of life’s respects, but creative expression is not the place in which to practice passivity — not if you hope to make the rhymes and pictures and paintings that astonish. Creativity extends to each of us a distinct platform for practicing and flexing the disagreeable muscle, to make small protests as we say “so what,” and then go see for ourself. When we do, we unlatch the gate to making work that is limitless and boundless and pure. Stay hungry, practice, study, practice, breathe, practice and be well. And to that mix… allow some space for being disagreeable?


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