The Benefits of Being Disagreeable

What would you accomplish if you were more disagreeable?

The term “disagreeable” has all sorts of negative connotations.  Someone who we refer to as disagreeable is understood to be ill tempered and unpleasant.  But there is another way to look at the term – a more literal way.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book David and Goliath, talks about the willingness to move ahead with an idea without “social approval”.  Here’s a recap of a recent talk he gave at a business school:

“Combined with a sense of openness and discipline, a willingness to “follow through even in the face of social disapproval” is critical. He illustrated this with the growth of IKEA in the 1950s, which persevered with an unlikely concept of unassembled “shipped flat” furniture from a then-unpopular lower-cost source of labor (Poland). It wasn’t just that Sweden was higher cost, but also that the furniture establishment rejected his disruptive model.” 

I want to share with you two examples of being disagreeable.  The first is about Rick Barry.  Gladwell did a great podcast on the topic of Rick Barry and his famous free throw style.


Rick was one of the great basketball players of all time.  He led the NCAA and the NBA in scoring during his career.  And over the course of his storied professional career he had a free-throw percentage of 89.3%.  The thing was, he shot his free throws “granny style”.

Rick figured out that the granny-style of throwing a ball was more consistent, and physiologically more natural, than the common method of shooting free throws.  Can you imagine the abuse Rick took throughout his career as he stood at the line and shot his free throws this way?  Check out this video:

Rick was famously disagreeable.  He didn’t need social approval to pursue what he saw was a more effective method.  Actually, the amazing thing isn’t that he shot his free throws this way, but that more basketball players don’t follow his method despite the evidence.  In the podcast, Gladwell focuses on Wilt Chamberlain’s horrific free throw percentage.  Evidently Wilt was, according to  Gladwell in this interview, a “high threshold” person:

“The method, also called “granny style” shooting, was favored by Rick Barry, a career 89.3% free throw shooter, and it helped Chamberlain shoot a career-best 61% from the line in 1961–62, the same season he sank 28 of 32 free throws in his record-setting 100-point game. Much to Gladwell’s dismay, however, Chamberlain reverted to traditional foul shooting, his percentages predictably plunged again, and he later admitted that he felt “like a sissy” when he shot underhanded.

Gladwell’s underlying point is clearly stated: Why would a Hall of Famer reject a proven, simple solution to his most obvious flaw when another Hall of Famer used the exact solution to historically great effect? And, in turn, why have modern players largely followed in Chamberlain’s footsteps rather than Barry’s?

The Chamberlain/Barry dichotomy leads naturally into an exploration of high threshold versus low threshold personalities. In the simplest sense, a high threshold personality (like Chamberlain) is more likely to allow a crowd to dictate his behavior, while a low threshold personality (like Barry) pursues the preferred course with less regard to social cost. By the end of the episode, Gladwell finds himself “admiring” the polarizing Barry’s willingness to shun hecklers and groupthink as he perfected the method of foul shooting that ultimately maximized his ability and value.”

Stepping outside of the strict need for social approval is hard – just ask any high school student.  To be sure, some social approval is a good thing.  The CEO of IKEA couldn’t have been 100% disagreeable, otherwise he wouldn’t have formed many of the relationships that he inevitable formed that helped his company succeed.

But there are times when we need to have the guts to stand at the foul line, hold the basketball down by our knees, and make our best shot.

Good luck!