Written by Tyler Cowen and published on LinkedIn
Americans often point with pride to our role as the world’s leading innovator. And yet despite this leadership and innovation, if you compare America today to forty years ago, the country seems to have lost its mojo.
The passion and perseverance that fueled progress in America has been falling since the 1960s, back when we dreamed of seeing flying cars and colonies on other planets by the turn of the century. Instead, recent innovation tends to be on the margin rather than fully transformational—like more ways to socialize online, play games, and get services without leaving the house. While seemingly small, Americans’ complacent, safe decisions end up meaning a great deal for the wider economy.
Today, only 7-8% of US companies are startups—down from 12-13% in the 1980s. More new businesses are failing while established giants consume the industry landscape. Job relocation rates have fallen more than a quarter since 1990. And year after year, we’re seeing sluggish productivity growth from the economy as a whole. I describe these trends in detail in The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. I argue that Americans have become more fearful of risk and more comfortable with the status quo. And these qualities are passing on to our children, who are becoming more sheltered both literally and psychologically.
However, complacency cannot last forever. The dissent and unrest leading to the election of President Trump and the subsequent fallout signal that we may be approaching a great reset. From all perspectives, people are starting to feel empowered to act against ideas they disagree with. But will that be enough to move people to create change, take calculated risks, and break the mold?
Below are ten steps individuals can take to lead less complacent lives that will in time translate to broader social change. Before beginning, take the “How Complacent Are You?” quiz to see whether you can use a little less complacency in your own life.
1. Get Out of Your Bubble
It’s easy to get cozy and watch Netflix on a weekend instead of going outside and exploring new things. With apps that deliver food, groceries, laundry, entertainment, and everything in between, why go through the trouble of leaving the house?
By doing so, we miss new experiences, opinions, and interactions that help shape our worldview. Many people attribute Trump’s surprise win to a lack of awareness of other opinions that can happen as people wall themselves off—in the real world and online—from the new and different.
Instead of doing the same old same old, take the opportunity to leave your neighborhood and explore the great unknown. Talk to someone you don’t normally interact with in your social circles. Go to a specialty grocery store and pick up new ingredients you haven’t tried before to cook a new dish. Learn more about getting involved in your community. If you have the resources, book a ticket somewhere new rather than your summer condo in Florida.
2. Don’t Use Convenience Technology for Everything
It’s easier than ever to get exactly what you want through the use of “sorting” technology. This applies to everything from small, everyday decisions like where to eat (Yelp), what music to listen to (Spotify), and what books to read (Amazon), to lifelong decisions like who to marry (Match.com). While these tools are helpful in cutting through the noise, they also weed out options that we may enjoy but will not appear because they don’t meet our “matching” standards. If you met your spouse in real life 20 years ago, but he or she didn’t fit every standard you set for a mate on paper, would they even show up online as an option for you today?
Instead of depending on this technology, use it as a starting point and don’t disregard the thrill of natural discovery. Next time you are in a new city, go outside and explore to find dinner rather than going to the highest rated place on TripAdvisor. Meet new people in the real world and open yourself to the possibility of dating someone who doesn’t come from the same background as you. Go to a bookstore or record store to browse. While this may seem old-fashioned, you never know what hidden treasures you may find.
3. Keep Learning
Just because you finished school doesn’t mean you should stop learning. Even in the working world, you need to keep learning to be effective at your job and improve your value as a worker. Even better, your new talents could lead to greater compensation in the future or the creation of something new. You also shouldn’t feel wedded to the career you started out with for the rest of your life, but rather you should constantly evaluate whether it’s the right career for you.
With the Internet, there are more opportunities than time allows to learn new skills. Everything from building a website and remodeling your home to learning statistics and mastering a foreign language is readily accessible at your fingertips, often for free. Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge available and put it to use.
4. Ask for What You Want
As the cliché goes, you miss 100% of the opportunities you never take. All too often people don’t ask for what they want out of fear of rejection or because they undervalue their own worth: Maybe I don’t deserve what I want?
Knowing what you want is the first step in changing outcomes—whether it’s getting out of a dead-end job, pursuing a relationship, or making a major change in your life by moving or chasing a new passion. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need to improve your life and add greater value to the world. Often, the worst that can happen is a “no” which is better than regret of the unknown.
5. Have Difficult Conversations
As social media becomes the dominant form of communication, more of us find ourselves building communities of people who reinforce our positions or only engage with us in a positive way. By self-segregating online, we only reinforce segregation in the real world, as seen by the growing segregation of America by socioeconomic status and in some ways by politics (the liberal coasts versus conservative flyovers). We are also seeing this aversion to opposing viewpoints at universities as riots increase over controversial speakers and issues of free speech. The popularity of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” teaches the next generation that it is okay to silence people who don’t share your views of the world rather than trying to understand them—or better yet, challenge them constructively.
Instead of shielding yourself from ideas you oppose, take the time to engage them and who knows, you may change some minds along the way.
6. Take Risks
Risk-taking is a key American trait. Our ambition has led to great achievements over the last century, and we need that drive again to conquer today’s greatest challenges.
Every new venture requires a little risk. While you shouldn’t be foolish with the risks you take, allow for some calculated risk and be prepared for failure. Most great inventors have several failures before they land their golden ticket.
In your everyday life, this could mean applying for that job you’ve always wanted but didn’t think you stood a chance at getting. It could mean pursuing a relationship with someone who you thought was out of your league. It could mean going back to school to finish that degree you’ve always regretted not finishing. It could mean breaking out and starting your own side gig. It could also mean losing something, but learning along the way to inform a future success.
7. Move Around
Americans traditionally have thought of themselves as great movers, and indeed that was true through most of the twentieth century. But since the 1980s, Americans have become much less restless and less likely to move across the country. Here is this change in a single number: The interstate migration rate has fallen 51% below its 1948–1971 average, and that number has been falling steadily since the mid-1980s.
The decision to move reflects something very fundamental about one’s life. People move for better jobs, for marriages, for a different climate, for new and different social networks, or sometimes just to shake things up. But now, people are not moving because they stay at the same job longer, geographic differences are fewer than they used to be, or they are not willing to uproot their lives to change their circumstances—whether it’s poverty or unemployment.
If you are able to do so, move at least once in your life. Experience what it is like starting over in a new place where you need to establish your professional career and social circle virtually from scratch. Choose a place that is unfamiliar but of interest, where you can discover new things, talk to new people, and learn something about yourself.
8. Plan for the Future, and Make It Happen
It might make sense to sit on the couch and keep doing what you are doing today. But what does that mean for tomorrow?
It is easy to get caught up in the busyness of day-to-day life and suddenly, the years have gone by and too many opportunities have passed. Why did I never spend that year traveling the world? Why have I never read the most influential books of all time? Why did I not pursue my passion project? Why did I not keep more relationships?
Instead, make a plan today to achieve what you want in the future and create specific steps to make it happen. Work hard, save money, and build toward the future you want. Life will get in the way, as it always does, but setting your intention can go a long way in achieving your goals.
9. If You Don’t Like What You See, Do Something
Some people would argue that there are institutional barriers that make it difficult for people today to make radical change. Things like business regulations, an aggressive litigation environment, and social conventions can all create hurdles to innovation. However, more often than not, you don’t see people taking to the streets to remove those barriers. You also don’t see people taking to voting booths—the United States still has one of the lowest voter turnouts of any developed country. They may complain on social media, but to actually take steps to solve the problem requires another level of effort.
To get out of complacency, you have to be motivated into action. I’m not suggesting anything as radical as the riots we saw in the 60s and 70s, but a more deliberate response to injustice in the world: Responses like voting, getting involved on the local level, reaching out to politicians or private-sector influencers, the media, or starting a movement on your own. Already, we are seeing this brew through current political protests.
10. Don’t Give Up
More important than intelligence and status, people need grit—passion and perseverance toward long-term goals—to overcome obstacles to achieving their greatest potential. If everyone had more grit and fewer excuses, we could see greater levels of job growth, new discoveries, and improvements in our culture. Psychologist Angela Duckworth said in a Freakonomics interview that a person’s level of “stick-to-itiveness” is directly related to their level of success. For a long time, Americans have held this value, but in some cases, they have been using it to dig their heels in and stay where they are. Instead, we should be channeling our grit toward improving our lives and the lives of others.