The Crystallization of Discontent

Life’s most important bounce-back moment

A quick

The Crystallization of Discontent is where the pain of how things are today is suddenly great enough to fuel the change needed for tomorrow. It’s a sort of emotional tipping point.

It’s a cognitive milestone where you perceive that the cost of your current situations finally exceeds its benefits and a decision to change is reached.

It marks a rebound point and is perhaps the strongest catalyst of enduring behavior change. It provides the deep emotional impetus necessary to fuel lasting change (change endurance). The crystallization of discontent can also be manufactured (or accelerated) in yourself, and in others, as a way to engineer a turnaround event, or a life-launch event, for either personal or commercial intent. Keep reading to learn more.

A journey of

There are important things in each of our lives that are in the process of dying. There are areas in our lives, sometimes whole categories, that are in active decay. This is a natural, universal, and unavoidable principle of Entropy, that all things tend toward disorder… they atrophy, deteriorate, and decay until they are no more.

Sometimes this decay is because of an inadequate investment. Investment, one of the fundamental 16 Elements, is the simple idea that the things we fail to invest in, will fail to survive.

Relationships, physical health, emotional health, knowledge, our environment, everything.

When we don’t actively invest in something, it begins to die.

And there are likely right now in your life things that you value, that are dying. They’re dying because you’re not adequately investing in their upkeep.


Sometimes they’re dying and we don’t even know about it. Sometimes we allow ourselves to follow a destructive path way beyond what is rational because we do it unconsciously, because of change blindness. It’s where we fail to recognize the change (in this case negative) happening in our lives, or in a given context, because it happens slowly, by degrees, over time. This is often a result of not keeping Score (another of the core 16 Elements), which would otherwise wake us up to the change, and the impact of that change.

Because of this change blindness, we’ll end up following a destructive path, totally (or mostly) blind to the costs it’s imposing on our lives, and often in the lives of those around us, until all of a sudden something substantial happens that wakes us up to the level of atrocity we’ve reached.

That moment is called the crystallization of discontent. It’s often the heart of the “all-of-a-sudden syndrome”, where “all of a sudden” we recognize that this cannot continue.

The normalization
of deviance

But not always is that journey an unconscious one. Sometimes we’re cognizant of the decay, and we permit it anyway. We see it but excuse it, rationalizing to ourselves that it isn’t significant, or altering how we attribute those consequences… blaming someone else, or something else, as opposed to recognizing the problem is us.

This process, by the way, is called the normalization of deviance, where a behavior that deviates from our value framework goes unchecked, and becomes normalized, creating a new boundary for “deviance”. But because we’ve crossed that boundary once, it’s easier to cross again.

The second time easier than the first, and the third easier than that, and so on until there really is no boundary. We allow ourselves to follow this slippery slope into an unthinkable territory we would have never thought we would reach, until all of a sudden we have a wakeup event.

But whether this journey of decay was conscious or unconscious, we ultimately have a wake up point. A point at which we wake up to the costs of our behavior. A point at which we realize that the costs outweigh the benefits (if it was a conscious path… like smoking, or drinking, or other addictive behaviors), or we realize the costs finally justify a change to our behavior.

A behavioral
tipping point

This realization, known in behavioral psychology as the crystallization of discontent, marks an emotional tipping point. It’s the point at which the pain of how things are today is suddenly great enough to fuel the change needed for tomorrow. It’s a culmination of cognitive dissonance where change is the only option.

This is a pivotal moment. A turning point. It provides the emotional fuel to support a true change initiative. It’s perhaps the most powerful personal motivator, because it carries with it a narrative, a story, and actual, perceivable costs.

That story becomes the foundation you fall back on whenever you start to tire from the effort of your change. It’s what helps create true change endurance.

Behavioral psychologists have shown that most substantial personal change efforts will fail, until the individual reaches the crystallization of discontent. Organizationally this is often true as well. Organizations tend to avoid change initiatives, opting to actively delay the investment, until some sort of crystallization of discontent is reached, and the pain of how things are today is suddenly great enough to fuel the change needed for tomorrow.

Engineering the
crystallization of discontent

Of course, knowing what a powerful behavioral motivator this is, behavior designers, leaders, parents, organizations, life engineers, and any behavior architect should naturally perk up and wonder, how can we use this?

It turns out that the crystallization of discontent can be reached in a couple of ways. First and foremost (and most commonly), it can be reached by waiting for the subject in question (including ourselves) to reach rock bottom. To experience the actual pain from that impact, and hoping they can convert that pain into change energy.

The other, far more desirable approach is to accelerate the crystallization of discontent through simulation.

This has long been a core tenet of product marketing. Product Marketers work feverishly to craft narratives and find anecdotes, illustrations, and even data to suggest that the pain of NOT using their products is greater than the pain of changing to it. This idea of using “insights” to teach customers that the “pain of same is greater than the pain of change” has always been a core narrative strategy, because it works.

They teach you to understand, and quantify the pain of how things are today (without their product). They teach you to find that pain, then to “stick your finger in it and move it around… make them really feel it” (these were the very words used in one of the most renowned product marketing courses on the market that I took a couple of years ago).

Selling on pain is powerful, usually way more so than selling on the gain (the promise of something more).

In individuals it’s the same… we can manufacture the crystallization of discontent in ourselves, or in others by using narrative, data, visualizations, and stories to help calculate, quantify, and call to the front the costs of our current behaviors, fueling that rebound event (what we call a life-launch event) in the process.

See the lenses below how to do this, and how this principle can be used effectively in each of the different contexts.

How to
apply the principle

Click each icon below to see how this applies.

If you’ve become aware of a behavioral trend in your own life, a pattern of behavior, or suspect you may be on a path of decay that will leave you ultimately somewhere you know you shouldn’t be, then there are a few things you can do.

Quantify the cost

One of the ways we allow destructive behaviors to endure so long is because the fail to quantify the cost. As long as the cost is mostly ambiguous, without form, without edges, and hard to really define, then it’s far easier to justify and rationalize. But when you take time to actually quantify the cost of your behavior… the cost on you, the cost on others, the cost on your future, the cost on your present, etc… then you’ll accelerate the journey to crystallized discontent.

Cost quantification is an effective strategy to help you truly recognize the damage being done.

Keep Score

One of the core 16 Elements, once you figure out the costs, choose to keep score of the damage you do every time you do it. Put it in terms that you care about. Putting a score (positioned as cost) to that behavior, trains your mind to focus not on the behavior, but the outcomes of the behavior.

Describe the destination

It’s easy for us to think only of the present. We’re not good at thinking of the future, and plenty of literature has documented this. This leads to an inability to adequately understand the impact of our behaviors on our future. It’s helpful then, to simply ask yourself “where will this road take me? What will that look like?”

Make that description vivid, even though it’s painful, that’s the point. The more you can assess and describe, in unrelenting detail what that world will look like, the ultimate and inevitable outcome of the road you’re on, the more you’re likely to reach a state of crystallized discontent, fueling the desire to change.

Sometimes it’s easy for us to see our children wandering down a destructive path and want to simply jump in and force them to change directions.

There might be times when this is necessary, for sure, but the tendency to always do this can often serve to embattle our kids against us and entrench them in an idea that they have no agency, that we don’t understand, and the result is a constant combative response, where they’re always taking a defensive posture against us. What’s more, we fail to teach them the life skills necessary for them to learn how to self-correct.

You can help your kids self-correct their path by manufacturing the crystallization of discontent with the following approaches.

1. Visibility into the end-state – Help them recognize the outcome of the path they’re on. The more you can get them to see what this is themselves, and describe it themselves, without flat-out telling them, the more impactful this will be on curbing their behavior.

2. Visibility into an alternate, more desirable outcome – The more clear the alternative, the more undesirable their current state is. It’s hard to make a current state seem undesirable when there’s no clear alternative.

3. Clarity of the way forward – when the way forward is clear, the destination feels within reach. It feels like it’s not just a more desirable outcome, but something obtainable. When a more desirable outcome feels both clear and obtainable, it’s a lot harder to go back to “the way things are”.

4. Inviting them forward – it sounds strange, because it’s so simple, but often all we’re waiting for is an invitation… an invitation to change, to wake up, to do something different. Sometimes simply inviting them to do something different, to take a higher road can be the final catalyst they needed.

There are leadership implications already captured in the “For Parents” section, which apply to how you, as a leader and influencer, can help accelerate the crystallization of discontent in others to catalyze change and fuel movement toward a more desirable destination.

But there’s another implication here, about leading a movement.

As a leader it’s up to you to activate the energy in those around you toward a cause. To do this, you need to crystallize the collective discontent about how things are today.

Every movement needs a torchbearer… someone who can see the end state so clearly, and who themselves relentlessly refuse to settle for less. It needs someone who can use language, narrative, story, data, and passion to galvanize that same resolve in others.

As a leader, get crystal clear on where you are going and why it’s worth it to get there.

Don’t let that vision dim. Make it a core driver for you. Know what that destination looks like and get good about painting that vision for others. Tell stories about what it’ll be like when you get there. Do whatever you can to make the destination seem clear. The clearer that destination is, and what it will feel like when you’re there, then the more discontent you’ll breed about where you are.

Those around you will naturally seek to do what they can do to make that journey possible.

Then get crystal clear on the gap.

The ability to perceive the gap between here and there is what will allow you to steer other people’s behaviors toward that destination. The ability to see things that stand in the way, to see the obstacles, and describe those obstacles will allow you to navigate around them. When people begin to see how their behaviors or beliefs are obstacles to that destination that you’ve sold them on, then you’ll crystallize their discontent with those things and they’ll want to change them.

A relentless refusal to allow anything to lastingly stand in the way between where you are and where you are going becomes contagious. It puts obstacles in perspective, because otherwise we tend to obsess over them, until all we see is what stands in our way, instead of what lies on the other side.

As a leader it’s up to you to be the torchbearer.

Learn how to accelerate and manufacture the crystallization of discontent… because every movement needs the emotional fuel that only comes when the group collectively concludes that “enough is enough”!

For customers you need to become adept at identifying and articulating the costs of your customer’s behaviors or their current situation, and how your product and/or service can eliminate those costs. They need to be able to understand that the pain of same is greater than the pain of change. You need to find out what those are, study them, write about them, quantify them, and create a narrative for them. The better you can quantify the cost of not using your product, the more you’ll be crystallizing their discontent with how things are, creating the emotional justification to purchase the product and solve for that pain.

But there’s also application here for your employees.

Your employees are also on a journey within your organization. And some of your employees will be in a state at, or nearing the crystallization of discontent.

In an employee this is a near unrecoverable emotional state, and the point in time where toxic behaviors begin to take place. This is because what they want is change, change and justification of their anger. They want their discontent to be a shared experience and will begin to seek others who feel the same.

They will act as an aggregator for this sentiment, will create and provide opportunities for this sentiment to be shared. They’ll nurture it, cultivate it, feed it, and watch it grow.

Because they’re trying to create a movement, a movement to change something.

They become a catalyst for discontent in others. And it begins to spread. This is how organizational systems develop “wobble” as the mass around a new “tribe” begins to form and grow like a cancer until it robs the host of its resources and creates a gravitational pull of its own.

Being able to identify employees who have reached the crystallization of discontent is important. You should keep them at your own risk. But know that eliminating an employee who has reached the crystallization of discontent solves only one of the problems. The other problem is what led them into that state to begin with. Before just removing that employee (if that ends up being the right thing to do), you need to understand what got them there, because as toxic as they are, it could be that they’re right. Because an employee can be toxic, and right at the same time.

Understanding the organizational triggers of that discontent, and how that state of emotional decay became possible, is an important form of employee feedback that can inform your efforts to evolve (people, systems, and processes) to prevent it from happening in the future.

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Be a catalyst for progress to someone else. The opportunity to share something meaningful to just the right person at just the right time is incredibly powerful.

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