The Crystallization of Discontent

One of life's most important moments


a quick synopsis

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 an emotional tipping point.

It’s a cognitive milestone where you perceive that the cost of your current situation 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 entropy

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.

This applies to relationships, physical health, emotional health, knowledge, our environment, everything.

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

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

change blindness

Sometimes they’re dying and we don’t even know about it. Sometimes we unconsciously allow ourselves to follow a destructive path way beyond what is rational because of change blindness. Change blindness (click here to read all about this principle) is 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 its impact.

Because of this change blindness, we end up following a destructive path. We are totally (or mostly) blind to the costs it’s imposing on our lives, and often in the lives of those around us. If we’re lucky, 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 we alter how we attribute those consequences—blaming someone or something else instead of recognizing the problem is us.

This process 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 is 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 wake-up 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 (especially 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. This is often true for organizations 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

Knowing what a powerful behavioral motivator the crystallization of discontent is, behavior designers, leaders, parents, organizations, life engineers, and any behavior architect should naturally perk up and wonder, “How can we use this?”

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 and experience the actual pain from that impact. We hope they can then 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.

Marketers 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 much more powerful 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 forefront the costs of our current behaviors. That clarity will fuel the rebound event, what we call a life-launch event.

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

now how to apply this!

Click below to jump to a section, or scroll to see them all.

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If you’ve become aware of a troubling behavioral trend or pattern in your own life, or suspect you may be on a path of decay that will ultimately leave you 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 by failing to quantify the cost. As long as the cost is mostly ambiguous, without form and edges and hard to really define, 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.—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

Score is one of the core 16 Elements, and is key to accelerating the crystallization of discontent. Once you figure out the cost of a behavior, choose to keep score of the damage you do every time you do it. Put it in terms that you care about. Recording a score (positioned as cost) trains your mind to focus not on the behavior itself, but on 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. Plenty of literature has documented this. This myopia leads to an inability to adequately understand the impact of our behaviors on our future. It’s helpful 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—the ultimate and inevitable outcome of the road you’re on—will look like, the more you’re likely to reach a state of crystallized discontent and fuel 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. It can 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 and describe this themselves, without flat-out telling them, the more impactful it 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 becomes. 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 and take a higher road can be the final catalyst they need.

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There are leadership implications already captured in the “For Parents” section, applicable 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 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, the more descriptive of how it will feel when you’re there, 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 them, 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, 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. 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!”

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Organizations must become adept at identifying and articulating the costs of their customer’s behaviors or current situation and how an offered product and/or service can eliminate those costs. Customers 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. It’s the point in time where toxic behaviors begin to take place. This is because what they want is change. They feel justified in 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 and 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. 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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