Self-Insight Is Sparked by “Crystallization of Discontent” Moments

“The twists and turns of your life can be so unexpected, and that’s a good thing to learn.” -Christina Baker Kline (American novelist)

In The Power of Moments (“Defining moments shape our lives, but we don’t have to wait for them to happen. We can be authors of them” [Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 5]), Chip and Dan Heath (2017) talk about self-insight, “a mature understanding of our capabilities and motivations” (p. 116).

“[S]elf-insight rarely comes from staying in our heads. Research suggests that reflecting or ruminating on our thoughts and feelings is an ineffective way to achieve true understanding. . . .Better to take a risk, try something, and distill the answer from experience rather than from navel-gazing. Action leads to insight more often than insight leads to action” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 117).

Lea Chadwell had always dreamed of starting her own company, so she took a risk and opened a bakery she named, “A Pound of Butter,” which makes custom cakes for birthdays and weddings, and pastries to local restaurants. However, the charm of owning her own business began to fade. “Baking cakes for her own family was fun. But baking cakes for demanding customers was stressful” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 115).

One weekend, as she was rushing against a deadline to finish a wedding cake, she loaded the cake into her car and was about to drive off when she remembered that the front door of her bakery was left wide open. “It was her lightning-bolt moment: I’m making myself crazy being this stressed out. And she realized, ‘I wasn’t in love with baking anymore,’ she said later. ‘It was like this albatross of butter around my neck’” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 115).

Being a business owner made her miserable and she felt overwhelmed. She closed her bakery business after 18 months. The experience taught her about her capabilities and her values. Chadwell doesn’t regret starting or having to close her bakery. “What she gained was the insight that comes from experience. She came to accept. . .some qualities that made her the wrong person to run her own business. ‘I’m unorganized. Impractical. Fickle. . . . While these traits make me a great candidate for a Wacky Friend, they are just awful to try to form a business around. I suspect if I hadn’t quit, I’d have failed, and it actually really sucks to admit it. But, there’s the painful lesson I’ve learned. I’m great when I’m working for others; they rely on me. Working for myself? I’m a terrible boss’” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 116).

“Chadwell’s self-insight was sparked by a classic “crystallization of discontent” moment—the moment when she almost drove away from her bakery with the door wide open. In an instant, the fragments of frustration and anxiety she’d experienced were assembled into a clear conclusion: I’m not good at this. It’s not me” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 116).

The crystallization of discontent occurs when “contradictory events link together to form a large pattern of negative, dissonant thought” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 304). “These negative feelings and doubts have become linked to a broader pattern of meaningful relations that contradicts the high-level beliefs, instead of being a mere collection of isolated feelings and misgivings that in themselves seemed minor and that bore no relationship to one another” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 304).

The crystallization of discontent “typically initiate some serious reconsideration” whereby a person “assesses the options and alternatives, and many people will actively begin searching for alternatives” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 305). “The crystallization of discontent prompts a reassessment of the relationship or commitment. Isolated problems, frustrations, and bad days can be ignored as low-level setbacks that do not reflect negatively on one’s overall level of satisfaction and commitment. But a large pattern of problems and frustrations brings one up to a broader level of meaning and raises the issue of whether the positives outweigh the negatives. The person’s calculation of whether the involvement is worthwhile can no longer ignore the large body of problems” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 306).

“Baumeister (1991, 1994) claimed that people arrive at life changing decisions by first experiencing a crystallization of discontent. He portrayed the crystallization of discontent as part of a subjective process in which the individual concludes that the negative aspects of a certain life condition outweigh the positives. Until that point, the individual engages in maintaining the view that the positives outweigh the negatives (e.g., by contextualizing or otherwise minimizing the importance of the negatives), thereby enabling the person to keep a rosier big picture and to maintain the current life condition. But when the person perceives bad days as turning into bad years, the person is more likely to conclude that the future will contain much of the same. At this point, the person arrives at a crystallization of discontent and is motivated to make a major life change” (Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda, 2005, p. 1182).

In the crystallization of discontent — “The negative aspects link up with each other to form a broad, undesirable pattern: this is not just a bad day, but a bad year. When the problems were regarded merely as isolated exceptions, there was no reason to expect more of them, but once one sees them as part of a broad negative pattern, then further unpleasant develoments can be anticipated. The positive aspects must now be compared against an accumulated set of interrelated negative aspects, rather than being compared against the isolated negative aspects one at a time” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 325-326).

“Sometimes, at least in retrospect, a single and possibly minor incident will seem to stimulate this crystallization of discontent. It symbolizes a latent, broad set of dissatisfactions. The negative feelings about the involvement are thus recognized at a higher, more meaningful level; whereas once they were merely a temporary, brief, even one-day matter, now they are part of an ongoing pattern that reflects badly on the involvement over months or years. After the crystallization of discontent, each small frustration is no longer just another isolated problem but can readily link up to the broader context of general dissatisfaction. Each grievance reminds you of past grievances and warns of more to come” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 326).

“Connection reveals the very essence of meaning, which is to link things—objects, events, possibilities, other ideas—together. Meaning influences events by enabling people to see them as interrelated and hence to respond differently to them. The crystallization of discontent [is] perhaps the clearest example of this. A person’s life may contain exactly the same amount of problems, costs, and unpleasant facts after this crystallization as before it. What changes, however, is that these negatives are seen as one large pattern rather than a collection of isolated exceptions that are unrelated to each other. Connecting them, through meaning, is a crucial step in major life change. As long as these facts can be kept unconnected, the person is much less likely to initiate a major change” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 360).

Researchers have found that insight is an important and positive predictor of well-being (Harrington & Loffredo, 2011). “Insight was the most robust positive predictor” (p. 50) of well-being and “powerfully predicted both the subjective and eudaemonist constructs of well-being” (Harrington & Loffredo, 2011, p. 51).


I’ve experienced several “crystallization of discontent” moments in my life, all of which required me to stretch (oftentimes uncomfortably so) and, in the process, I learned more and more about myself each time.

One “crystallization of discontent” moment happened in my early 20s, as an undergraduate student working on my Bachelor’s. It was the summer of 1992 and I was supposed to be preparing to take the MCAT (medical school entrance exam). My parents even hired a tutor to help me master Organic Chemistry. But, at the last minute, I took action and called my tutor and canceled, telling her that I never wanted to become a medical doctor and that I was too cowardly to tell my parents and had just gone along for three years with what they wanted me to be. 

Another “crystallization of discontent” moment occurred in my early 30s. Having spent almost five years in a Master’s program and soon graduating with a graduate degree in counseling psychology, I experienced a very powerful “crystallization of discontent” moment in 2003. I “knew” very clearly in my head and heart that although I had spent years studying counseling and practicing how to be an effective counselor, I really did not enjoy counseling nor could I picture myself being a counselor and doing counseling as a long-term career. It was a frightening realization and stunning admission because how could I still be unhappy and dissatisfied when I had already pivoted away from another career field and had finally (I thought) found a career in mental health counseling?” In hindsight, there were a number of signs of my discontent throughout my time in the counseling Master’s program, but I ignored them each time. 

My “crystallization of discontent” moment in 2003—starting shortly before and continuing on after getting my graduate degree in counseling psychology—was, perhaps, the most powerful because it led me to the intentional decision to apply for a job in a school system (i.e., took action) over 7,000 away on a tropical island called Saipan, a career decision that ultimately changed not only my career but also my life. In fact, it was this decision that eventually led me to the training/learning & development and leadership & talent development space. And it was on the island of Saipan that I met and married my wife (who experienced her own “crystallization of discontent” moments that led her to leave Tokyo and seek out jobs in Sydney, Australia, and on the islands of Guam and Saipan).

Takeaway: 

Chip and Dan Heath (2017) observed that, “Self-understanding comes slowly. One of the few ways to accelerate it—to experience more crystallizing moments—is to stretch for insight” (p. 117-118). My “crystallization of discontent” moments in 1992 and 2003 were moments of insights that my journey in life includes many winding paths, twists, and turns; that I have to make multiple course corrections and pivots (i.e., take action) to find my bearings, and this is OK!

This perfectly captures my experiences with my own “crystallization of discontent” moments: “Often, what looks like a moment of serendipity is actually a moment of intentionality. What . . . [the people featured in the Power of Moments book] experienced as the shock of an insight was actually . . . the whiplash caused by realizing they could ACT and then willfully jolting their lives in a new direction. They were not receiving a moment, they were seizing it” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 262).

Have you ever had “crystallization of discontent” moments? Did you recognize and seize these moments?

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Bauer, J. J., McAdams, D. P., & Sakaeda, A. R. (2005). Crystallization of Desire and Crystallization of Discontent in Narratives of Life-Changing Decisions. Journal of Personality, 73(5), 1181-1213.

Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of life. The Guilford Press.

Baumeister, R. F. (1994). The crystallization of discontent in the process of major life change. In T. F. Heatherton, & J. Weinberger (Eds.), Can personality change? (pp. 281-297). American Psychological Association. 

Harrington, R., & Loffredo, D. A. (2010). Insight, rumination, and self-reflection as predictors of well-being. The Journal of Psychology, 145(1), 39-57.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2017). The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. Simon & Schuster.