My friend, co-author, and colleague, Rice University management professor Scott Sonenshein has written a new book called Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less – and Achieve More Than You Ever imagined. It came out this past week and is just so full of interesting, educational, and important ideas. In this blog post, I want to explore the core question posed and answered by Scott’s book. 

Reach for the moon by Jeffrey Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Reach for the moon by Jeffrey Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

When I first read an advance copy of Stretch, I literally could not put it down. I had to read the whole thing from beginning to end in one sitting. I will freely admit that I am a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan (criticisms of the lack of academic rigor behind his ideas notwithstanding). After reading a Malcolm Gladwell book, I usually come away saying “Hmmm...I learned something new that I did not know." And with Stretch, I felt Scott had “out-Gladwelled” Gladwell in how fun, informative, and insightful the book was to read.

Scott has been studying the concept of resourcefulness and its effects, or what he calls “Stretching” in his academic research for over a decade. In the book, he uses a lot of his own as well as other people’s thinking to explain what the psychology of resourcefulness is and why it is important to every one of us. He combines state-of-the-art academic theories and findings with a ton of  interesting stories to give us a framework about how to live our lives. Okay, onto the main concept.

What exactly is Stretching?

Instead of paraphrasing, let’s go with the author’s definition in his own words:

“Stretching is a learned set of attitudes and skills that comes from a simple but powerful shift from wanting more resources to embracing and acting on the possibilities of our resources already at hand.”

I will freely admit here that I am biased. The reason I really love the Stretching concept is that I believe most consumers do not stretch enough, and if they learned to stretch, it would improve their lives tremendously. As I have written before, far too many people spend way too much money on things like clothes and shoes without enjoying these possessions. They  are constantly buying new things they don’t need. After falling into this “more-new-more-new” vicious circle, they often end up in a precarious financial situation, and suffer emotionally and physically. Stretching mindfully and creatively gives consumers a way out of this downward spiral, and a straightforward method to enjoy more meaningful and satisfying consumption experiences.

To Stretch or to Chase?

The heart of Stretch is in explaining and exploring the dichotomy between people who stretch and people who chase. Those of us (and there are many) who are constantly in the mode of “I want more… and more” are chasers. And the people who have realized the futility and the limitations of this chasing mentality and have instead said, “Enough! I am going to make do with what I have and use it as creatively and prudently as possible” are stretchers. According to Scott, the distinction between stretching and chasing leads to numerous implications in our professional and personal lives that he explores in great detail in the book.

I will just briefly list four ideas about stretchers and chasers that I thought were really interesting:

  • How stretchers and chasers see constraints differently. Most of us tend to see constraints (the gap between what we want in an ideal world and what we actually have) in a negative light. But for those with a stretching mindset, constraints are actually positive things. They allow the person to be more creative and resourceful. As one example, many startups are successful and invent truly innovative products precisely because they have severe constraints and have no choice but to stretch if they want to survive.
Creativity is Key by Jonathan Gross Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Creativity is Key by Jonathan Gross Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
  • How stretchers embrace creativity. For chasers, unlimited resources create a sense of complacency. What is more, many chasers overestimate how many resources we will really need to accomplish a goal. Constraints, combined with the stretching mindset remove this complacency and bias. They foster a sense of appreciation for what we already possess. And they give us the license to think outside the box and come up with creative answers to the problems we face. A great example of this: “Without a hammer, we’re more likely to think of a shoe as a good tool to get a nail pounded into the wall.”
  • Why chasing is a curse. Even with their hankering for more-more-more, or perhaps because of it, chasers are never satisfied or feel fulfilled. There is always someone better, someone richer, someone more handsome or beautiful that they are comparing themselves to and trying to compete with. Chasing creates a narrow view of the worth and utility of particular objects, and dampens creativity. Not surprisingly, these properties promote misery among chasers.
  • Why stretching is a skill and can be learned. Perhaps most importantly, the stretching mindset is a skill which anyone, even the most committed chaser, can learn. The book has a number of exercises that help the reader cultivate a stretching mentality. For instance, one exercise is to “try unusual combinations” and another one is “do something mindless." The idea is that these techniques can stimulate people to get out of the rut and increase their resourcefulness. Again, I totally endorse this exercise-driven approach to self-improvement. As I have written before, many studies show when such exercises are taken seriously and carried out regularly, they have real, long-lasting benefits.

So what’s the main lesson from understanding that stretching and chasing are opposing mindsets that drive our lives? It is this. We should try to make the most from the resources we already have at our disposal, regardless of how many or how few they are, instead of constantly chasing down new resources. And here resources could mean everything from people, consumer products, ideas, or any other object. Using this broad definition, the stretching mindset will increase our happiness and make us more successful in ways that really matter.

I teach marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter @ud.

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