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What Denzel Washington can teach us about changing your mind…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the official newsletter of Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules. Each week, you’ll receive one story from the past, one study from the present, and one strategy for your future.

My goal: to give you—in the time it takes to finish on the toilet—one piece of practical career wisdom you can apply today, no matter if you’re a student or a seasoned professional.

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Did You Know? You should embrace your second thoughts!

A story from the past

It’s 1975. Denzel Washington, a 20-year-old student at Fordham University, was just asked to take a leave of absence. The reason? He had a 1.8/4.0 GPA (grade point average). 

Washington had “no academic focus,” which impacted his grades. “I was a pre-med student… until I took a course called ‘Cardiac Morphogenesis,’” he recalled. “I couldn’t pronounce it… [or] pass it. Then I decided to go pre-law. Then journalism.”

During his break from school, Washington was working as a YMCA summer camp counselor when he had a revelation. After performing a skit at camp, one of his fellow counselors approached him and said, “You’ve got a real knack for that.” Inspired, Washington returned to campus and switched majors for the fourth time—to theater.

Fast forward, and Washington—after 209 nominations and 87 awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom—is now considered the greatest actor of the 21st century by the New York Times.

So, the next time that you find yourself watching Washington in one of his 60 and counting movies, remember: He wouldn’t have made it to your screen had he not changed his mind about what to do with his life.

Denzel Washington at Camp Sloane YMCA in Lakeville, Connecticut, dated 1970s (Image credit: CampSloane.org)

A study of the present

Was Washington onto something? According to research in Cell Press released last March, yes: Changing your mind can often be good for you.

“People change their mind on occasions when they have made an error to begin with, so a change of mind gives you the opportunity to do better,” researcher Dr. Dragan Rangelov said.

The issue? We often don’t like to change our minds once we’ve made a decision. According to Dr. Rangelov, this is because “people tend to remember the occasions when they changed their mind and got it wrong, rather than the times when they didn’t change their mind and made a bad decision, which makes them think changing your mind is bad.” 

So what? If you’re unhappy with a major part of your life (e.g., your college major or where you work), but don’t feel like you can do anything about it, remember: Like Washington, changing your mind may actually give you the chance to succeed more, even if it means trying again.

A strategy for your future

Last week, I asked you who or what most recently convinced you to change your mind. 87% of you said that you convinced yourself—wow! I've got bad news and good news.

The bad news: The fact that we're so unswayed by others is precisely why our politics have become so polarized.

The good news: I've got a tip to help you become more efficient at making decisions.

Think about a decision that you’ve already made up your mind about… and don’t think you can be swayed into changing, such as quitting your job or extracurricular activity at school. Then, try filling in these blanks:

(1) "My decision relies on the assumption that ______." (e.g., "I cannot switch teams in my company.")

(2) "My assumption could have been totally wrong because ______, ______, and ______." (e.g., "I never spoke to my manager/mentor, never looked into the policy for changing teams, and never looked at open roles in the company.")

(3) “Who knows: If I ______, I might even end up ______!” (e.g., “Who knows: If I stayed in this company, I'd still be in the running for the CMO role, which was my goal from day 1!”)

While it’s easy to want to change your mind in a way that takes you away from something (physically or mentally), you can also change your mind in a way that brings you closer to something else—and something better. It won’t happen every time, but it’s worth a try. Like Washington, you might just find your “theater!”

I know it because I’ve experienced it: Had I not changed my mind about becoming a doctor, I would have never explored my interest in politics and business… and would have never become an author.

Embrace that second thought!