I am reading an interesting book at the moment called ‘The Antidote’ by Oliver Burkeman, boldly labelled ‘happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking’ or ‘a bracing detox for the self-help junkie’! I have to confess that it is a challenging read in places, because it offers an alternative perspective on some of the principles, beliefs and approaches that I have developed for myself and share with my clients.
Ironically, this is one of the reasons that I think it is such a powerful book, a book that debunks some of the mystery of self-help is helping me improve self ? and to challenge and confront what you believe to be true is really important. To be fair the focus of the book is not on ‘knocking’ the desire to improve oneself, but that pursuing a path of happiness and positivity is not the only, or even most, effective way to do it. Instead, Burkeman puts forward a series of arguments that support an alternative view – the ‘negative path to happiness’!
I will leave you to read the book (I haven’t finished it yet btw) and make your own judgements, but I would certainly commend it to you and look forward to any comments or observations!
The insight that captured my imagination for this blog was in the chapter entitled Goal Crazy – ‘when trying to control the future doesn’t work’. In this chapter the basic premise is simple, by focussing too rigidly on a set of goals, you will not only fail to attain them but place yourself or your organisation at significant risk in attempting to do so. He cites work by Professor Chris Kayes based on various studies about groups climbing Everest, the onset of mountain fever and the impact that complete absorption and focus on a single goal has on rational decision making. He also cites various organisational studies, including the case of General Motors at the turn of this century and its focus on “29” (a reference to market share) which became the absolute focus of everyone in the organisation, with significantly detrimental results. It would seem to make complete and utter sense to give yourself something to aim for or to focus on, because in the words of Brian Tracy “Living without clear goals is driving through fog”. But Burkeman argues differently;
- Utter fixation on a particular goal or end point can see the goal becoming part of the individual or organisation’s identity – you become defined by what you have set out to do and therefore succeeding becomes paramount as a way of preserving your identity.
- Obsession with the goal leads to a lack of effort and energy on how we should achieve that goal, we get single minded and fail to innovate or experiment.
- A focus on goals means that we fail to confront and face up to the fear of uncertainty that we all feel to lesser or greater degrees – the goal becomes the little patch of solid ground that we jump to, then start searching for the next patch.
- It leads to narrow and inflexible focus that means we miss opportunities and pursue a particular path when it is no longer the most appropriate thing to do.
In the book he supports these arguments with studies, anecdotes and references which make an insightful and a compelling hypothesis.
However, I still subscribe to the fact that creating clarity on something you want to be true at some stage in the future gives you a better chance of success (in its broadest definition) than not doing so. There are, however, some caveats, some lessons learned from my own experience and a response to the challenges above.
- Start by understanding what is utterly important to you, what your priorities are in order to ensure that your goals are broad enough and sufficiently holistic to not jeopardise other facets of your lives / business. For example short term productivity might be important but longer term staff engagement is critical, setting a goal that supports both is critical to success. Or returning safe from the summit of Mount Everest might have been a better goal.
- Always create your goals in the past tense, using language that depicts how you have already achieved it. This means that you are tapping into your powerful subconscious mind to aid you and ensure that every opportunity is pushing you in the right direction.
- Revisit and review your goals regularly – things change very quickly in all facets of our lives and business, what was appropriate 3 months ago may well need reviewing and challenging. If you create your goals with the mindset that you will be revisiting them, that they are up for grabs, you are less likely to create the emotional connection that distorts your judgement. My favourite story of irrational goal focus was a guy telling me how he had set a goal of reading 52 books in a year – he got so far behind that in order to hit his goal, he resorted to reading Mr Men books!
- Focus on progress rather than perfection – if you ask yourself the question ‘what would signify progress rather than absolute achievement’ you are still creating focus and clarity but without the potentially binding and negative focus that can ensue.
- Building your capability to be ‘present’ – being able to appreciate, enjoy or just recognise the moment you are in at any particular point in time is imperative to keeping goals in perspective and ensuring they always remain relevant and appropriate.
I hope that you dip into the book and see what you think, as always, any comments or observations are always appreciated. The importance of the ‘mountain fever’ analogy is also not lost on me as I get within a couple of months of departure for Aconcagua! ?
Ref: The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman