Anyone trying to make any significant change to their life will have tough moments – moments when they wonder what the hell they are doing, when they question whether they have what it takes. When that moment comes, many of us will seek inspiration from the stories of people who have successfully transformed their lives. There is a thriving market in motivational memoirs, with celebrities, business-mavens and athletes lining up to share the secrets of their success. But if there is one thing that their stories tend to have in common, it’s that these people they never gave up. No matter how difficult it was, no matter how many knock-backs there were along the way, they never quit – because winners never quit, and quitters never win.
Or do they? If you read between the lines, there are likely to have been dozens, even hundreds, of decisions to give up along the way. And research suggests that it could be the ability to decide when and on what to give up which is the difference between progress and frustration; ultimately between success and failure.
Psychologists at the University of Florida followed 12,000 people for two decades – from school into work– to see what factors impacted on their academic success and eventual earning power once they were well into their careers. Now, there is more to life of course than academic success and earning power, but he results were, in the main, rather depressingly predictable. The children from wealthy homes with well-educated parents tended to excel at school and make more money as adults than the kids from working class homes.
However, there were a group of people in the study who went on to out-earn their peers regardless of their social background and academic achievement. These were the people who had a particular set of beliefs about their ability to shape the future, which in practice, manifest themselves as an ability to choose a particular course of action whilst consciously giving up on other courses of action.
I have worked with a number of clients in the past who have found themselves struggling to take decisive action due to a desire to ‘keep their options open’…or rather a fear of reducing their options and committing to a particular path: “If I move to work for this small start-up, it could be loads of fun and there is more potential for progression…but the money and the benefits in my current job are so good, and I love the team I work with”.
The person enters the realm of ‘analysis paralysis’ – endlessly thinking through and around the possible options but taking no firm action in one way or the other…nibbling at the edges without ever taking a proper bite.
It doesn’t even have to be significant life decisions that land us in this dead-zone of inaction and indecision. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how many of us find that the dream of self-employment and ‘being your own boss’ can often end up leading to a perpetual state of exhausting inner conflict around how we should spend our time and energy: “I could spend this morning coming up with some new blog post ideas…but my VAT is due next week…and Frances has gymnastics this afternoon, and I said I’d take her so I should really just get my admin done and reply to some emails”.
Harvard ethics professor Joseph Badaracco calls these ‘Right vs. Right’ decisions: a number of options, each potentially attractive in their own right, cancelling one another out. Deciding what it is that you want is only half of the equation – it is the ability to decide what it is that you want but are prepared to give up on (if only for the moment) which distinguishes those who talk about change from those who actually take action toward it.
It is in these moments of ‘analysis paralysis’ that the amazing problem-solving machine that is the human mind tends to turn in on itself. It tells us “there is a right answer here…and if I just think hard enough I can find it!” We all know by now that ‘just think harder’ doesn’t work in these moments – we need something else to guide us.
The simultaneously exciting and scary thing about goals is that they are binary – we either achieve them or we don’t. If we achieve them our minds say “well done!”…if we don’t our minds tend to say “you blew it!”. For better or worse, goals – especially ones that matter to us – are high-stakes.
One thing that values have going for them is that they are never done, never achieved…nor can they ever be failed. We can just let them guide us from moment to moment, knowing that another moment to act on them is just round the corner. In those moments of right vs. right decisions, our values are as good a guide as any as to the path to follow. Whatever the decision, whatever the outcome we can rest assured that the values we hold dear will remain, and can guide us tomorrow.
Goals give us a sense of direction…values get us moving, even when many roads look like the ‘right’ one to take.