I love this quote by Gandalf the Grey from the book Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien: “When we despair we cease to choose well. We give in to short cuts.” It’s so true, and we all know we have been guilty of it at some point in our lives.
It reminds me of the dot-com bubble that burst in March 2000 and caused the stock market to crash. I remember those heady days of “irrational exuberance” as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan referred to it. It seemed like everyone was worried they were going to miss out on the digital revolution. They were motivated by the dreams of easy money. It was all about taking a short cut.
Several startups approached me to help them promote their new Internet businesses in exchange for stock options. I looked at a couple of cobbled-together companies that were little more than a guy with a Web site and the hopes of mining some venture capital. The idea was to generate Web page hits with a clever name or gimmick, sell a ton of stock at the Initial Public Offering, then retire a millionaire. I decided to stick with those willing to pay in cash.
After the burst, I read about a repo man in Silicon Valley who repossessed the expensive cars of former Internet millionaires. He reported that he frequently found dozens of losing lottery tickets in the cars—evidence that the former car owners were acting out of despair and looking for short cuts back to the elusive wealth that had slipped from their grasp.
Beverly Sills, the famous opera soprano, once said, “There are no short cuts to any place worth going.” But, too often, when times are good, we pile on the responsibilities. Later on, when we encounter adversity, we look backward instead of forward. We attempt to go back to where we enjoyed success in the past, even when it is counter-productive to our current goal.
In my seminars on innovation, I conduct a fun exercise that demonstrates how we frequently feel we must go backward before we can go forward. A volunteer from the audience is selected and sent out of the room. The audience chooses a simple behavior it wants the volunteer to do (such as jumping up and down on her left foot). What makes it fun is the volunteer must guess the behavior. The audience can only help by saying the word “yes” when the volunteer does anything that comes close to the desired behavior. It is not allowed to say “no” or give any other hints.
Once the volunteer performs the desired behavior, the audience rewards it with a round of applause. I ask for a second volunteer, but this time we change the rules after the person leaves the room. When the desired behavior is reached, the audience goes silent, says nothing and gives no applause. Since the volunteer is no longer getting feedback in the form of “yes,” he or she will go back and repeat behaviors that did elicit a “yes.” The audience, however, remains silent.
As we watch the volunteer, we can see despair forming on his or her face. The volunteer will then go further backward to find a previous behavior that generated success. Eventually, the volunteer quits going backward and starts initiating brand-new behaviors in the hopes of regaining another “yes.” It is after several new behaviors are performed that the audience is signaled to applaud and reward the volunteer for his or her efforts. The purpose of the exercise is to force the volunteer to backtrack to the point that they realize success can only be found by moving forward.
In life, the trick is to stay focused even when our luck seems to be changing. We may have to slow down or make changes in our methods, but the goal must remain the same. Henry David Thoreau observed, “We rarely hit where we do not aim.” In other words, if you’re moving backward, you are moving away from your goal. And it’s hard to hit a target when you’re facing the wrong direction.
Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is a motivational speaker and humorist. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. For more information on Wilson’s programs, visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.