Monday, December 10, 2012
The Wall Street Journal features an article on "The Power of Negative Thinking" adapted from a book titled The
Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. There
are lots of interesting reasons to question much of the conventional wisdom
about goal-setting therein, including the fact that almost none of a cohort of
forty-five successful entrepreneurs in one study "embraced the idea of writing
comprehensive business plans or conducting extensive market research".
What did these successful businessmen do, then?
They practiced instead what Prof. Sarasvathy calls "effectuation." Rather than choosing a goal and then making a plan to achieve it, they took stock of the means and materials at their disposal, then imagined the possible ends. Effectuation also includes what she calls the "affordable loss principle." Instead of focusing on the possibility of spectacular rewards from a venture, ask how great the loss would be if it failed. If the potential loss seems tolerable, take the next step.The article goes on to call this "realism", but I don't think this captures the whole picture. I also think this risks glossing over the fact that, rather than these businessmen not having goals, they chose their goals wisely. To see more clearly what I think is missing, it pays to look at an example of applying the opposite approach:
Focusing on one goal at the expense of all other factors also can distort a corporate mission or an individual life, says Christopher Kayes, an associate professor of management at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Prof. Kayes, who has studied the "overpursuit" of goals, recalls a conversation with one executive who "told me his goal had been to become a millionaire by the age of 40…and he'd done it. [But] he was also divorced, and had health problems, and his kids didn't talk to him anymore." Behind our fixation on goals, Prof. Kayes's work suggests, is a deep unease with feelings of uncertainty. [bold and hyperlink added]The choice isn't between having rigid goals bearing no relationship to anything else in life vs. no goals at all. It's establishing goals within the context of one's knowledge and prioritizing them according to how they further one's own life. This would include revisiting one's goals in terms of whether they really are achievable and whether they really are (still) worth it. An important part of whether some goal is worthwhile is whether it brings enjoyment to life. I seriously doubt that Steve Jobs, for example, went through life obsessed with building the most valuable computer company in the world. He clearly enjoyed what he did and made sure he did as much of that as possible. The rest was just a consequence.
It is fitting, then that, despite the incomplete picture the article gives of rational goal-setting, it provides a great quote from Steve Jobs on that very subject: "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way that I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose." I am confident that, even if Steve Jobs had not succeeded as spectaularly as he did, he would still have been a very happy man. He kept his goals in their proper perspective and, in doing so, could appreciate the actual value of his accomplishments and the true insignificance of his missteps.