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Don’t Get Stuck in Reverse
Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.
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 shortcuts.” We all know that we have been guilty of this action at some point in our lives.
It reminds me of the dot-com bubble that burst in March of 2000, causing the stock market to crash. Those were 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 shortcut.
Several start-up companies approached me about helping 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, and then retire a millionaire. I decided to stick with businesses willing to pay in cash.
After the bubble burst, I read about a 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 shortcuts back to the elusive wealth that had slipped from their grasp.
Beverly Sills, the famous opera soprano, once said, “There are no shortcuts 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 counterproductive 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 they want the volunteer to do (like jumping up and down on their left foot). What makes it fun is that the volunteer must guess the behavior. The audience can help only by saying, “yes,” when the volunteer does anything that comes close to the desired behavior. They are not allowed to say, “no,” or give any other hints.
After the volunteer performs the desired behavior, the audience rewards him or her 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 performed, the audience goes silent, says nothing, and gives no applause. Because the volunteer does not receive feedback in the form of “yes,” he or she goes back and repeats behaviors that elicited a “yes” response. The audience, however, remains silent.
As we watch the volunteer, we can see despair forming on his or her face. The volunteer then will 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 she or he realizes success can be found only by moving forward.
In life, the trick is to stay focused even when your luck seems to be changing. You may have to slow down or make changes in your 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.
About the Author
Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.
Motivational Speaker and Humorist
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