People respond to a positive proposition with energy that’s optimistic and sustainable. That is, people will strive for something compelling even, or especially, if it’s challenging. On the other hand, identifying something wrong or objectionable and fighting against what is, gets meager results compared to pursuing a desired outcome. Analysis or critique of the current state can be useful, but a problem focus fills up the available mental and emotional space leaving little room for a positive alternative. By contrast, the desired outcome makes the challenge of now minor relative to the promise of the future.
As a martial artist I used to break boards. The key was to envision a target 8-12 inches beyond the board. Then I passed through the board on the way to that goal. When I focused on the board, not only did it not break, but I generally had bruises as a reward. The same applies to other individual goals, group intentions, organizational purpose, or social movement aims.
A drawback of being primarily against something is that victory is hard to define. We can tell people what to stop but not what to start and, ironically, thereby close off the creativity needed to get what we want. Moreover, new behaviors or habits need to be practiced if the vision is to become a reality. It’s easier for people to practice what they ought to do than to try to stop what they shouldn’t do.
I’ve seen this challenge in people who want social justice but have trouble envisioning it. I work with many organizations that are against something—racism, abuse of women, hunger, poverty, crime, homelessness, exploitation of workers—yet they struggle to identify success. I’ve worked with leaders who are dissatisfied with their organization’s culture but can’t figure out what they want instead. Everyone can criticize though. That’s a start, but only a start.
When I coach individual leaders or when groups develop a vision for their organizations, they attempt to create a picture that is both meaningful and realistic. Yet, they often imagine a future so farfetched they will ignore it or so incremental there’s no challenge in it. The sweet spot is in the middle—challenging, doable with considerable effort, not guaranteed. That kind of vision can put current challenges in perspective and allow people to find a deeper motivation, along with the creativity and stamina to succeed.
What are you working towards? Describe it in positive terms, as in a city with….
How will you know when you’ve been successful? What will it look and feel like? Who else will know?
What are the habits or skills, new or tucked away, you can begin using now to realize success? What behaviors demonstrate the vision is real?
What’s the difference in mood between a focus on what’s wrong and a focus on what’s desired? How does your body tell you whether you are focusing on what’s wrong or what’s desired?