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Heresy and Progress

Heresy and Progress

We live in world full of pressures to conform: to believe what others tell us is true, to toe the line, to accept the values of those in positions of power, and to follow conventional, approved paths. That’s the way to get on in life and business, we are told. You need to fit in, play the game, and avoid rocking any boats.

Fitting in and following generally accepted views on most matters may produce a quiet life—you will rarely upset anyone that way—but it won’t give you a life that includes much real progress or any fresh ideas. Heresy is progress. Nearly every advance in human thought is loudly denounced as a heresy at the start—only later does it, in turn, become the new orthodoxy. And if that is true of politics, religion, and matters of social justice—as I believe it is—it is doubly true of the world of work. As Kathy Sierra wrote this week in her article Knocking the exuberance out of employees, corporations claim they want creative, smart, passionate, and independent people; but those that they typically favor and promote (obviously because they find them more acceptable) are usually people who are obedient, cautious, methodical, and risk-averse.

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This has all been much on my mind, and so my articles this week have looked at three specific aspects of organizational heresy. In The Perils of Avoiding Risk, I noted that mitigating—or, better still, completely avoiding—risk of any kind has reached number one in most executives’ list of desirable outcomes. The result is predictable. More and more decisions are restricted to people at senior levels, so that middle managers—the group most likely to include truly innovative and creative thinkers—are shut out of important decisions. It’s revealing that one person who commented on this post explained how, in his organization, a program to move decisions closer to the customer merely resulted in top executives taking over formerly middle management roles. It seems that it was inconceivable to allow middle or junior ranks to use their judgment and forego executive oversight.

Earlier in the week, I put forward a heresy of my own, suggesting that today’s cult of “leadership by numbers” is both foolish and harmful. As I wrote:

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The temptation to reduce the functioning of a massive corporation to one to two headline figures is too much of an attraction for some journalists to resist, but that doesn’t make it right or sensible. Such information is more likely to represent media spin than any genuine understanding of what is happening in the business. Worse, it concentrates attention on spurious, short-term goals at the expense of the long-term health and viability of the business. It doesn’t even question whether the “achievements” so avidly reported are sensible uses of corporate time, attention, or money. And all that is assuming that the figures being used are (a) a rational choice, (b) correctly calculated, and (c) understood properly by the people in charge.

Why simplify the messy, complex, demanding, and fascinating process of running a successful business to meeting a few simple, numerical goals—as if those figures accurately represented the business as a whole? In reality, such “indicators” and “key ratios” are no more than numbers dreamed up by accountants and financial markets, often for some entirely different purpose. The figures are not the business. They are, at best, inaccurate and blurred pictures of the business as it was at one fixed time, and given a number of dubious assumptions.

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Finally, I returned to the whole question of what makes for a successful life, at work and elsewhere. In Doing Well . . . or Living Well?, I question a basic tenet of much of today’s business thinking: that a good life means earning a great deal of money. I believe that what we are facing today is a direct conflict between what it takes to be seen as “doing well,” (in an economic sense) and the kind of lifestyle that constitutes “living well” (in the wider sense of enjoying a good life). Many professionals and executives earn large amounts of money and have little time to enjoy any of it. Because I suggested that Western, capitalist, industrialized society would likely collapse if a majority of people began to reject economic well-being and advancement as the sole basis for a good life, I was soundly taken to task for giving in to conventional thinking myself: a case of the heretic being accused of conformity! Well, maybe that was right, but the point remains that much of today’s economic prosperity is based on persuading a majority of people to consume what corporations want to produce. That takes money, and lots of it, so the result is a hectic lifestyle composed of equal parts of getting and spending—with much too little time left over for rest, relaxation, quiet learning, having fun, enjoying sex, spending time in the open air, or engaging in thoughtful reflection.

What I see happening is a growing imbalance in our lives, because “doing well” (in the economic and financial sense) is pursued to the detriment of “living well” (in the sense of enjoying all those other aspects of life). That imbalance is the source of most of the stress, frustration, and dissatisfaction that currently plagues us. Conventional thinking won’t show the way to find a new balance. Such progress as we can make will only come from heresy on a grand scale. It is time to make a start.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life.

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Last Updated on September 15, 2020

7 Helpful Reminders When You Want to Make Big Life Changes

7 Helpful Reminders When You Want to Make Big Life Changes

Overcoming fear and making life changes is hard. It’s even harder when it’s a big change—breaking up with someone you love, leaving your old job, starting your own business, or hundreds of other difficult choices.

Even if it’s obvious that making a big change will be beneficial, it can be tough. Our mind wants to stay where it’s comfortable, which means doing the same things we’ve always done[1].

We worry: how do we know if we’re making the right decision? We wish we knew more. How do we make a decision without all of the necessary information?

We feel stuck. How do we get past fear and move forward with that thing we want to do?

Well, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are 7 things to remember when you want to move forward and make positive life changes.

1. You’ll Never Have All the Information

We often avoid making important decisions because we want more information before we make a tough call.

Yes, it’s certainly true that you need to do your research, but if you’re waiting for the crystal clear answer to come to you, then you’re going to be waiting a long time. As humans, we are curious creatures, and our need for information can be paralyzing.

Life is a series of guesses, mistakes, and revisions. Make the best decision you can at the time and continue to move forward. This also means learning to listen to and trust your intuition. Here’s how.

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2. Have the Courage to Trust Yourself

We make all sorts of excuses for not making important life changes, but the limiting belief that often underlies many of them is that we don’t trust ourselves to do the right thing.

We think that if we get into a new situation, we won’t know what to do or how to react. We’re worried that the uncharted territory of the future will be too much for us to handle.

Give yourself more credit than that.

You’ve dealt with unexpected changes before, right? And when your car got a flat tire on the way to work, how did that end up? Or when you were unexpectedly dumped?

In the end, you were fine.

Humans are amazingly adaptable, and your whole life has been helping you develop skills to face unexpected challenges.

Have enough courage to trust yourself. No matter what happens, you’ll figure out a way to make it work.

3. What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Like jealousy, most of your fears are created in your own head.

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When you actually sit down and think about the worst case scenario, you’ll realize that there are actually very few risks that you can’t recover from.

Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Once you realize the worst isn’t that bad, you’ll be ready to crush it.

When you’re preparing to make a big life change, write down all of the things you’re afraid of. Are you afraid of failing? Of looking silly? Of losing money? Of being unhappy?

Then, address each fear by writing down ways you can overcome them. For example, if you’re afraid of losing money, can you take a few months to save up a safety net?

4. It’s Just as Much About the Process as It Is About the Result

We’re so wrapped up in results when we think about major life changes. We worry that if we start out towards a big goal, then we might not make it to the finish line.

However, you’re allowed to change your mind. And failing will only help you learn what not to do next time.

Furthermore, just because you don’t reach the final goal doesn’t mean you failed. You chose the goal in the first place, but you’re allowed to alter it if you find that the goal isn’t working out the way you hoped. Failure is not a destination, and neither is success.

Enjoy the process of moving forward[2].

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5. Continue to Pursue Opportunity

If you’re on the fence about a big decision, then you might be worried about getting locked into a position that you can’t escape from.

Think about it a different way. New choices rarely limit your options.

In fact, new pursuits often open up even more opportunities. One of the best things about going after important goals with passion is that they open up chances and options that you never could have expected in the beginning.

If you pursue the interesting opportunities that arise along the path to your goal, then you can be sure that you’ll always have choices.

6. Effort Matters, So Use It

It sounds simple, but one of the big reasons we don’t make life changes is because we don’t try. And we don’t try because then it’s easy to make excuses for why we don’t get what we want.

Flunked that test? Are you stupid? “Of course I’m not stupid. I just didn’t study. I would have gotten an A if I actually studied.”

Stuck in a job you hate? Why haven’t you found a new job yet? “Well, I haven’t really tried to get a new job. I could totally ace that interview if I wanted.”

Why do we make excuses like these to ourselves? It’s because if we try and fail, then we just failed. But if we don’t try, we can chalk it up to laziness.

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Get over it. Failure happens to everyone.

And the funny thing is, if you actually try—because it’s pretty clear that most people aren’t trying—then you’ll win a lot more than you think.

7. Start With Something Manageable

You can’t climb Everest if you don’t try hiking beforehand.

Maybe applying for your dream job seems intimidating right now. What can you start with today?

Can you talk to someone who already has that position and see what they think makes them successful? Can you improve your skills so you meet one of the qualifications? Can you take a free online course to expand your resume?

Maybe you’re not quite ready for a long-term relationship, but you know you want to start dating. Could you try asking out a mutual friend? Can you go out more with friends to practice your communication skills and meet new people?

You don’t need to be a world changer today; you just need to make small life changes in your own world.

More Tips to Help You Make Life Changes

Featured photo credit: Victor Rodriguez via unsplash.com

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