I am watching more and more people burn out — driving themselves with a relentless determination to ‘be successful’ only to find it all falling away. Is there another approach?
Why do some of us spend so much energy looking for the secrets of success in the words and ideas of so many authors? I think it is largely because most of us feel that — however well or badly things are going right now — there is something missing; some hidden secret that will give us a sense of freedom, of fulfilment, of happiness.
Earl Nightingale told a great story — much copied — of the young adventurer who sold his humble home and spent a lifetime travelling the world searching in vain for his fortune. Towards the end of his life he returned to his home town only to find that the man who had bought his old home had made millions when he discovered that the old house was built right on one of the richest seams of diamonds ever found. The young man’s fortune had been right under his nose and he failed to see it.
In my business I meet two kinds of people. The Chasers and the Attractors.
Chasers need to hunt down success; they quite literally chase it. It tends to be hard going, and needs relentless focus and discipline. Chasers are never content with the qualities they have; they are always seeking one more piece that they can add to their skill set or personality. They work hard at success and put much effort into making themselves better people. These people seem heaven sent for those of us who write about and teach personal development, but they move on quickly — always convinced that the real answers are round the corner. Chasers share one consistent emotion in common — disappointment. This makes for perpetual restlessness.
Attractors are different. They work out how to allow success to come to them. They seem to use less energy and yet attract successes more easily. Things seem to go right more often. Opportunities seem to present themselves as a series of coincidences. Of course they work at improving themselves but from the inside out; they simply work at getting to know themselves better rather than trying to change themselves. They know, or have learned, that the diamonds are already right under their nose. Their job is not to find diamonds but to mine them; not to hunt down success but to unleash it. I am getting better at recognising when the Chaser in me has taken over. I know this when I listen to my colleagues talk about all the prospects that we are still chasing for meetings, decisions, seminar dates, payments etc. There are some clients who seem to have been ‘just about to sign’ for eighteen months. If we added up the time it has taken to chase these evasive morsels of success, we would be ashamed. We also have clients who found us, did not ask for lengthy proposals, did not argue over fees, like what we do and keep asking us back. If we worked out the margins on this type of business we would be embarrassed! I also recognise the Chaser when I find myself relentlessly pushing favourite projects or products that are clearly more important to me than to our customers (or they would be buying them with less push from us!)
What does this mean for an individual? It means — as Stephen Covey puts it — that to attract, first one must be attractive. Think about the people that you find attractive — not just physically, but people with attractive personalities, appealing minds, compelling characters. They have a personal honesty, or integrity — what you see is what you get. They take you as they find you. They accept you without question. They have a confidence, a sense of certainty that just being themselves is OK.
Think about the people that repel you. They are awkward, unconfident, unsure of themselves. They seem to be playing at being someone; trying to meet the expectations of others. There is something artificial, unreal about them — you do not feel that you are seeing the real person but a game of pretend. They come in many disguises — the Boaster who always exaggerates his successes, the Sycophant who pretends to be fascinated by you but you know it isn’t real, the Bluffer who feels it is important so say something (anything!) just to be seen to be knowledgeable, the Chameleon who will say anything to maintain rapport with the people around them. You can think of many more.
Certainly Attractors seem to have discovered that simply being themselves — being true to their own values and beliefs — is one of the most powerful steps to a life of personal fulfilment. Is there not a risk, then, that letting go of the chase and simply ‘being me’ is leaving things to chance a bit too much? In the West, with all of our conditioning, it is culturally difficult to let go. We are too attached to what we are ‘doing’ and pay little attention to who we are ‘being’.
“In theory there is a possibility of perfect happiness: To believe in the indestructible element within one, and not to strive towards it.”
Finding this sense of being, however, is entirely consistent with so many of the most compelling lessons that we can draw from studying the lives of great achievers. One of the most inspirational leaders of the twentieth century must be Mahatma Gandhi. If you study his life from the moment he took up his political mission, what did he actually do? Very little, in fact. By far the largest proportion of his time and energy went into thinking through his personal philosophy and then deciding to live by it. That is what gave him the personal power to defeat the might of the British Empire. He spent more hours sitting thinking, talking and spinning than he did taking any form of action against his ‘enemy’. So, too, Nelson Mandela. His active service was not, in the scheme of things, very effective. It was cut short by early imprisonment. During his time in prison he did not take action, or publish calls to arms or do very much at all. What he did do was develop a personal belief system about how he should be, and he made his decisions accordingly. This simple integrity grew into such a phenomenal power that he became the symbol of freedom, justice and a new age.
“Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness.”
Chuang Tzu, c 369 BC-286 BC
But what about those of us who do not harbour lofty ambitions to change an entire social system or reshape the world? How do I develop this same personal power?
Firstly, but understanding what really matters to me — by articulating the values that I hold most dear. Secondly, by asking myself what stands in my way of fulfilling my desires — by clearly understanding my belief system and how muddled and limiting it currently is. And thirdly by asking myself, “What am I here for? What is the real purpose of my life?”
This is a big question, but not a daunting one. I put success into perspective for myself when I read these words by the American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson,
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
We are not all destined to redeem a social condition like Mandela or Gandhi. Some of us will find fulfilment in raising a child; some of us won’t. All of us, however, can find fulfilment by learning to discover our own unique purpose. Many of the modern teachers of personal development suggest that we can design our destiny. I am not so certain. I think we discover it. I feel that it becomes revealed to us, tantalisingly, mysteriously, and only when we are ready to accept the challenges that it holds for us. Only by paying absolute attention to what is going on around us and what this triggers inside us can we begin to answer these questions.
What starts to happen is extraordinary — we start to create a blueprint for our lives; one that guides us and keeps us on the right pathways to our destiny. By following our own guiding principles we unleash the same power that we see in high achievers. I am beginning to discover that the same us true in business. The greatest of our business leaders — past and present — have a different mindset to the rest of the struggling entrepreneurs who relentlessly chase success. These great leaders started with a personal philosophy — about they way the world could be — and they aligned their beliefs and values, indeed their very sense of self, with that vision of possibilities. Not for them the techniques and tricks of personal influence, not for them the rigidity of time management, not for them the intricate complexities of neuro-linguistics.
These great achievers rooted their identity — their sense of self — in their Vision of Possibilities and spent their lives aligning their beliefs and values with this sense of purpose on the one hand and with their behaviours on the other. This personal alignment creates a phenomenon called ‘flow’ — an effortless manifestation of desires. The two writers who have given me my greatest insights into this state of flow are Joseph Jaworski in his book “Synchronicity — The Inner Path of Leadership” and Fritjof Capra in “The Web of Life”. Being in flow is what you witness when a champion athlete performs at their personal best; it is what you hear when a great musician transports an audience into a state of bliss; it is a state of excellence available to you whatever your chosen path or final destiny. You will recognise it when your desires start to unfold in a series of strange coincidences — you meet the right person to move you forward, a sum of money turns up unexpectedly when you need it most; an opportunity rises from the ashes of a disaster; a teacher or guide appears just at the right time and you realise that you, too, have started to attract success with ease and can leave the chasing to others. The great golfer Arnold Palmer, described this state of flow with these words,
“It is not a dreamlike state, but the somehow insulated state, that a great musician achieves in a great performance. He’s aware of where he is and what he’s doing, but his mind is on the playing of the instrument with an internal sense of rightness — it is not merely mechanical, it is not only spiritual; it is something of both, on a different plane and a more remote one.”
This experience is available to all of us. It has nothing to do with intelligence, fortune, luck, willpower or social background. It is experienced by people from all walks of life and all cultures, but only by those who face the real challenge of personal development — who turn their attention from what is going on out there to what is going on in here, inside their hearts and minds. Most people find this too difficult and turn their back on possibility. Joseph Jaworski calls many modern business leaders to adventure with these words:
“Some who are called to the adventure choose to go, others may wrestle for years with fearfulness and denial before they are able to transcend that fear. We tend to deny our destiny because of our insecurity, our dread of ostracism, and our anxiety and our lack of courage to risk what we have.”
There is no doubt that personal development requires courage above all. The courage to trust yourself, the courage to become more fully yourself, the courage to hear the call to adventure and the courage to believe that, by letting go of the chase, you can simply attract everything that you need and desire.
And as I reflect on this — it seems a pretty fair definition of leadership.