Aim for thriving, not surviving

Strange though it may sound, good enough sometimes isn’t good enough. Very often people are so busy that they will settle for getting things done to just about an acceptable standard and then start to focus on the next task, rather than get the first thing as far beyond ‘just good enough’ as possible. What we end up with then is mediocrity at best.

There is a technical term for this: satisficing. This is a made-up word, derived from combining satisfactory with sacrificing. It refers to the tendency for people to settle for what is satisfactory and thereby sacrifice producing the best results possible. Freud captured this idea when he said that the good is the enemy of the best, by which he meant that we can so easily fail to fulfil our potential by not looking beyond what is good enough.

Imagine being asked at a job interview: ‘How will you ensure that you achieve the most positive outcomes in your work?’ and replying with: ‘I won’t; as long as things are basically good enough, that will do me’. Not very impressive, is it?

But, it isn’t just about impressing (prospective) employers. It’s also a spiritual matter, in the sense that our personal strivings are what help us to get a sense of meaning, purpose and direction. Ironically, in the modern world personal strivings can so easily become materialistic: more money, more material goods, more of the things that ultimately don’t make much real difference to our spiritual well-being. It is ironic because focusing on material goals, rather than goals of achieving the best we can, will make it less likely that we will flourish enough in our work to earn the necessary income.

I am not suggesting that we should all become perfectionists, as that too brings its problems. We need to be balanced in our approach. Aiming for achieving the best we reasonably can is likely to give us a much better quality of life in a number of ways, not least in terms of giving us a stronger sense of purpose and, of course, the satisfactions to be gained from making as much of a positive difference as we can.

What can stand in the way of achieving our best is the problem of low morale. Operating in a culture of low morale will tend to sap motivation, undermine hope and, in so doing, make it more likely that we will settle for good enough. And, as is so often the case with low morale, this can lead to a vicious circle in which settling for surviving, rather than thriving, contributes to, and reinforces, low morale which then has the effect of making us more open to settling for just good enough.

Of course, it can be difficult to be positive and aim for thriving if you do happen to be faced with a context of low morale, but this means we then have to ask ourselves whether we want to struggle to do our best, despite the low morale (and thereby play at least a small part in eating away at that low morale), or make do with mediocrity (and thereby allow the low morale to eat away at us).

So, what is your idea of the best results you can achieve and what do you need to do make sure you are doing your best to achieve them? How can you make sure that setting for just good enough is a last resort, something you would only do when you really have to?

But, if you are already committed to thriving, rather than just surviving, how can you help those around you to appreciate the benefits of this approach and support them in adopting it?


Negotiate expectations

When two or more people come into contact with one another there is already a set of expectations, social rules about how to relate to other people. These are part of culture. In addition, there are sets of expectations that apply to specific situations – consider, for example, the rules that govern buying something in a shop, ordering a drink in a café or a bar, and so on. Breaking these rules (jumping the queue, for example) can cause a lot of bad feeling and displeasure.

But there is more to it than this. When you form a relationship of any kind with someone, a set of expectations specific to that relationship will quickly develop. Having these expectations is generally a positive thing; it enables our interactions to run smoothly, with a minimum of tension. However, such expectations are not always positive. For example, in an abusive relationship, the expectations or unwritten rules will generally suit the abuser, but at the expense of the person being abused.

But, even in non-abusive situations, there can be expectations that are problematic for at least one person. Consider, for example, how many arguments between partners begin with: ‘Why is it always me who is expected to …?’ and it Is not just in our private lives that these things can happen. The workplace is full of sets of expectations too, mainly positive, but sometimes negative and unhelpful.

Bullying situations would be one example of this. The bully’s expectation is that they can treat you badly and, if you complain, they are likely to twist the situation to make it look as though the problem is you being unreasonable. But, again, it is not just in these extreme situations that expectations can be problematic.

However, it is essential that we realise that such expectations are not necessarily written in tablets of stone. Expectations can generally be renegotiated. For example, consider comments like:

  • ‘I’ve noticed that it is generally me who does x, maybe we should think about sharing out that task in future. That would give me more time to get y and z sorted.’
  • ‘I’ve been thinking. We seem to have got into the habit of x. Perhaps it would make more sense if we looked again at how we deal with these things.’
  • ‘Have you noticed that you are the one who tends to do y? I’m quite happy for you to do it most of the time, but do you think there is any chance I could do it sometimes?’

Note that these statements are not hostile. They are not attacking or criticising the other person. They are genuine attempts to renegotiate expectations. The idea behind this strategy is that, if you are reasonable, supportive and cooperative in how you tackle the issues, you are putting gentle pressure on the other person to be reasonable, supportive and cooperative in return. There are no guarantees, of course, but this approach is used very effectively on a day-to-day basis by large numbers of people.

So, the first step is to identify what the expectations are that are causing you problems or holding you back in some way. The next step is to think carefully about how those expectations could be renegotiated to improve the situation. Where possible, try to think of ‘win-win’ outcomes – that is, changes that benefit the other person as well as you, thereby making it more likely that they will agree to what you are suggesting.

But, perhaps the most important point to note is that you don’t have to be a slave to other people’s expectations. You don’t have to agree to lose out.

Don’t rush!

‘Less haste, more speed’ is a well-known and oft-quoted proverb, but how often do we forget the wisdom on which it is based? Modern life tends to be very busy and can be highly pressurised. A common reaction to this is for people to speed up, to try to do things in a rush. However, this is a big, big mistake. Rushing is at the root of many of the problems people experience in life.

This is for a variety of reasons. First, rushing means that we are much more likely to make mistakes – and, at times, those mistakes can have major consequences. Consider, for example, when you have made a mistake or you have been on the receiving end of someone else’s mistake. How often did the mistake arise because the person concerned was rushing, not paying sufficient attention to what they were doing?

Second, one of the key factors in stress is control. People can generally cope with a high level of pressure, provided that they have sufficient control over the demands being made on them, while even a relatively modest amount of pressure can produce a stress reaction if control is lacking. Rushing takes away our sense of control; when we are rushing, we tend to feel that we are losing our grip, that control is slipping away from us. Rushing can therefore be very counterproductive when trying to avoid stress. It can contribute to a vicious circle. The more pressure we are under, the more we rush; the more we rush, the less of a sense of control we have; the less of a sense of control we have, the more stressed we are; and on it goes.

Third, we have to consider what message rushing is giving other people. For example, a sales assistant in a retail context who is rushing in serving a customer is likely to be giving (unwittingly) a message to the effect that they do not have time for the customer, and therefore that the customer is not important (or even that the customer is not welcome). So, next time you are rushing, think carefully about what message you are likely to be giving to other people involved in the situation.

Rushing, despite being highly counterproductive for the reasons outlined here, can easily become the ‘default’ setting for some people. They become so used to rushing that this becomes their normal response to the demands they face. For some people, rushing gives them a sense that what they are doing is important, so important that they can’t hang around and just have to ‘get on with it’. So, they get self-esteem from it. This is highly dangerous, of course, because it means they are unlikely to be thinking carefully about what they do, are doing minimal planning, are not anticipating potential pitfalls and are therefore missing opportunities to be creative and are highly unlikely to be learning or developing.

Avoiding rushing does not, of course, mean going to the other extreme of dawdling or wasting time. It is, rather, a matter of balancing the pace at which we work with the attention the tasks concerned need for us to do them properly.

So, the temptation to rush is one that we very much need to resist. The more pressure we are under, the more we need to be thinking carefully about what we do, about how best to manage those pressures, how best to draw on the support available to us, and so on. Simply trying to get things done at an unnatural pace creates far more problems than it solves. By avoiding rushing, we can become more skilled in managing pressures and more confident in doing so.

Choose wisely

‘I couldn’t help it’, ‘I had no choice’ and ‘It wasn’t my fault’ are commonly heard comments, but how often are they actually true? How often are we unaware of the choices we have been making or are actually trying to disguise the fact that what we did was based on a choice (or set of choices) we made?

Of course, there will often be situations where we don’t have a choice, where things are beyond our control. For example, if we spill water on our lap, we can’t choose whether or not to get wet (although we could choose to try not to get wet by putting a plastic sheet or equivalent across our lap – if we wanted to). But, in general terms we are making choices all the time, even though we may not realise it much of that time. This is partly because so many of our choices are ‘habitualised’ – that is, we have made the same choice so many times that we now more or less do it on automatic pilot, as it were. But, a habitualised choice is still a choice, in the sense that we can choose to behave otherwise. We don’t have to do something just because it is what we normally do. Consider the legal implications of this. If you tend to drive too fast and, as a result of that, you cause an accident in which somebody dies or is seriously injured, you will be held responsible for your actions – saying that it was your habit to drive that fast does not mean that you are not responsible for the choice(s) you make and their consequences.

What also complicates matters is that so-called common sense will often mislead us into thinking that we are not making choices when in fact we are. This takes us back to the ‘I couldn’t help it’ type of response I mentioned earlier. These types of situation are quite common – for example, when someone fails to do something they promised to do and claims it was due to factors beyond their control, when in reality it was down to choices that were made.

What we have to recognise is that, whatever situation we are in, there will always be choices – however limited the range of options due to the circumstances, there will always be options (even if we do not like any of those options). And, of course, the choices we make will always have consequences, sometimes minor, sometimes major.

This is why it is important that we choose wisely. This involves, first of all, being aware of the choices we are making (including the habitualised choices) and not trying to pretend that matters within our control are not our responsibility. This is not about blame, it is about ownership. It is about empowerment.

Once you are aware of the choices, you can consider the various options and the associated consequences that arise from them. Thinking carefully about the respective consequences can then help us make wise choices.

Of course, our choices will often be made on the basis of our feelings, rather than rational thoughts, but it is still the case that being aware of those choices, the options available and the likely consequences can none the less be very helpful when it comes to choosing wisely. Choices rooted in emotional reactions are still choices. We can balance head and heart, especially if we are tuned in to our choice making and don’t play the game of trying to deny that so much of what we do is rooted in the choices we make.

Confront issues without being confrontational

‘I didn’t like to say’ is a comment commonly heard when it emerges that somebody has faced a difficult situation, but preferred not to address it. For example, imagine Person A is stereotyping Person B, but Person B feels uncomfortable about challenging this and therefore chooses to say nothing and accept the negative consequences of being stereotyped. The idea of assertiveness is that an assertive person is someone who tries to achieve win-win outcomes – that is, tries to make sure that each party benefits from the interaction. However, the ‘I didn’t like to say’ approach is actually likely, in many cases at least, to lead to a lose-lose outcome.

Consider this possibility. Person A treats Person B in a stereotypical way (making overgeneralised assumptions on the basis of gender, for example). Person B chooses not to challenge this, preferring the more comfortable option of just letting it go. Person B therefore loses out. Person A remains oblivious to the harm their stereotypical thinking has done – unless, that is, Person C comes along at some point and makes reference to the stereotyping that has been going on. Person A may then feel very contrite and regretful about the unintended harm done, and also therefore lose out. Hence the idea of lose-lose outcomes. Consequently, adopting the ‘I didn’t like to say’ option can mean everyone involved loses out, clearly not a good result.

This is where the idea of confronting issues without being confrontational comes in. ‘I don’t like confrontation’ is another comment often heard, and quite understandably. But, we need to be quite specific about what is meant here. Usually, it is being confrontational (as opposed to the act of confronting) that is what people don’t like – that is, situations where people adopt an aggressive approach. They are aiming for a win-lose outcome (I win, you lose). But, with the rights skills and attitudes, it is perfectly possible to confront issues without being confrontational. For example, if I were to say to someone who is blocking my way: ‘Excuse me please, can I get past? Thank you’, I am confronting the fact that this person is blocking my way, but I am not doing it in a confrontational way; I am not creating any problems or ill-feeling for them. And this is the key: How can I avoid having problems and ill-feeling without creating problems and ill-feeling for the other person (back to win-win outcomes again)?

I mentioned the right skills and attitudes. A key skill is what is known as ‘elegant challenging’. This refers to being able to address issues in a positive and cooperative way, raising important issues sensitively and tactfully in order to minimise the risk of conflict escalating, while maximising the chances of making a positive difference. And, when it comes to attitudes, the key attitude can be characterised as: ‘I will respect you and treat you with dignity, but I will not allow you to treat me without such respect and dignity. I want this to work for both of us’.

So, whenever you are tempted to adopt an ‘I didn’t like to say’ approach, perhaps you should consider whether you like the consequences of letting things pass and risking a lose-lose outcome any better. But, of course, we don’t have to choose between two uncomfortable options. Being prepared to confront issues (that is, address them) without being confrontational can give us a very helpful way forward that is of benefit to all concerned. Adopting that aiming for win-win outcomes and being prepared to develop the skills involved are therefore steps well worth taking.

Have a ‘Not to Do’ list

Having a to do list is a long-established and very wise idea. It is so very easy to forget about something that you need to do. Important things can slip away if we have not made a note of them. One key advantage of having a to do list is that, when it gets too long, it is giving us two important messages:

  1. We may be trying to do too much and thereby be overstretching ourselves, On my Time and Workload Management e-learning course, I talk about four important principles, and one of those is: Too much work is too much – that is, we all have limits to what we can reasonably get through in terms of work or other tasks. Spreading ourselves too thinly is never a wise move and can create a number of significant problems.
  2. We should be thinking about prioritising. If it looks as though we can’t realistically get through all the tasks on the list, then we should at least make sure that we do the most important tasks first. That way, the tasks that don’t get done will be the least important ones. Sadly, it is not uncommon for people under pressure to fail to prioritise and to end up doing less important tasks, while the more important ones don’t get done. As you can imagine, this can be potentially disastrous.

So, there is no doubt that to do lists can be very valuable tools if used properly. But where does having a ‘Not to Do’ list come into the picture? Well, what you will find is that most people will do some things that are either not a useful thing to do or that are actually counterproductive.

There are many potential examples of things that are commonly done that we would be better off without:

  • Doing ourselves down I have run many courses on assertiveness over the years and one of the issues that has always come up has been the danger of, to use the technical term,  ‘self-disempowerment’. The classic example of this is the person who begins a comment with ‘I’m probably wrong, but …or some other self-deprecating statement of this kind.
  • Getting sidetracked Using social media is a major source of this problem. You go online to look up an important piece of information and then find that you have wasted time looking at a whole range of things. But, it isn’t just social media that can contribute to this phenomenon. If you start looking for examples of people getting sidetracked, it won’t take you long before you find them.
  • Ploughing a negative furrow Moaning that produces action can be very productive and a useful step in the process of bringing about positive change. However, if it does not lead to action, it can be a part of a vicious circle of negativity that serves as an obstacle to moving forward.

I could go on giving more and more examples, but I hope I have already illustrated my point, namely that we need to be aware of those things that cause us problems or hold us back. So, what I propose you do is to think very carefully about what should be on your Not to Do list. What are the things that you are prone to doing (mainly out of habit, perhaps, or because they serve as some sort of defence mechanism) that are potentially problematic? Once you have that list you can then start to think about what you can do to reduce the number of items on it or get rid of them altogether. Just think how much better your life would be if you could do that.

Don’t get trapped in a saying

Sayings can be very useful ways of briefly capturing important elements of wisdom. For example, the idea of ‘better safe than sorry’ has no doubt helped many people to avoid making rash decisions or launching into situations unprepared. So, they clearly have an important role to play as elements of whatever culture we are brought up in (different cultures will have different sayings, but there will, of course, be many common themes).

But, it isn’t all good news. This is because, for one thing, sayings can be contradictory. Compare ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ with ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’. Sayings therefore have limitations, and so we need to be careful and critical in how we use them. They are simplified representations of complex realities, so they can easily mislead us if we are not careful.

What can be particularly problematic is when a saying is used to justify unwise or unethical behaviour, and that is what I mean by ‘getting trapped’ in a saying – limiting ourselves to a very simplified understanding. For example, I have come across many occasions where people have used ‘Charity begins at home’ as an excuse for not supporting a worthy cause. Now, of course, we can’t support all the worthy causes out there, so people obviously have the right to choose which charities they support and which they don’t. However, charity begins at home can be used as an excuse not to support any humanitarian efforts at all.

Another example would be ‘Boys will be boys’ being used as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. It also has sexist implications, of course, in implying that there are, or should be, different standards of behaviour between boys and girls. So, we have to be careful to make sure that we don’t allow the very familiarity of certain assumptions to mislead us into thinking that they are therefore valid assumptions.

A further idea expressed in a saying that can be problematic is that of: ‘The grass is always greener on the other side’. This warns us that we should be wary about making changes on the assumption that what we are changing to is better than what we already have. Of course, it is very wise not to get too excited about something until you know more about it and have had chance to weigh up carefully whether it is indeed better than what you already have. But, there is also the danger that adhering too strongly to this saying can make us unduly cautious and conservative, not willing to make changes or try new things. In other words, it can hold us back unnecessarily.

So, what I am definitely not saying is that we should never use sayings, that we should banish them or anything quite so extreme. But, what I am saying is that we have to be careful not to be seduced by the simplicity and familiarity of these adages or allow them to relax our critical faculties and be taken in by ideas that, in certain circumstances at least, can lead us into difficulties. So, when you come across a saying or you find yourself using one, just give a little bit of thought to what assumptions go with that saying and consider whether you are happy to be making those assumptions.

Sayings can be useful as quick summaries of established wisdom, and so they can be very helpful at times. But, we need to be cautious and not give them more credence than they deserve. We have to do our own thinking and not allow a saying to do our thinking for us.


Beware of single cause explanations

As human beings we are very effective information processors. Our senses are exposed to a huge amount of data every minute we are awake. If you don’t believe me, just look around the room that you are in. Look at the colours, the shapes, the textures. Add to that what you can hear, what you can smell and what you can touch. And, of course, the raw data is just the surface – we also need to look below that surface to take account of the meanings we attach to each of those bits of sense data (and how those bits fit together to make a coherent whole).

So, on a daily basis we are processing and filtering a huge amount of information. In order to remain sane we need to be able to work out which bits of information are important to us and discard the rest, or at least put it to one side for now. We do that by processing the information through two sets of filters, rational and emotional. The rational filter tells us which bits of information matter to us in terms of what we are trying to do, whatever activity we are involved in. For example, if we are reading, as you are doing right now, we focus on the text in order to make sense of it and filter out other information – the keyboard if you are reading on a computer, and so on.

The emotional filter will focus on what matters to us in terms of our feelings, giving attention to those things that appeal to us (at one extreme) and those things that threaten us (at the other). For example, as someone who gets great pleasure from music, I will tend to ‘tune in’ to any music I come across, whereas others who are not great music lovers may not even notice there is music in the background.

One of the implications of all this is that we are perpetually simplifying the complex world around us, constantly finding ways of making hugely complex situations intelligible. This is a necessary part of dealing with the information overload we face on a daily basis. So, this is a good thing. However, there is a danger associated with it – namely, we can try to explain very complex situations in very simple ways. This is where single cause explanations (or monocausal explanations, to use the technical term). It is very rare that that things happen for a single reason. It is usually a combination of factors.

The key term here is ‘confluence’. It refers to how different forces come together to produce a single result. For example, imagine a conflict developing between two people. It could easily be explained monocausally by saying simply: ‘Here are two people who don’t get on’. But, if you look at it more closely, that leaves a number of causal factors out of the picture (not least why they do not get on with each other). Consider the timing. If they don’t get on, why did the conflict arise today, rather than yesterday or tomorrow? Why has it arisen at all? Many people who do not get on simply bypass one another and avoid conflict. And so on.

The notion of confluence means that we need to think holistically – that is, to look at the big picture (what is sometimes called helicopter vision – the ability to rise above a situation). Without this, a reliance on monocausal explanations can lead us into all sorts of difficulties because it involves oversimplifying – and therefore distorting – whatever situation we are involved in.


Develop recovery strategies

Perhaps in an ideal world things would never go wrong. But, of course, we don’t live in an ideal world, and things will inevitably go wrong from time to time for each and every one of us. We can do our best before we reach that point to try to make sure that any such problems are avoided or, if they do happen, that their impact is kept to a minimum. But, we can never guarantee that something will not go wrong somewhere along the line. Rising to the challenges of things going wrong is an important part of life, of course, and also offers us a significant source of learning.

So, where does that leave us? Well, this is where the idea of ‘recovery strategies’ comes in. A recovery strategy is a means of trying to rectify a situation that has gone awry, a way of putting things right or at least get as close to that as possible. In many situations, sadly, there cannot be a recovery strategy – that is, the situation is irrecoverable (for example, when someone dies).

There is no limit to the number of potential recovery strategies that we could come up with. Examples of such strategies would include:

  • A decision is made that has an adverse effect on you. Can the decision be appealed or blocked in some other way? If not, can you get round it somehow?
  • You have unwittingly annoyed, upset or offended someone. Can you resolve the situation by apologising or otherwise undoing the harm done – for example, by clearing up any misunderstandings?
  • You have failed to achieve something in the way you had planned to – for example, trying to impress someone. Is there another way in which you can achieve it, another way of impressing that person?
  • You have lost someone’s email address and you need to send them a message. Can you get the address from a third party or perhaps phone the person to give them the message instead?

These are fairly straightforward examples, but recovery strategies can also be quite complex at times, depending on the circumstances. None the less, the logic remains the same. It is basically a process of saying to yourself: Something has gone wrong here; what are my options for putting it right as far as possible?

Note that I say options, plural. It is often the case that there will be more than one recovery strategy option available to us. So, this means that, at times, we will need to weigh up carefully the options available to make sure that we are putting ourselves into the strongest position for putting things right. Jumping in to the first one that comes to mind could prove to be very unwise.

A common obstacle to the use of recovery strategies is defeatism, the tendency for people to respond to something going wrong in a negative way, to moan about it and rail against it, rather than to seek to rectify the situation. This reaction will often prove problematic, as it means wrongs that could have been put right remain untouched.

Much of my work in various capacities over the years has involved helping people to recognise, develop and make full use of recovery strategies. Often, the possibility of drawing on one or more recovery strategies was being hampered by a sense of shock (ranging from mild to severe) as a result of whatever it was that had gone wrong. So, it is a valuable lesson to bear in mind that, whenever something does go wrong, we need to include a consideration of recovery strategies in our response to the situation we face.

Beware of cynicism

The word ‘cynic’ comes from the Greek word for dog, so to be cynical literally means to be dog like, in the sense of not caring, of being happy to let the world pass you by. It involves not making an emotional investment, of being detached and disengaged.

For many people cynicism is an emotional coping mechanism – if you don’t put your heart into something, you are much less likely to get hurt by it. And, without that emotional engagement, the result is likely to be negativity and defeatism. You can’t succeed at something if you don’t engage with it. But, equally, you can’t fail, which is a big part of the appeal of cynicism as a coping method – it is a protective mechanism.

Of course, you are highly unlikely to convince a cynic of this, as they will just dismiss the idea, not engage with it and, that way, be safe from it (or at least feel safe from it). Cynicism can be as a result of burnout, of emotional exhaustion – for example, as a result of work overload or being exposed to very stressful circumstances. But, we should not make the mistake of equating cynicism with burnout – many people have cynical tendencies without being even the slightest bit burnt out.

It can be helpful to think of cynicism as one extreme of a continuum, with a naïve idealism at the other extreme. In between the two is the healthy balance of scepticism. A sceptic is someone who questions, who does not take things at face value (which is what a naïve idealist would do), but who does not dismiss things as a matter of course (which, of course, is what a cynic is likely to do). A person adopting a sceptical approach avoids these two unhealthy extremes. By avoiding naïve idealism we are less open to being exploited by ruthless people who will seek to take advantage of any such naivety. And, by avoiding cynicism we avoid wallowing in negativity and the tendency to give up without trying.

Cynicism can be contagious, in the sense that just one cynical person can poison the atmosphere with negativity across a whole group of people. For example, I have come across many situations in which one person’s temporary absence can immediately contribute to a higher level of motivation and morale, while their presence normally undermines such things. We therefore have to be wary of not only any tendency towards cynicism we may have ourselves, but also the danger of being adversely affected by someone else’s cynicism.

In a sense, cynicism is a form of (negative) leadership. If we bear in mind that a key part of leadership is the ability to shape the culture in which they are operating, it is often the case that a cynic is dragging the culture down, contributing to negativity, defeatism and an unduly pessimistic outlook. Consequently, what is often required as a counterbalance to cynicism is positive leadership, the ability (and willingness) of one or more people to take the ethos or ‘mood’ in a more positive direction. This will free people up to be more motivated, more creative, more productive, more open to learning and, in all likelihood, happier.

There is no simple ‘cure’ or easy answer when it comes to cynicism, but there are things that can be done to guard against it, not least keeping the healthy balance of scepticism in mind. If in doubt, we can ask: is this a positive, constructive questioning stance that is being adopted, or does it cross the line into negative and dismissive cynicism?