hy don’t we become the person we always want to be? Marshall Goldsmith, a leading executive coach and prominent leadership thinker poses this existential question to the readers of his new book “Triggers”. A moment of reflection could throw up a typical admission: our plain inability to live up to the promises we make to ourselves and others. While our dithering attitude towards self-improvement deserves some blame, the larger problem encompasses our lack of understanding of the first part.
Imagine a scenario. Bored with the professional aspect of your life, you decide to attend a motivational guru seminar. You walk in with stooped shoulders and after a couple of hours, come out all pumped up with a new, vibrant perspective on life. You take an oath, write down stuff and even impose a self-moratorium to steer clear of certain types of behavior to improve. The jingoistic intensity lasts a few days and then, at a much faster rate than you expected, it all starts to fizzle out. In a matter of weeks, you revert to the mean – your normal pre-motivational-talk self. You console yourself that there were too many distractions at work or at home for you to actually live up to the promise. These distractions are what Marshall Goldsmith calls Triggers. Our inner beliefs trigger failure before it happens.
A trigger, in the words of Goldsmith, is any stimulus that reshapes our thoughts and actions. Every waking moment, these triggers – positive and negative – either spur us on or act against us. For example, a surprise bonus from your employer for cracking a new business deal can really fire you up and double your productivity. However, the strange fact is that the presence of external stimuli (rewards) doesn’t equate with success, not every time to say the least. “We fail to change despite the potential gains in the offing”, Goldsmith underlines. Everyone knows the benefits of running, yet how many of us are motivated to get up and hit the track in the morning? This brings the author to the second part of the problem: our ineptitude in figuring out how to execute a change. A major part of the book deals with this tricky part.
Altering a behavior shouldn’t be confused with kicking a bad habit, Goldsmith explains. When you intend to give up on smoking, you declare war against one enemy – yourself or a part of it. Others can affect your efforts only to a limit. On the other hand, when you wish to alter your behavior, those around you could critically impact you in ways more than one. Your choice to become a good father to your kids could involve: a) your willingness to change your behavior and b) your sincere efforts to be on the same wavelength as your spouse and your kids. Failure to come to required terms often sends you in a maelstrom of confusion where you try to find a scapegoat rather than track down the real issues. You blame someone or something other than yourself. Why does this happen? Goldsmith declares, “there is a difference between understanding and doing. Just because people understand what to do doesn’t ensure that they will actually do it.“.
Goldsmith’s Lovecraftian view of the environment might cause flutters among those who believe that environment always conspires in our favor. Unbeknownst to us, our environment plays games with us and we inadvertently play into the hands of it. Our environment scuppers our efforts by slipping in baits when we have identified our shortcomings and are working on them. Don’t chocolates and French fries show up more often when you are on a strict diet? The shopping mall environment is another typical example designed purely to entice us into buying stuff we neither need nor want. Author instructs, “To avoid undesirable behavior, avoid the environments where it is most likely to occur.”
Humans are superior planners, but inferior doers, according to the author. In order to succeed, Goldsmith suggests we must bring structure and organization to our plans. Most of us harbor a dysfunctional belief that we don’t need structure, we are above it. “Imposing structure on parts of our day is how we seize control of our otherwise unruly environment”, reasons Goldsmith. His unremitting, single-minded stance on structure might sound odd to the reader, but the central idea is to make us confront the question we often tend to avoid, “Are we getting better?”
While Goldmsith actively cautions his readers against becoming a sock puppet of their circumstances, he realizes the unwieldy power of environment. That’s why, to empower the reader to throw a counter punch at hostile environment, Goldmsith suggests a structural tool called ‘Daily Active Questions’ – a great commitment device which announces our intention to do something. Unlike several results-oriented tools, ‘daily questions’ measures the efforts not the outcomes. The idea is to reinforce the fact that behavioral change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual process and stems from small efforts, repeated day in and day out.
In the melee of self-help literature, Triggers gets the job done. Goldsmith delivers on his stated objective: to help the reader achieve lasting positive behavioral change. I learnt long back that behavioral deficiencies are like damp walls, easy to locate but difficult to remedy lastingly. Triggers doesn’t provide any quick-fixes either, it only shows the roadmap, the journey is for the readers to undertake.