Originally published in 2013, Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga’s The Courage to be Disliked quickly became a sensation in its authors’ native Japan. Its English language translation followed suit with more than 3.5 million copies sold worldwide.
The book is often shelved in the ‘self-help’ category, in large part due to its blandly overpromising subheading: How to free yourself, change your life and achieve real happiness. In truth it would be better suited to the philosophy or psychology section. The book takes the form of a discussion between a philosopher and an angsty student. The student is unhappy with his life and often with the philosopher himself, while the philosopher is a contented devotee of Adlerian psychology, the key points of which he disseminates to the student over the course of five neatly chunked conversations. His proposed principles offer sound advice for life in general but also prove useful when integrated into a business setting.
Alfred Adler was an Austrian born psychotherapist and one of the leading psychological minds of the 20th century. Originally a contemporary of Freud’s, the two soon drifted apart. In many ways Adler’s theories can be defined in opposition to his old contemporary; they are anti-Freudian at their core. Freud is a firm believer that our early experiences shape us. Adler is of the view that such sentiments strip us of autonomy in the here and now, seeing Freud’s ideas as a form of determinism. He instead proffers:
No experience is in itself a cause of our success or failure. We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences – the so-called trauma – but instead, we make out of them whatever suits our purposes. We are not determined by our experiences, but the meaning we give them is self-determining.
Essentially, then, the theories are reversed. Adler posits that rather than acting a certain way in the present because of something that happened in their past, people do what they do now because they chose to, and then use their past circumstances to justify the behaviour. Where Freud would make the case that a recluse doesn’t leave the house because of some traumatic childhood event, for example, Adler would argue that instead the recluse has made a decision to not leave the house (or even made it his goal not to do so) and is creating fear and anxiety in order to stay inside.
The argument comes down to aetiology vs teleology. More plainly, assessing something’s cause versus assessing its purpose. Using Adlerian theory, the philosopher in the book tells the student that: “At some stage in your life you chose to be unhappy, it’s not because you were born into unhappy circumstances or ended up in an unhappy situation, it’s that you judged the state of being unhappy to be good for you”. Adding, in line with what David Foster-Wallace referred to as the narcissism of self-loathing, that: “As long as one continues to use one’s misfortune to one’s advantage in order to be ‘special’, one will always need that misfortune.”
Adler in the workplace: teleology vs aetiology
An example of the difference in these theories in the workplace could be found by examining the sentence: “I cannot work to a high standard at this company because my boss isn’t supportive.” The viewpoint follows the cause and effect Freudian notion: your boss is not supportive therefore you cannot work well. What Adler, and in turn Kishimi and Koga, argue is that you still have a choice to make. You can work well without the support of your boss but are choosing to use their lack of support as an excuse to work poorly (which subconsciously was your aim all along).
This is the most controversial of Adler’s theories for a reason. Readers will no doubt look at the sentence and feel a prescription of blame being attributed to them. Anyone who has worked with a slovenly or uncaring boss might feel attacked and argue that their manager’s attitude most certainly did affect the quality of their work. But it’s worth embracing Adler’s view, even if just to disagree with it. Did you work as hard as you could and as well as you could under the circumstances? Or did knowing your boss was poor give you an excuse to grow slovenly too? Did it make you disinclined to give your best?
Another example in the book revolves around a young friend of the philosopher who dreams of becoming a novelist but never completes his work, citing that he’s too busy. The theory the philosopher offers is that the young writer wants to leave open the possibility that he could have been a novelist if he’d tried but he doesn’t want to face the reality that he might produce an inferior piece of writing and face rejection. Far easier to live in the realm of what could have been. He will continue making excuses until he dies because he does not want to allow for the possibility of failure that reality necessitates.
There are many people who don’t pursue careers along similar lines, staunch in the conviction that they could have thrived if only the opportunity had arisen without ever actively seeking that opportunity themselves. Even within a role it’s possible to shrug off this responsibility, saying that you’d have been better off working in X role in your company if only they had given you a shot, or that you’d be better off in a client-facing position rather than being sat behind a desk doing admin if only someone had spotted your skill sets and made use of them. But without asking for these things, without actively taking steps towards them, who does the responsibility lie with? It’s a hard truth, but a useful one to acknowledge.
Adler in the workplace: All problems are interpersonal relationship problems
Another of the key arguments in the book is that all problems are interpersonal relationship problems. What that means is that our every interaction is defined by the perception we have of ourselves versus the perception we have of whomever we are dealing with. Adler is the man who coined the term “inferiority complex”, and that factors into his thinking here. He spoke of two categories of inferiorities: objective and subjective. Objective inferiorities are things like being shorter than another person or having less money. Subjective inferiorities are those we create in our mind, and make up the vast majority. The good news is that “subjective interpretations can be altered as much as one likes…we are inhabitants of a subjective world.”
Adler is of the opinion that: “A healthy feeling of inferiority is not something that comes from comparing oneself to others; it comes from one’s comparison with one’s ideal self.” He speaks of the need to move from vertical relationships to horizontal ones. Vertical relationships are based in hierarchy. If you define your relationships vertically, you are constantly manoeuvring between interactions with those you deem above you and those you deem below you. When interacting with someone you deem above you on the hierarchical scale, you will automatically adjust your goalposts to be in line with their perceptions rather than defining success or failure on your own terms. As long as you are playing in their lane, you will always fall short. “When one is trying to be oneself, competition will inevitably get in the way.”
Of course in the workplace we do have hierarchical relationships. There are managers, there are mid-range workers, there are junior workers etc. The point is not to throw away these titles in pursuit of some newly communistic office environment. Rather it’s about attitude. If you are a boss, do you receive your underlings’ ideas as if they are your equal? Are you open to them? Or do you presume that your status as “above” automatically means anything they offer is “below”? Similarly if you are not the boss, are you trying to come up with the best ideas you can or the ones that you think will most be in-line with your boss’ pre-existing convictions? Obviously there’s a balance here – if you solely put forward wacky, irrelevant ideas that aren’t in line with your company’s ethos and have no chance of success then that’s probably not helpful, but within whatever tramlines your industry allows you can certainly get creative and trust your own taste rather than seeking to replicate someone else’s.
Pivotal to this is whether you are willing to be disagreed with and to disagree with others or are more interested in pleasing everyone, with no convictions of your own. This is where the book’s title stems from. As it notes, being disliked by someone “is proof that you are exercising your freedom and living in freedom, and a sign that you are living in accordance with your own principles…when you have gained that courage, your interpersonal relationships will all at once change into things of lightness.”
Adler in the workplace: The separation of tasks
The separation of tasks is pivotal to Adlerian theory and interpersonal relationships. It is how Adler, Kishimi and Koga suggest one avoids falling into the trap of defining oneself by another’s expectations. The question one must ask themselves at all times, they suggest, is: Whose task is this? We must focus solely on our own tasks, not letting anyone else alter them and not trying to alter anyone else’s. This is true for both literal tasks – a piece of work, for example – but also more abstract ideas. For example, how you dress is your task. What someone else thinks of how you dress is theirs. Do not make concessions to their notions (or your perceptions of what their notions might be) and do not be affected by what they think for it is not your task and therefore not yours to control.
This idea that we allow others to get on with their own tasks is crucial to Adler’s belief in how we can live rounded, fulfilling lives. The philosopher argues that the basis of our interpersonal relationships – and as such our own happiness – is confidence. When the boy asks how the philosopher defines the “confidence” of which he speaks, he answers:
It is doing without any set conditions whatsoever when believing in others. Even if one does not have sufficient objective grounds for trusting someone, one believes. One believes unconditionally without concerning oneself with such things as security. That is confidence.
This confidence is vital because the book’s ultimate theory is that community lies at the centre of everything. The awareness that “I am of use to someone” both allows one to act with confidence in their own life, have confidence in others, and to not be reliant on the praise of others. The reverse is true too. As Kishimi and Koga state, “A person who is obsessed with the desire for recognition does not have any community feeling yet, and has not managed to engage in self-acceptance, confidence in others, or contribution to others.” Once one possesses these things, the need for external recognition will naturally diminish.
For high-level employees, then, it’s important to set a tone in the workplace that allows colleagues to feel that they are of use. But as the book dictates, do not do this by fake praise – all that will do is foster further need for recognition (“Being praised essentially means that one is receiving judgement from another person as ‘good.’”) Instead, foster this atmosphere by trusting them, showing confidence.
The courage to be disliked
The Courage to be Disliked is at odds with many of the accepted wisdoms of the day. Modern cultural milieu suggests that we should be at all times accepting and validating others’ trauma as well as our own. Many may even find solace in this approach and find that it suits them best. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to fostering a successful workplace and even less so when it comes to leading a fulfilling life. For anyone who feels confined by the idea that there are parameters around what they can achieve and are capable of because of some past event or some subjective inferiority that has been harboured too long, perhaps look at those interpersonal relationships, perhaps find the courage to be disliked, and in doing so hope to find a community that you’re willing to support as much as it supports you. There is no need to be shackled to whatever mythos you’ve internally created.
As the book states: “Your life is not something that someone gives you, but something you choose yourself, and you are the one who decides how you live…No matter what has occurred in your life up to this point, it should have no bearing at all on how you live from now on.”
Kishimi, Ichiro & Koga, Fumitake. The Courage to Be Disliked: How to Free Yourself, Change your Life and Achieve Real Happiness. Bolinda Publishing Pty Ltd. 2013.
Consider a simple yet profound question: What does your work mean to you? Is it merely a task to be completed, or does it resonate with a deeper purpose in your life?
Viktor Frankl, a prominent Austrian psychiatrist and philosopher, grappled with these very questions, evolving them into a broader exploration of life’s meaning. Drawing from his harrowing experiences in Nazi concentration camps, he developed logotherapy—a form of psychotherapy that centres around the search for meaning and purpose. Through logotherapy, Frankl illuminated the idea that life’s essence can be found not just in joyous moments but also in love, work, and our attitude towards inevitable suffering. This pioneering approach underscores personal responsibility and has offered countless individuals a renewed perspective on fulfilment, even in the face of daunting challenges.
In this piece, we delve into the intricacies of Frankl’s teachings, exploring the symbiotic relationship he identified between work and our quest for meaning.
A Holistic Approach to Life and Work
In his seminal work, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ Viktor Frankl delved deeply into the multifaceted nature of human existence. He eloquently described the myriad pathways through which individuals uncover meaning. For Frankl, while work or ‘doing’ is undoubtedly a significant avenue for deriving meaning, it isn’t the only one. He emphasised the value of love, relationships, and our responses to inevitable suffering. Through this lens, he offered a panoramic view of life, advocating for a holistic perspective where meaning is not strictly tethered to our work but is intricately woven through all our experiences and interactions.
Progressing in his exploration, Frankl sounded a note of caution about the perils of letting work become an all-consuming end in itself. He drew attention to the risks of burnout and existential exhaustion when one’s sense of purpose is confined solely to one’s occupation or the relentless chase for wealth. To Frankl, an overemphasis on materialistic achievements could inadvertently lead individuals into what he termed an ‘existential vacuum’ – a state where life seems starkly devoid of purpose. He argued that in our quest for success, we must continually seek a deeper, more intrinsic purpose. Otherwise, we risk being blinded by life’s profound significance and richness beyond material gains.
Delving deeper into the realm of employment, Frankl confronted the psychological and existential challenges of unemployment. He noted that without the inherent structure and purpose provided by work, many individuals grapple with a profound sense of meaninglessness. This emotional and existential void often manifests in a diminishing sense of significance towards time, leading to dwindling motivation to engage wholeheartedly with the world. The ‘existential vacuum’ emerges again, casting its shadow and enveloping individuals in feelings of purposelessness.
Yet, Frankl’s observations were not merely confined to the challenges. He beautifully illuminated the resilience and fortitude of certain individuals, even in the face of unemployment. He showcased how, instead of linking paid work directly with purpose, some found profound meaning in alternative avenues such as volunteer work, creative arts, education, and community participation.
Frankl firmly believed that the essence of life’s meaning often lies outside the traditional realms of employment. To drive home this perspective, he recounted poignant stories, such as that of a desolate young man who unearthed profound purpose and reaffirmed his belief in his intrinsic value by preventing a distressed girl from taking her life. Such acts, as illustrated by Frankl, highlight the boundless potential for a meaningful existence, often discovered in genuine moments of human connection.
Work as an Avenue for Meaning and Identity
Viktor Frankl’s discourse on work transcended the common notions of duty and obligation. For him, work was more than a mere means to an end; it was a potent avenue to unearth meaning and articulate one’s identity. Frankl posited that when individuals align their work with their intrinsic identity—encompassing all its nuances and dimensions—they move beyond merely working to make a living. Instead, they find themselves working with a purpose.
This profound idea stems from his unwavering belief that our work provides us with a unique opportunity. Through it, we can harness our individual strengths and talents, channelling them to create a meaningful and lasting impact on the world around us.
In line with modern philosophical thought, which views work as a primary canvas for self-expression and self-realisation, Frankl also recognised its significance. He believed that work could serve as a pure channel, finely tuned to our unique skills, passions, and aspirations. This deep sense of accomplishment and fulfilment from one’s chosen profession, he asserted, is invaluable. However, Frankl also emphasised the importance of seeing the broader picture. While careers undeniably play a significant role in our lives, they are but a single facet in our ongoing quest for meaning.
Frankl reminds us that while our careers are integral to our lives, the quest for meaning isn’t imprisoned within their boundaries. He believed the core of true meaning emerges from our deep relationships, our natural capacity for empathy, and our virtues. These treasures of life, he asserted, can be manifested both within the confines of our workplace and beyond.
The True Measure of Meaning Through Work
For Viktor Frankl, our professional lives brim with potential for fulfilment. Yet, fulfilment wasn’t solely defined by accolades. Instead, it was about aligning our work with our deepest values and desires. It wasn’t just the milestones that mattered but how they resonated with our core beliefs.
Frankl’s logotherapy reshapes our perception of work, emphasising that even mundane tasks can hold significance when approached with intent. With the right mindset, every job becomes a step in our journey for meaning.
In Frankl’s writings, he weaves together tales of profound significance—a young man’s transformative act of kindness, a narrative not strictly tethered to work’s traditional realm. Yet, these stories anchor a timeless truth: In every endeavour, whether grand or humble, lies the potential for unparalleled meaning. Here, work isn’t just about designated roles—it becomes an evocative stage where profound moments play out. Beyond job titles and tasks, the depth, sincerity, and fervour we infuse into each act truly capture the essence of meaningful work.
Finding Fulfilment in Every Facet
Viktor Frankl’s profound insights into the human pursuit of meaning provide a distinctive lens through which we can evaluate both our daily tasks and life’s most pivotal moments. Through his exploration—whether addressing the ordinariness of daily life or the extremities of crisis—Frankl illuminated the profound interconnectedness of work and personal identity. He posited that our professions, while significant, are fragments of a vast tapestry that constitute human existence.
Navigating the journey of life requires continual adjustments to our perceptions of success and meaning. While our careers and professional achievements are significant, true fulfilment goes beyond these confines. It’s woven into our human experiences, the bonds we nurture, the challenges we face, and the joys we hold dear.
Frankl’s pioneering work in logotherapy urges us to approach life with intention and purpose. He beckons us to see the value in every moment, task, and human connection. As we delve into our careers and strive for success, aligning not just with outward accomplishments but with the very essence of who we are is vital.
It was the summer of 1964 when the members of a burgeoning British band named The Rolling Stones found themselves on American soil. They were halfway through their first stateside tour when they made their way to Chess Studios in Chicago, keen to record the follow-up to their debut album. The studio was the hallowed hub of their musical heroes, the cradle of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll genres that shaped their sound. The anticipation was palpable as they stepped into the studio, the very place where legends like Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters had crafted their biggest hits.
In a serendipitous twist of fate, their first encounter at Chess was not with a studio executive or an eager intern but Muddy Waters himself. But he was not wielding a guitar; he was clad in overalls, perched on a ladder, paintbrush in hand, and whitewash streaming down his face. The Stones were startled, and in the confusion, an opportunity emerged, laying bare the perfect juxtaposition of the seemingly mundane and its grand potential.
Keith Richards and the band did not just meet an idol that day; they built a relationship that would later see them tour and work with Muddy, learning first-hand from one of the greats. The Stones’ deep understanding and appreciation of blues music and readiness to learn propelled their career to unprecedented heights, leading them to their first number-one hit, ‘It’s All Over Now’.
Preparation meeting opportunity
This principle of “Preparation Meeting Opportunity,” often defined as luck, is equally applicable in the world of work. It emphasises that when individuals and organisations are mentally and practically prepared, they are more likely to recognise and capitalise on opportunities.
Much like The Rolling Stones recognised the value in learning from a legend like Muddy Waters, forward-thinking companies understand that their talent is their scarcest resource. According to a McKinsey report titled “Organising for the future: Nine keys to becoming a future-ready company,” successful companies anchor their efforts on the principle that talent is indeed scarcer than capital. They continually ask themselves: What talent do we need? How can we attract it? And how can we manage talent most effectively to deliver on our value agenda?
Inclusion & diversity
Inclusion and diversity have surfaced as critical aspects of this talent strategy. A company that fosters an inclusive employee experience becomes an attractive destination for top talent and benefits from the increased profitability associated with diverse leadership.
The Rolling Stones, who had already seen early success, remained hungry for improvement and open to learning from the best in their field. Similarly, organisations and their employees can foster a culture of continuous learning and development, seeking out opportunities in the most unexpected places.
The story of The Rolling Stones’ encounter with Muddy Waters and their subsequent rise to global fame is not just a story of music and stardom. It’s a tale of recognising and seizing opportunity, preparation meeting chance, and the power of a creative, curious, and prepared mindset.
Whether you’re a fledgling band walking into a legendary recording studio or a company trying to navigate the rapidly changing business landscape, this story serves as a reminder that opportunity can present itself in the most unpredictable ways. The question is, are you ready to grasp it when it does?
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1843 short story “The Birth-Mark” centres on a young scientific scholar who develops an unhealthy obsession with a small red birthmark on his wife’s cheek. His wife is noted for her beauty, but for the young scholar the issue lies in his bride’s tantalising proximity to perfection. This one tiny aberration proves too much for him to take. He ascribes the birthmark additional meaning, viewing it as a sign of the “fatal flaw of humanity” and his wife’s “liability to sin, sorrow, decay and death” .
His bride comes to internalise her husband’s feelings and so asks him to remove this single display of her physical fallibility – to “fix” her. He conceals her in a boudoir by his laboratory and subjects her to a variety of alchemical concoctions. The wife observes of her husband that “his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed.” Eventually one of his potions succeeds in removing the birthmark. However, no sooner has it done so than his young bride passes away.
Hawthorne’s tale of the ruinous effects of perfectionism echoes louder today than ever. A study of over 41,000 people published by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill in Psychological Bulletin found that perfectionism’s prevalence in society has increased . Their study, the first of its kind in comparing perfectionism across generations (from 1989 to 2016), found significant increases in the rates of perfectionism among recent undergraduates in the US, UK and Canada compared with those of previous generations . Kate Rasmussen, who researches child development and perfectionism at West Virginia University says that today, “As many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists…We’re starting to talk about how it’s heading toward an epidemic and public health issue” .
As Amanda Ruggeri notes, writing on the subject for the BBC, that rise in perfectionism “doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential” .
The Perfect Body
As Hawthorne’s 19th century story demonstrates, perfectionism is nothing new. But aspects of today’s society serve to exacerbate it. The correlations between the young scholar and his bride in “The Birth-Mark” and the prevalence of plastic surgery in today’s society is obvious. As the bride died in the name of her husband’s obsessive pursuit, so too do a certain fraction of today’s patients die under the knife in pursuit of plasticised perfection. Others irrevocably change their appearance again and again, never quite satisfied, always certain they’re just one operation away. They place their faith in tomorrows, which of course are only – but more crucially, always – a day away.
Cosmetic surgery deaths are the most extreme and garish example of the perfectionism phenomena, but this rut runs far deeper. There’s no longer a need to fly to the Dominican Republic for cheap tummy tuck surgery, after all. Nowadays, one can simply use an app on their phone to slice away the flab, add some colour to the skin or remove those pesky, unwanted pimples from photos. You can easily obfuscate any and all potential flaws you see within yourself at the click of a button. Social media is awash with amended images of falsified selves living picturesque lives. These beautiful unrealities are designed to suppress insecurities (that they end up exponentially worsening) through the fleeting validation afforded by the likes of friends and strangers, who are themselves represented by equally falsified avatars.
Unsurprisingly social media’s impact on body image is most harmful to the young, who spend disproportionate amounts of time online (a survey by the nonprofit research organisation Common Sense Media found that the average screen time for 13-18 year-olds was eight hours and 39 minutes a day). Research published by the American Psychological Association found that “teens and young adults who reduced their social media use by 50% for just a few weeks saw significant improvement in how they felt about both their weight and their overall appearance compared with peers who maintained consistent levels of social media use” .
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation have stated that record numbers of young people are experiencing mental illness, with depression, anxiety and suicide ideation more common in the US, Canada and UK today than even a decade ago . This is of course not all down to the ease of Photoshop botox or sepia Instagram filters. To think the nefarious effects of perfectionism are limited to the physical would be to miss the mark. Dissatisfaction with the body stems from the mind.
The Perfect Self
Curran and Hill ascribe the exponential rise in perfectionism amongst today’s youth to “increasingly demanding social and economic parameters” as well as “increasingly anxious and controlling parental practices” . In The Tyranny of Merit, the American philosopher Michael Sandel argues that meritocratic capitalism has created a permanent state of competition within society. This system sustains an order of winners and losers, “breeding hubris and self-congratulation among the former and chronically low self-worth among the latter” .
Millennials and those of younger generations are far more likely to have undertaken some form of higher education than their predecessors. And yet graduates, even those with highly specialised Master’s degrees, are finding it difficult to find work in increasingly oversaturated markets. Those who do gain employment are often settling for junior roles consisting of administrative duties that fail to make use of their (generally hugely expensive) education. They find themselves on the unrewarding bottom rung of a ladder that makes no guarantee of further ascent and pays them so little (if at all, in the era of the unpaid internship) that they often struggle to make rent or rely on a litany of exhaustive side-hustles to do so.
Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst and professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths, University of London, notes that in such a culture “young people are likely to grow dissatisfied both with what they have and who they are.” Meanwhile, “social media creates additional pressure to construct a perfect public image, exacerbating our feelings of inadequacy” .
Concurrently, all around us self-help gurus preach the importance of betterment – educational, emotional, physical, financial – in droves. The idea that we must seek something better than what we have – something graspable if we just put the work in (or better yet, like and subscribe) – is pernicious, and fuels the fire of inadequacy. If we are seeking something better, it’s because there is something lacking in what we have. No wonder we feel unfulfilled when we’re surrounded by false prophets promising they have the key to fulfilment’s kingdom. Who knew satisfaction was just a pricey online self-help course away?
According to research examining 43 different studies over 20 years by York St. John University, perfectionism is linked to burnout as well as depression, anxiety and even mortality . That’s right, perfectionists die younger . Since it’s so linked to such disastrous outcomes, then, why is it we can’t kick the perfectionist habit?
Because we don’t want to. For all its obvious faults, most of us still attribute some kind of value to perfectionism. It’s become job interview parody to say that your greatest weakness is that you’re a perfectionist. As we all know, this is really a sneaky positive. Perfectionism has come to be associated with a strong work ethic, ambition, and high attainment.
Researchers argue that these benefits are illusory. Sarah Egan, a senior research fellow at the Curtin University in Perth who specialises in perfectionism, eating disorders and anxiety, notes that “the difficult part of [perfectionism], and what makes it different than depression or anxiety, is that the person often values it. If we have anxiety or depression, we don’t value those symptoms. We want to get rid of them. When we see a person with perfectionism, they can often be ambivalent towards change. People say it brings them benefits.”
It becomes an endless loop. Perfectionism brings a person dissatisfaction – maybe even depression or suicidal ideation – so they go to a therapist to fix the problem. They want to get rid of the depression, they say, but they don’t want to lose the perfectionism that contributes to it as they believe it offers them something essential. It’s like going to a personal trainer and demanding they help you lose weight while telling them you have no intention of cutting the daily fast food, sugary drinks and excessive alcohol from your diet. Something’s gotta give.
Obviously ambition, diligence and high standards are positive traits. The problem is that these traits are wrongly associated with a kind of “healthy” perfectionism, when really they’re not perfectionism at all. They’re conscientiousness . As Hill notes, “Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards…Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself” . Wanting to do well is good. Beating yourself up if you don’t is not.
Humanity’s quest for perfection
It’s possible that perfectionism is just part of our nature. Cohen draws parallels between the human strive for perfection and religious and mythical tales of divine wrath. Prometheus and the Tower of Babel provide examples of what happens when man tries to overextend his reach: the relevant divinity rains down punishment. According to Cohen, “Religious striving for moral and spiritual improvement goes in tandem with the sombre recognition that perfection belongs to God alone.” Or more strikingly, “In the religious imagination, the notion of human perfection is blasphemy” .
What to do?
As the late author David Foster-Wallace noted, “if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything” . The writer Rebecca Solnit is also succinct in her denigration of perfection’s pitfalls: “The perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun” .
To break out of the perfectionism trap takes a shift in mindset – an acceptance of fallibility. It’s a false economy, really. You can’t achieve the perfect, so why are you trying to? Elizabeth Gilbert says perfectionism is nothing more than, “fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat” . And even that may be giving it too much credit.
Hard as society makes it, it’s important not to focus on the birthmark. Better to reserve your attention for the living, breathing woman on whose cheek it sits. Singer Jeff Rosenstock’s primal shouts on his album closer Perfect Sound Whateversum it up nicely: “Perfect always takes so long because it don’t exist. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist.”
It can be worth remembering that.
Innovation is everywhere. It always has been. From the discovery of fire through advances in weaponry, healthcare and industrialisation, humanity has always found a way to adapt to the latest grand alteration; the next big thing. Invariably, once something as profoundly groundbreaking as the aeroplane or the internet comes along, change is wrought. Old practices are overhauled, then quickly shunted into the annals of history to be either forgotten or roundly mocked – can you believe we used to…?
And yet, to trudge through the mastheads, web blurbs or corporate video montages of almost any organisation today is to see and hear the word innovation endlessly. It’s wielded freely and often vaguely, to the extent that its meaning is diluted if not lost entirely. You’d be forgiven for thinking, given its overwhelming prevalence, that innovation itself was a 21st century innovation. Some of the companies claiming to be innovators are indeed just that – Apple can justly lay claim to having changed the way the majority of people operate in their day-to-day lives. Others simply know how to cash in on a buzzword when they see it.
But what actually is innovation? What does it offer businesses? How should it be used? What are risks and tradeoffs of pursuing the oft-discussed “innovation mindset”, and can they be side-stepped?
What is innovation?
Innovation is a bit of a catch-all term, but generally it just means finding a better way of doing things. That doesn’t necessarily mean inventing something new, though that is of course included. Innovation is just as much about fostering improvements to existing processes and ideas as it is about designing some groundbreaking new product.
When Alexander Bell first communicated with someone on the other end of the phone line, that was an innovation. When industries moved in their droves from the traditional in-office 9-5 to a hybrid working system just a few years ago, that was an innovation too, albeit one forced by global circumstances. It can be too easy to believe (the self-promotion of self-proclaimed) innovators and think that innovation must be cut-throat: the death of the old way; the birth of the new. In practice, things are rarely so straightforward. Which is a helpful reminder of what innovation is not.
Innovation ≠ disruption
Innovation and disruption have come to be seen as one in the same. This is understandable as some innovations are disruptive. Naturally, the more disruptive the innovation is, the more coverage it will receive, thus developing an associative bond between the two in the mind of the public. Uber and Amazon would be prime examples of disruptive innovators. Almost overnight, industries that we took for granted were irrevocably changed. Many taxi drivers, as well as booksellers both commercial and independent, lost their livelihoods. Similarly streaming’s impact on the entertainment industry has seen a total upheaval in how multi-billion dollar organisations now operate, whether that was Netflix’s obliteration of Blockbuster or Napster and its contemporaries’ shake-up of the music industry that paved the way for Spotify’s ascendency.
But there exists a far more gentle (and far more prevalent) form of innovation; W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, authors of Beyond Disruption: Innovate and Achieve Growth Without Displacing Industries, Companies, or Jobs, call this “non-disruptive creation” .
Non-disruptive creation is defined as a means by which new industries, new jobs, and profitable growth come into being without destroying existing companies or jobs . The obvious benefit of such forms of innovation are that they can “foster economic growth in a way that enables business and society to thrive together” . Chan Kim and Mauborgne are swift to differentiate between this non-disruptive creation and disrupting, noting that, “Disruption imposes a clear trade-off between winners and losers…That’s because the leap in consumer surplus provided by the disrupter can nearly wipe out the existing industry and its incumbent players” .
Non-disruptive creation, on the other hand, “provides no evident losers and only minimal painful adjustment costs,” while having “a positive impact on growth and jobs” . They cite Kickstarter as a good example of non-disruptive creation. The users were able to fund projects that otherwise would have struggled to accumulate backing; they could choose which projects they wanted to give their money to, as well as how much and how often, and artists on the site were able to realise their dream projects. No livelihoods were displaced. Everyone emerged a winner.
Chan Kim and Mauborgne argue that there is an increased demand from the public for capitalism to give back to society, rather than simply chasing the profit-at-all-costs ideology first theorised by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman . Non-disruptive creation, they say, is in-step with such demands.
Whether an innovation is disruptive or not, it is still at the mercy of social defence. For innovators, social defence is the great nemesis, stifling their dogged pursuit of progress at every turn. As a definition, social defence is the – quite natural, and often unconscious – attempt to preserve the more traditional aspects of an organisation . Essentially, the “legacy structures, strategies, or cultures that make leaders feel proud and their followers feel safe” .
To the innovator, such blockades to all things new and shiny can be sources of great frustration. They argue that change is on its way, if not already here, and that attempts to slow its approach are as futile as they are jurassic. But it’s easy to understand why legacy employees at a large and successful company would be reluctant to rock the boat. The old approach has carried them to such heights; it looks a dangerous game to turn around and bite the hand that has fed them so well. After all, new is not a synonym of better.
That said, change is inevitable, and there are plenty of examples of companies who fell by the wayside because they failed to see it coming, or outright ignored warnings it was on its way. Reactions of major industry players to large-scale innovations have been compared to that of grief, with denial and defensiveness featuring heavily .
The music industry’s reaction to the initial emergence of MP3 and streaming is a prime example. Unsure how to fold this game-changing new technology into its existing offer (or at least how to do so and still reap the major profits they were raking in at the time), they went on the offensive, suing the free streamers into oblivion. They won in court, but as Justin Timberlake’s smug grin tells you in The Social Network  (where he plays Napster founder Sean Parker), the major labels emerged from the affair as anything but winners. “You wanna buy a Tower Records, Eduardo?” Timberlake smirks, like the fourth horseman of the old industry’s apocalypse.
How should businesses approach innovation?
Writing in Harvard Business Review, Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, argues that, “Leadership, at its core, is an argument with tradition. As a leader, you are always relating to a tradition that you are trying to preserve, expand, or change. That means, as a priority, that you must care about the tradition. Or, more precisely, you must care about what the tradition is trying to accomplish” . This is where those desperate to innovate at all costs can go wrong. They see change itself as the destination, not the means by which they’re getting there.
Still, an openness to change is vital. This is at the core of the fabled “innovation mindset”. That mindset can be established in-house or it can be forced upon businesses by external circumstances. The Covid pandemic was a clear example of this. Workplace practices were altered almost overnight; overlong vaccination protocols were streamlined – only possible because the whole world was in step, a rare instance that likely won’t roll around again any time soon.
Susan Rienow, Country President of Pfizer UK, wrote as much in the New Statesman, saying of the incredible innovations and the speed with which they were introduced :
…these kinds of breakthroughs don’t happen by chance. It takes the right environment, support and conditions for science and innovation to thrive. It is not just about expertise; it’s about mind-set and how we come together in pursuit of a shared mission. This mission-led approach and entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with collective and powerful collaboration, helped us achieve what had previously been unthinkable. This shouldn’t begin and end with Covid-19.
Risk vs return
The key, as is often the case, is balance. Genuine openness to change paired with an understanding of what your business is and why – as well as what would happen to it were that to alter. And it’s not solely about whether the business itself is fine to change. Equally important are the circumstances around the business, and its users.
All innovations change the trade-off between risk and return, and “many of the risks associated with an innovation stem not from the innovation itself but from the infrastructure into which it is introduced” . What ardent innovators can miss is that the rate of innovation is often so high that it becomes counterintuitive to invoking systemic change – companies cannot restructure according to each new innovation because by the time they’ve done so the next innovation will have emerged to displace the one they’ve just changed to accommodate. Innovations can possess the most hurrysome of expiration dates – store in the fridge and use within 24hrs of opening, etc. – and so the urgency to adjust with haste feels palpable to the innovation driver. But if you were told the best way to store a bottle that’s soon to go off is to buy a new fridge, well, you can understand the reluctance. Especially when the next bottle is just a day away.
Which innovations are worth adopting or adapting for is a difficult call. Some will alter life as we know it forever; others will fade faster than last summer’s T-shirt tan. To an extent, it’s a gut call and a leap of faith. One that if you get right, can pay huge dividends. Approach with cautious openness, and do not fear the inevitable overhauls. Business, after all, is no more or less predictable or ephemeral than life itself.
 APA. Fincher, D. (2010). The Social Network. Columbia Pictures.
It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? Fluffy and naïve. “Just be a little more positive and you’re bound to see results.” Healthy scepticism and an eye roll feel a fitting response. And yet the benefits of adopting a positive attitude are increasingly well-documented and steeped in research from leading academic institutions.
Having a positive attitude can transform how we view work and perform in our roles. It also, notably, has drastic impacts on our health and well-being. In fact, John Hopkins Medicine reported that those with a positive outlook on life but with a family history of heart disease were, “one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within five to 25 years than those with a more negative outlook.”1 All of a sudden that eye roll feels a lot less fitting.
To properly implement this advice of taking a positive approach, we must first understand what it is. And, crucially, what it is not…
A positive attitude
A positive attitude is not the same as a blinkered, fact-denying, all-is-shiny-and-well outlook. It does not mean contorting reality or pretending setbacks and difficulties aren’t real. That much positivity would of course, ironically, be a negative, transporting you into the realm of delusion. Indeed, research shows that people who are excessively optimistic might overestimate their own abilities and take on more than they can handle, ultimately leading to more stress and anxiety.2 That’s not what positive psychology is about. Rather, it’s about perspective.
Believing in yourself, trying to learn from setbacks and constantly improve, and attempting to make the most from a bad situation are obviously advantageous traits. But they’re easier said than done. Positive thinking is the tool you can use to turn them from being nice hypotheticals to actionable practices that impact your life and career.
Positivity in numbers
Research into the power of positive thinking has yielded some striking results. In a landmark paper3 published by The Royal Society, Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, tested the impact of positive emotions on the brain, in which 5 segmented groups were shown different film clips (two groups seeing positive clips, one group seeing neutral, two groups negative) and were then asked to imagine themselves in a scenario in which similar feelings would arise and to write down what they would do, starting with the phrase, “I would like to…”
The two groups who saw positive clips – of joy and contentment, respectively – wrote down a significantly higher number of actions they would take than both the negative groups and the neutral. Essentially, the findings found that positive emotions helped broaden the sense of possibility in the mind and open it up to more options, while negative emotions narrowed the field of possibility.
Research into positivity in the workplace has found its impact to be similarly prominent. A study by Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania found that optimistic sales professionals outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56%4. While Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, found that, “doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19% faster.”5 A separate survey found that optimists were 40% more likely to get promoted over the next year, six times more likely to be highly engaged at work and five times less likely to burn out than pessimists.6
Clearly, then, positive thinking has tangible benefits in the workplace and elsewhere. But for those whose natural disposition is a little less sunny, how do you start thinking on the bright side?
Techniques for positivity
The good news is that our thought impulses are not fixed. The patterns of our brains can be trained and altered until we’re able to wield them more effectively. In other words, if your natural disposition is to think negatively, you can change that – with practice.
There are a variety of practices you can bring into your routine to help make positivity a default. Atomic Habits author James Clear focuses on three7. First, meditation. The aforementioned Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues found that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions than those who do not, as well as displaying increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.
Second, writing. Clear cites a study in the Journal of Research in Personality8, in which 90 undergraduates were split into two groups, the first writing about an intensely positive experience each day for three consecutive days, the second group writing about a control topic. Three months later, the students who wrote about positive experiences had “better mood levels, fewer visits to the health center, and experienced fewer illnesses.”
Third, play. Clear advocates for taking time to do some fun activities, even at the expense of work (within reason – don’t skip that big meeting to have a quick go on the swings.) Too often, he argues, we are slaves to our calendars, to the detriment of our merriment and well-being. Stifling our joy stifles our work too. In the long run, taking and making time for more enjoyable activities helps far more than it hurts.
Those are just Clear’s three staples. Advice from others includes starting a gratitude journal9 (documenting some things big or small each day for which you are grateful), adjusting your language to introduce more positive phrasing, or even just smiling. A University of Kansas study found that smiling – fake smiles included – reduces heart rate and blood pressure during stressful situations10.
Broaden and build
The benefits of positive thinking don’t stop at mood enhancement. For anyone looking at the numbers cited in this article and wondering, “how can a simple adjustment in temperament bring all those results?” The answer is that it’s not just about the improved psychology, but all of the other avenues that psychology opens up. This is what Frederickson refers to as “broaden and build.”
Because positive emotions broaden the number of possibilities you consider (as opposed to actively narrowing, as negative emotions do), you are then more likely to use that positive thinking as the launchpad to build more skills, resources and relationships, which then lead to further opportunities. By broadening the avenues you consider, positive thinking opens up a whole world of additional prospects. Essentially, then, positive thinking sets the wheels in motion for further success, which will likely produce further positivity – and so the cycle is born. As Clear says, “happiness is both the precursor to success and the result of it.”11
Bringing positivity to the workplace
The benefits of positive thinking are clear and obvious. And better news still, positivity spreads. Amy Finlay, co-founder of Edinburgh IFA, notes that “Exuding positivity can be infectious and, over time, can influence your co-workers.”12 The same is true for negativity, however, which is why it’s crucial for those in management positions to facilitate a positive workplace culture. If employees are imbuing each other with positive energy, they are more likely to concentrate, improve their productivity, volunteer for tasks, and better manage their time. If management lets a negative attitude set in, it’s bound to lead to worse productivity, sloppiness, and generally make the company an unpleasant place to be.
To cynics, adopting a positive mindset sounds like a frivolous, new age concept, especially compared with more tangible changes one can make to workplace practices. But in reality, positive thinking goes a long way to improving the quality of our work, our creativity, our attitude around the office, and our dealings with others. As well as just being a nicer way to live.
Looking for a more productive, fulfilling, happier work life? Why not give positive thinking a go?
It’s a common belief that achieving success in our careers or personal lives will lead to greater happiness and life satisfaction. However, social and developmental psychology research has shown that this is not always the case. In fact, the correlation between achievement and happiness is often weak or non-existent. (Diener & Seligman, 2002).
Success at a cost
One reason for this is that achievement is often accompanied by pressure, stress, and anxiety. High achievers may feel that they are constantly under scrutiny and must maintain their success in order to be seen as valuable or worthy. This pressure can lead to burnout, emotional exhaustion, and a sense of emptiness or lack of fulfilment (Curnow, 2019).
For example, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps achieved unprecedented success in his swimming career but struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. Phelps stated in an interview with CNN (2018) that he had achieved everything he had ever wanted in his swimming career, but he still felt empty and lost. Similarly, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has reported feeling depressed despite his many accomplishments. Musk once tweeted, “The reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress. Don’t think people want to hear about the last two.”
Mindset and habits
These anecdotes are supported by cognitive and behavioural psychology research, which suggests that our level of happiness is influenced more by our mindset and daily habits than by external factors such as achievement or material possessions (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005). Studies have shown that individuals who practice gratitude, mindfulness, and social connection tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction, regardless of their achievements (Lyubomirsky, 2013).
Social support and emotional stability
One study by King and Hicks (2007) found that life satisfaction was positively correlated with social support and emotional stability, but was negatively correlated with ambition and achievement. The researchers suggested that high-achieving individuals may prioritise their goals over their relationships, leading to a sense of isolation or disconnection.
In conclusion, while achievement can certainly bring a sense of accomplishment and pride, it’s important to recognise that it doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness. The pressure and stress that often accompany achievement can lead to feelings of emptiness or lack of fulfilment. It’s important to focus on cultivating positive habits and a healthy mindset in order to lead a fulfilling and satisfying life, regardless of external accomplishments.
Curnow, T. (2019). The dangers of high achievement: How success can lead to burnout. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-couch/201904/the-dangers-high-achievement-how-success-can-lead-burnout
Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81-84.
Game of Thrones, and its Song of Ice and Fire source material before it, connected with viewers around the globe for a variety of reasons. Arguably first among them was escapism. For an hour each week, viewers would disconnect from their lives and focus instead on this intoxicating fantasy realm, replete with magic, medieval brutality, and dragons. But even the most seemingly imaginative of otherworldly distractions requires some ties to everyday reality to land with an audience. For Games of Thrones, one such stark (and Stark) pronouncement that permeated the zeitgeist and became an everyday part of the cultural lexicon was the oft-repeated, ever-ominous assertion: Winter is coming. As clocks turn back in most of the western world, we must contend with the fact that, though we are still in the throes of autumn, winter has come, or at the very least is coming, bringing with it the annual productivity malaise that accompanies the season of darkness.
Winter is the least productive season for businesses. That’s according to research from project management software company Redbooth, published in Forbes magazine1. The company analysed their data over a four-year period and found that in winter users completed 22.8% of their tasks on average, compared with 27.3% in the autumn, 25.4% in the summer and 24.5% in the spring. A report by British Summer Fruits2 found that during the colder months, 74% of people find it harder to get out of bed for work, while 37% are far more likely to call in sick. In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens proclaimed that, “Darkness is cheap.” Not, it seems, if you’re running a business contending with a seasonal productivity slump.
Why does winter hamper our productivity?
Some of the reasons for our drop off in productivity through the winter months are clear to all. The first is that, naturally, we get less light during winter than we do during the other seasons as there are less hours of sunlight. This minimises the amount of Vitamin D we receive, which can negatively impact3 our mood and performance. The darkness, paired with the cold, also has a motivational impact. We are less inclined to get out of bed and go for a pre/post-work walk or run (or whatever wellness habit floats your boat) on a dark, wet and windy day than we are in the height of summer. And this kickstarts a cycle. As we become less active, we become lazier. And laziness only breeds more laziness. Lack of exercise leads to lack of motivation to eat well, which in turn gets made worse by the cold weather that makes filling comfort foods a more appetising prospect than that mid-November salad. The downward spiral becomes self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating. Once our routine is broken, it becomes incredibly difficult to get back on the wagon. At least until the frost melts and we’re returned to the hope of spring.
There are scientific reasons for our winter malaise too. Darkness—or more precisely, lack of natural light—is proven to have a significant impact on our mood, alertness and general well-being4. Our body clocks, or circadian rhythms, are naturally tied to the sun’s hours. In winter, we often rise in darkness, throwing our bodies into what Greg Murray, professor of psychology at Swinburne University in Australia, calls “phase delay”5. Phase delay means that our circadian clocks are nudged later during winter, so that piercing iPhone alarm is going to feel much crueller the day after the clocks go back than it did before. Bad news for the annual optimists preaching the virtues of “the extra hour in bed”.
That’s not to mention the one in fifteen people who deal with seasonal affective disorder6 (SAD), a number that may be on the rise7. For sufferers of SAD, winter brings about prolonged mood changes and oftentimes spells of severe and debilitating depression. The point, if it weren’t already clear, is that the effect winter has on our mood and performance is profound. But there are steps we can take to minimise darkness’ damage and try to keep on track.
Battling the elements
Let’s start with the body. In order to counteract the lack of vitamin D, we’d be well advised to take supplements through the winter8 (and maybe through other parts of the year). Which is not to say supplements can suffice for the real thing. We should absolutely try to get outside during daylight hours as much as possible. That can be a run or walk on our lunch break, or pre-work for the early risers. In fact, one benefit of the ubiquity of home and hybrid-working patterns in the wake of the pandemic is that it gives us greater autonomy over our working schedules, meaning we may feel more comfortable putting work on hold to get outside during working hours than we would if doing so required leaving an absent desk in the view of potentially disapproving colleagues and bosses.
In the same way we might subsidise the vitamins and nutrients we receive from natural light, so too might we subsidise natural light itself. Those who suffer from SAD will likely already be familiar with SAD lamps9, a form of light therapy designed to replicate daylight and trick the body into releasing serotonin in the same manner it would through warmer months. This concept is no longer reserved exclusively for sufferers of SAD, with many leading lighting brands now offering some form of bio-adaptive lighting10—designed to work in tandem with the circadian rhythm— that mimics the sun’s natural patterns and helps the body react to artificial light as it would to the natural variety it is impersonating. This can improve our mood, alertness, sleep pattern, and even our creativity. Similarly, such lights can work as alarm clocks, simulating the look and feel of sunrise to wake us up naturally, removing the bleakness of surrounding blackness from our waking experience so we’re less likely to start our day in a negative mindset.
Light and its benefits aside, what can you do to enhance productivity? Tick off tasks first thing. Mark Twain famously said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” He was being facetious, of course, but studies show that ticking off a major task early11 can set us up on the path for achieving more throughout the day. Others agree that completing tasks early is the way to go but argue that it’s better to accomplish a few small, achievable tasks12 first thing rather than anything monumental, simply to get your mind in the habit of getting things done and feeling productive. Neither option will be right for everyone, so the trick is finding which works for you.
If you already have a routine heading into the winter months, don’t let it slip. It’s all too easy to let those first bitter mornings destabilise an established, fully functional set of morning habits and break the cycle. And starting a routine again is far harder than keeping one up. If you do happen to slip up, don’t worry. According to a study13 published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, missing any single day of a particular habit has no impact on your long-term ability to stick to the habit. But as Atomic Habits author James Clear notes14, “the most important thing is not to prevent mistakes altogether, but to avoid making a mistake twice in a row.” So, if you falter, as we all do, rather than castigating yourself, instead focus your attention on avoiding the second mistake.
Maintaining a routine through the winter months could be key to not letting your standards drop off, so if you have one, keep it going. If you don’t, it’s never too late to get started. As the entrepreneur Jim Rohn notes, “Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.”
Let routine bring some light to your winter—and keep the dark slump at bay.