Don’t Force Decisions; Just Back Off and Adjust. Or Go for a Walk

By Carl Richards

2015-05-19

I love rock climbing. Looking from the ground up, it seems almost impossible for climbers to balance themselves and find handholds where none seem to exist.

And sure enough, even the most talented climbers can end up getting stuck on climbs well below their skill level. I’ve done it, and I’ve seen it happen to other climbers, too. But the fact that the next move feels so hard, like we need to force it, means we’re missing something. In other words, there must be a handhold we just haven’t seen yet.

When I get stuck, I try to relax and take a step back. This small pause helps me refocus, and I usually end up seeing a handhold I overlooked. I compare these moments with the resistance we sense when we try to turn a bolt, and it just won’t go.

We could apply more force, believing that sheer strength will do the job. In reality, we’re seconds away from what’s referred to as cross threading, or stripping, the bolt. If that happens, the bolt is ruined. In theory, the bolt is designed to line up perfectly with the hole or nut. We don’t need force. So if we’re wise, we’ll back the bolt out, double check the alignment and try it again.

We’re tempted to use that same brute force when we’re pursuing financial success. We all probably know at least a few people (maybe it’s you) who forced themselves into a particular career. Parents, peers or even our own internal voices convinced us that being a lawyer, for example, was the path to wealth and happiness.

So we force ourselves through law school. We may even pass the bar exam. But it never feels natural. It seems like we’re compelled to live someone else’s life.

We’ve probably all felt this way in some form or another. And we do it for what? To live someone else’s definition of a successful life? Of course, a few of us might manage to have a 40-year career, but for many of us, we’ll break if we try to live a life based on force.

Recently, I was talking to a friend who has built a really successful business. He told me that all of his biggest mistakes were the result of trying to force something. Instead of pulling back and refocusing, he’d try to push his way through the situation. In contrast, his biggest successes happened when he gave himself time to find a better way forward.

What if we start to practice a different reaction to resistance? After all, resistance doesn’t imply that we can’t reach our desired goals. It simply means we haven’t found the best option — yet. Why not give ourselves time to identify and evaluate all our choices?

Writers stumbled on to this trick a long time ago. Throughout history, we’ve heard the stories of how writers used walking to help work through new ideas and deal with writer’s block. They could continue to stare at the screen (or the page) and attempt to force the words into sentences. But why force the words when a simple walk can reveal another path? Imagine how many fewer books would line the shelves if writers relied only on force.

I’m curious to see what would happen if more of us approached life thinking like a writer. We would still commit to finding a way forward, but like a bolt that just won’t turn, we may need an adjustment. We can’t make that adjustment, however, if we don’t stop with the force.

This commentary originally appeared April 27 on NYTimes.com


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