Positive thinking is an important part of goal setting but at the same time, it can kill your goals. I’m not suggesting that negative thinking is helpful either. Let me explain. Unbridled optimism, that is when you believe nothing can go wrong, seems to be when it does. For this reason, I have always believed in being cautiously optimistic.
German Field Marshall and Prussian Army General, Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, summed it up best when he said, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” In this case, the enemy is not necessarily another individual; rather anything that could go wrong.
I suggest you should have a sense of cautious optimism when setting goals. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. It would be easy to suggest, as some of my clients do, that planning is pointless. They argue, “What is the point in setting goals when you don’t know what’s going to happen?” In fact, I once had an accountant tell me that I should not set specific goals or make long term plans for my business at all. Needless to say, I quickly changed accountants!
I am an advocate of having long term goals, even in turbulent times. After all, if you’re not following your goals and dreams, who’s goals are you following? Some people believe that by letting go of the reigns they’re following their destiny, when in fact they’re actually following someone else’s agenda. There’s nothing wrong with being of service to other people but not everyone is pursuing goals that will align with your values. So, even if your goal is cause related or to be of service to someone else, it should reflect your personal values.
In his book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins published his findings on why some businesses thrive in uncertain environments and others struggle. He discovered that the best leaders are more disciplined, more empirical (make decisions based on evidence) and more paranoid. I find this sense of caution quite a contrast to the high risk taking view I often popularised by the media. Collins’ book was an excellent read and it reminded me that positive thinking alone is not enough. Things can go wrong and they do.
Famous actor and philosopher, Bruce Lee had a point when he said, “Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”
Tim Ferriss, Author of the 4 Hour Work Week, published a short video about stoicism, which I have included below. As Ferriss explains it, stoicism is about admitting what could go wrong and giving an honest answer to the question, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Ferriss uses the term fear setting, instead of goal setting, for the process he often uses to lift his mood and make sound business decisions.
Of course it’s not enough to list all of the things that can go wrong. You then need to list some ways to avoid the worst and some ways to fix things or minimise the damage if the worst happens.
I have often visualised worst case scenarios in my own mind and tried to think of preventative measures or possible solutions. I expect to encounter problems when I’m pursuing my goals. I believe the trick is to pay attention to the things that go wrong and then be as prepared as you possibly can.
Positive thinking is done from your point of view. Your enemy has other plans. I’m not suggesting to treat every other person and organisation like the enemy, however, you need to acknowledge that you are not in a perfect world. Your world is full of moving parts, conflicts and hidden agendas. In my own life, I stay focused on what I can do to put my goals into motion but I’m always conscious that there will be obstacles.
I recently read a book called Red Teaming by Bryce G. Hoffman. The whole concept of the book is summed up neatly in the tag line, “Transform your business by thinking like the enemy.”
Hoffman suggests a systematic approach to making plans stronger. He advocates the use of red teams within an organisation, who can expose the flaws in a particular plan or course of action. I highly recommend this book.
The author goes on to point out the various military and business applications where red teaming has already been implemented. I should point out that testing plans like this is not about being negative. It’s about taking a good plan and making it better.
When I studied business, developing a contingency plan was best practice. A contingency plan is simply a plan b. I have found that’s served me well to develop a plan b while setting personal goals, business goals and sales forecasts.
Contingency planning is not about abandoning your goals at the first sign of trouble; rather it’s about adjusting your course in pursuit of that goal if something goes wrong. Invariably, things will go wrong. Stock markets crash, consumer confidence declines, employees leave, new competitors come to town, bad things happen and most of this will be out of your control. In my opinion, businesses that fail do so because they’re not adequately prepared for what’s coming.
I have seen hundreds of Hollywood action movies (my guilty pleasure) and most of them have one thing in common. Nothing ever happens quite like it does in the real world. I often see the hero come up with a perfect plan, only to be hindered by something unexpected. There’s usually a corny joke about there not being a plan b and the hero goes into beast mode and wins the day. The problem is, just like in business, things can and will go wrong and hinder almost any plan.
My experience in the police force taught me to plan for a specific situation then to plan for any likely alternatives. Preparation was also important. We invested countless hours performing weapons and other drills, so we could be prepared for almost any scenario. Similar drills are also performed in other military organisations, like army and navy teams. Often, the objective here was to prepare for when things go wrong.
Cautious optimism is essential for goal setting and planning. Positive thinking alone is not a bad thing unless it leads you to assume nothing can go wrong. I often hear people assume that positive thinking is a kind of ignorance that we live in a perfect world.
Planning is more important in a changing world than it would be in a perfect world. You need to set your course towards your goals and adjust your sails when the wind changes. Be ready for the challenges ahead.
Anticipate those challenges as part of the goal setting process and be ready to do what’s necessary to get the job done.