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Michael enjoys writing and researching articles.

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Comfort versus Greatness

 

 

In military training, we go to great lengths to be as comfortable fighting at night as we are during daylight hours.

 

At first, it feels clumsy, unwieldy, uncomfortable- and unnatural. The day is what we’re used to. We feel in control.

 

By the end of training however, manoeuvres in the dark are an opportunity to be relished. The night had gone from powerful adversary, to treasured ally. We had become ‘naturals’, moving as one through valleys and over mountains. Navigating by the stars, spurred by the heightened awareness of our other senses; stealthy and effective.

 

In combat situations, we press this advantage home. In the past, armies have preferred to stay away from night operations. In part because of this, we almost always attack well before dawn breaks- and see the night as an opportunity, where others might see it as a challenge.

 

Improvement and advancement lie on the other side of comfort. To build muscle, what is required is a breakdown of that muscle, which then rebuilds itself stronger than before. To quote the old fitness adage, “No Pain, No Gain” (which can actually be traced back to the 2nd century, and includes such proponents as Benjamin Franklyn, and of course, Jane Fonda).

 

There will always be those who peddle shortcuts, promote the “easy route”, and promise rapid progress without the concomitant effort. Ripped models in TV commercials will expound the benefits of a vibrating strap that “works the muscles for you”. Get 6-pack abs while finishing that Danielle Steele novel, they promise. It’s no coincidence that these kinds of impulse purchases land up tossed to the back of the cupboard after two weeks.

 

Ice hockey great Ray Bourque famously said, “Goals live on the other side of obstacles and challenges. Be relentless in pursuit of those goals, especially in the face of obstacles. Along the way, make no excuses and place no blame”.

 

 

In fact, according to executive coach Margie Warrell comfort is probably holding you back. As New York Tomes best-selling author Josh Linkner writes in his Fast Company Leadership piece, life’s biggest risk of all is “a path of mediocrity and regret”- a path of comfort. In the animal kingdom, the shark must keep surging forward, or it will die; the springbok and lioness must duel every day in order to survive.

 

 

Why is it still so difficult to view comfort as the enemy, and embrace challenge and adversity?

 

First of all, it’s scary. Andy Molinsky has a great guide in Harvard Business Review. Second, human beings are programmed to take the path of least resistance. Lastly, it’s just- well- uncomfortable. The Western ideal puts comfort at the top of the pyramid, a shallow ideal of “happiness” that is a far cry from more profound pursuits such as meaning, or fulfilment.

 

Ultra-marathon runner Dean Karnazes nailed it when said, “Western culture has things a little backwards right now. We think that if we had every comfort available to us, we’d be happy. We equate comfort with happiness. And now we’re so comfortable we’re miserable. There’s no struggle in our lives. No sense of adventure. We get in a car, we get in an elevator, it all comes easy. What I’ve found is that I’m never more alive than when I’m pushing and I’m in pain, and I’m struggling for high achievement, and in that struggle I think there’s a magic.”

 

 

Shakespeare said it through Hamlet, in the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy:

 

“To be, or not to be- that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to.”

 

Here, Hamlet ponders whether it is better to sleep forever in “comfort”, than to face the challenges of the world.

 

Take Dr Mary Toulson, working in a rural hospital in KwaZulu-Natal . Toulson “learned more during her first two months at Mosvold Hospital than she had learnt in two years in the UK”. She may not have been “happy” in the traditional sense after dealing with HIV/AIDS and TB patients, but her sense of meaning and fulfilment must be inestimable.

 

There’s a hidden question implicit in this thinking. It’s a terrifying question, one that most people never want to face up to. The critical question one has to ask one’s self is this:

 

Is my goal just to get comfortable?

 

Is that what I want? A stable job, enough money (is there such thing?), little stress, no change, no challenge?

 

For many people, that answer is “Yes”.

 

Not consciously, and certainly not verbalised, but it’s there.

 

If we shift our perspective, and see comfort as an enemy of greatness, as Jessica Hagy writes for Forbes, we have taken the first crucial steps.

 

 

Night training saved our lives on more than one occasion. In a more extreme example, we had to experience what fighting during a chemical attack was like- so we entered a tear-gas filled tent with full equipment on, and then took off our masks. We fought our way out and spent the next few hours coughing and choking, eyes streaming. So, when that type of attack comes, our previous experience, our getting uncomfortable, will give us that critical advantage.

 

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Waiting on the World to Change

 

 

 

They say that being in the military is “90% boredom, and 10% sheer terror”.

 

This phenomenon is the subject of many debates, and its understanding is critical to battlefield effectiveness.

 

In my experience, I would adapt this to “90% waiting to fight, and 10% actually fighting”. In business, the former is much more dangerous than the latter.

 

We could spend our entire lives in a “suspended” space. Waiting for this or that to happen, waiting for someone to get back to us, waiting for an opportunity, or waiting to get noticed.

 

For Dr Seuss, “The Waiting Place” is “a most useless place”, where “everyone is just waiting”. It forms the antithesis to his inspirational “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”; places filled with adventure, excitement and purpose.

 

Consider the scenario of Jeff, a mid-level advertising executive.

 

 

Jeff wants to send his creative team a new brief for a print ad. He knows exactly what font he wants to use- in fact, he saw this exact font in a local newspaper.

 

Jeff has contacted the newspaper to get the name of the mystery font, but they haven’t got back to him.

 

In his mind, he can’t send off the brief to his team, and by extension, he can’t send an awesome design to his client, until everything is done- including nailing just the right font.

 

When quizzed by his team leader, Jeff will sheepishly cite the age-old excuse of “I’m waiting on…”

 

 

Some of the most common pitfalls are viewing a process as a linear progression, and a subconscious attitude of “perfection-or-nothing”.

 

In viewing a process as linear, one sees each step as an obstacle that needs to be conquered completely before the next step can be taken, much like a running back who sees the end-zone in the distance, but knows that a series of successive defenders have to be bumped off one by one as he gets closer to his goal. In fact, one might even lose sight of the end-zone and focus everything on the next tackle.

 

Being held up at one point thus leads to a halt in the entire process.

 

To overcome this, a process cannot be seen as a linear progression on a flat plane, or a movement from A to B. A process is multi-dimensional and undulating; where steps can be skipped and filled in later, and options C, D and E can also be considered.

 

Most importantly, it is critical to constantly have the end-goal in mind, and be evaluating if the current challenge is mission critical in achieving this goal.

 

Presentation and communication expert Deborah Grayson Riegel delves into the reasons people don’t achieve what they could, and suggests 3 key reasons…with the “W” word being ubiquitous. According to her, people are:

“1. Waiting for the perfect time to get started, aka “How can I start networking when I don’t have my elevator pitch down?”

2. Waiting for something to be perfect in order to call it finished, aka “How can I launch my new website when I still don’t have all my keywords ready for SEO?”

3. Waiting for themselves and their lives to be perfect, aka, “I can’t _________________ until I lose 10 lbs/get my MBA/get married.””

 

Her 3 strategies for combatting this echo what we have discovered so far:

 

“Just Start Anyway”, “Tell yourself three stories to challenge your thinking” and “Create artificial criteria for stopping”, the latter two preventing “end-state procrastination”, or not finishing until everything is “perfect”.

 

The “perfection-or-nothing” approach results in procrastination, “freezing” and inaction; certainly, it leads to a lack of delivery.

 

Here, a “rapid-prototyping” approach can be employed. Get the basic idea out there, and constantly improve it. Often by just overcoming the initial inertia, and getting momentum going, the ideas will flow and problems seem to solve themselves.

 

Waiting, and procrastination, is widespread. According to Drake Baer, co-author of “Everything Connects: How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation, and Sustainability”, 20% of American adults are “self-identified chronic procrastinators”, who are more likely to be unemployed, make lower salaries, and are less likely to save for retirement

 

Back to Jeff- after his awkward interaction with his team leader, he sent his creative team the brief with only an approximation of the font. While they were working, he pestered the newspaper until he got hold of the editor, who was happy to give him the font name. The changes were made at the last moment, and the final product was sent to the client within the agreed deadline.

 

 

In the Military, often there is insufficient time to put together the perfect plan, or wait for additional resources. Soldiers are taught to take initiative, make a call, and complete the mission.

 

When we received intelligence that there would be a terrorist infiltration near our forward operating base, there was no time to wait for more accurate data or reinforcements. We heaved on our gear and headed out in the general direction of the infiltration, knowing that pre-emption, initiative, momentum and surprise are all game-changers when it comes to the odds of battle.

 

There was no infiltration that night. Perhaps the terrorist sensed the heightened activity and the increased patrols. By waiting- for reinforcements, accurate intelligence, or “orders”- a well-armed enemy unit might have slipped through quickly and wrought havoc.

 

Being in a “waiting” space is akin to an opiate- it is mind-numbing, and it seems to remove any sense of required action or responsibility. The key to overcoming this is constant self-assessment and honesty, and ensuring that unlike Jeff, the words “I’m waiting” are eliminated from vocabularies. In the words of Dr Seuss:

 

“So…

be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray

or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,

you’re off to Great Places!

Today is your day!

Your mountain is waiting.

So…get on your way!”

 

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WAR OF THE SEXES

 

It’s the longest running conflict of all time. It dates back to the beginnings of recorded history, and has provoked tension and extreme reactions in every generation since. Unlike other wars, it cannot be put down to territorial dispute, control of scarce natural resources, or political intrigue. It therefore cannot be solved so simply either. Until now.

On the negative side, the differences cannot be glossed over. Whereas there may be “white” people and “black” people, and every shade inbetween, we’ve learned that a minute difference in our melanin count hardly makes us ‘different’. Similarly, no matter the country or clime that one may hail from, we’ve recognised by now that we’re all essentially the same; we breathe the same air and our bodies work much the same way. Well. Until one gets to the sex thing, that is.

Our entire human race- not to mention the animal kingdom- has been split glaringly down the middle, into two obvious categories. Male and female. Boy and girl. Blue and pink, WWE and Gossip Girl. It’s not artificial either. It’s a difference that not even the most tree-hugging, bra-burning, chimpanzee-rearing liberal can deny. It’s a physical fact- ‘What’s that, Mom?’ is the single most dreaded question on game drives, when confronted by a virile male elephant.

In terms of results, it’s not difficult to declare a winner. Women were only allowed to vote for the first time in South Africa in 1930 (“non-white” women having to wait until 1994), and many countries still do not give women a say at the ballot box. World records for physical competition are all held by men (with the exception of the discus throw, although women’s discs are smaller and lighter) and even in the “traditional” areas of cooking and dance, men are arguably the most widely known (Jamie Oliver, Mikhail Baryshnikov).

So why then, would it be in a man’s interest to call a truce?

Simply put, in financial services parlance, “Past performance is no indication of future returns”.

It seems that women are catching up to- and surpassing- their adversaries.  In terms of wages and university degrees, the gap is closing fast, with women soon expected to overtake men based on current trends. In terms of the “glass ceiling”, the closing gap is evidenced by captains of industry such as AngloAmerican group chief executive Cynthia Carroll, or Meg Whitman, head of computers giant Hewlett-Packard. The USA almost had a female Presidential nominee until Hillary Clinton narrowly lost out to eventual winner Barack Obama. Even in terms of physical performance- in the epitome of traditional athletics, the marathon- the gap between the top men and the top women is closing.

Men have had their run, so to speak.

Taking all this into account, and as a forward-thinking modern man, I feel it’s time to call a truce. Let’s put the gender war to bed, before the nightmare of every man comes true- being beaten, fair and square, by a woman.

We can’t afford more casualties.

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