This past week, I had a new and very different insight connected with a story I’ve told many times. It involved a novel interpretation of a powerpoint drawing I’ve long used to illustrate the story. The point I normally use the drawing to make is the philosophical advice that we should not allow what is very good to keep us from what is best. While a vision of the best should never be an enemy of the good and prevent our enjoyment of it, in its own time, the comfort and proper pride of something good we’ve attained should also not keep us from exploring new heights of achievement. Life is supposed to be a series of adventures. A first good form of success shouldn’t imprison us, but rather empower us to go on and try even higher, or richer, levels of achievement.
The powerpoint slide in question shows two hills, as above, one of medium height and another some distance away that’s of much greater height. I call the shorter one, Hill A, and the taller one, Hill B. And here’s the usual story.
Imagine that you’re on a hike out in the woods and you’re leading a group of people. Suppose you set it as your goal to get to the highest point in the area, from which you’ll be able to survey all the surrounding terrain. And imagine that the highest point you can now see is the peak of Hill A. Whether it’s fog, or mist, or just perspective that blocks any other view, that’s the highest peak you can see from where you are initially. So, in order to attain your goal, you lead the group up Hill A. It’s a struggle. You slip and fall and pull yourselves back up, and finally you get to the top, from which vantage point you can now suddenly see the much higher Hill B.
At this point in the story, I like to ask: If your goal is to get to the highest point in the area, and you now stand atop Hill A, where you can suddenly see that the highest point is really on Hill B, then what’s the first thing you’ll have to do to attain your true goal? And people inevitably answer, “Go downhill.” And I reply that, yes, they’re right. I also point out that when any leader suggests such a thing, nearly everyone on the team will tend to say or think, “No! It took us a long time to get up Hill A! It’s perfectly fine up here! We’re plenty high! We can see a lot from where we already are! We shouldn’t have to go downhill now at all! We should just stay and enjoy where we are.” It’s nearly universal. Nobody wants to go downhill.
My usual point is that many businesses, individuals, and even families are stuck on their own Hill A, because of the common reluctance to go downhill—which metaphorically represents changing what you’ve just been doing, leaving behind what might be a perfectly good success that you’ve had, and launching into the risk of trying something new and even better. Of course, any new journey will in its initial stage involve getting out of the proverbial comfort zone, and putting yourself into a new position where you’re deserting something good. Because of this, too many companies get stuck in their first form of success and nobody wants to go downhill, which is the only way to change, adapt, and discover new and better forms of achievement. And so the world passes them by. Champions, however, love a challenge, and are open to start the downhill trek as the first and necessary stage in any new and bigger ascent.
The novel insight I just had was simple and revelatory. A panel discussion right before I spoke recently and used this story was on the topic of adversity and overcoming failures in business. I then realized that there’s another way to use my drawing. Many people high up on Hill A get shoved off their place of success by circumstances and are pushed down the side, whether by economic factors they had never anticipated, or the actions of competitors, or changes in the industry. What they were doing and so proud of succeeding at is no longer available, and they find themselves tumbling down the side of Hill A.
Here’s the flash of good news: The sooner you can reframe the descent down Hill A as the first stage in a possible ascent of a higher Hill B, the sooner you turn that downward trajectory into something great: PROGRESS. You’re no longer just tumbling down, you’re moving forward.
When you set new goals during bad times, you begin to take charge of what you can control, and leave aside what you can’t control. And you can then expand that circle. Tough times can become positive transitions if you make them so. Adversity can contain within itself a gift, and even a momentum that can take you to somewhere great, if you’ll just intervene by reframing your situation and setting new goals. This is stoic wisdom. It’s philosophical insight that you can use. So, whether you’re flourishing or falling, look for the next higher hill, and set a goal to get there.