Wednesday, April 07, 2004

A Bridge Too Far? 

Every change model I’ve ever come across has, as a key element of its process, the creation of a vision of how you want things to be. NLP talks about well-formed outcomes (also here); many counselling and change processes use Gerard Egan’s 3-step model; one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits is “Begin with the end in mind”; in “The Path of Least Resistance”, Robert Fritz says “The best place to begin the creative process is at the end”.

The idea, like all the best ideas, is very simple. Create a sufficiently compelling vision and you will almost inevitably be drawn towards it. Create a clear knowledge of the gap between what you have and what you desire, and you will naturally make decisions and choices that tend to close that gap. The evidence for the validity of this type of model is all around; successful people have focus and drive; they know where they’re going and they move towards their goal with every step they take. With such a powerful drive it is impossible for them to do anything else – introduce any possibility for choice and the magnetic pull of their vision draws them onwards. And this holds regardless of the measure of success, whether the gain is financial, positional, developmental, spiritual; the process is not tied to any particular value system; it takes no notice of the worth of the goal.

Creating a vision, a goal, has two-fold power, be that a static goal or a process-oriented developmental goal. By it’s attractiveness, it draws you towards itself; and at the same time the contrast between the vision and the present state creates another force, pushing from behind, a motivation to move away from the limitations and discomfort of the present state. The contrast between what is and what could be causes tension, which is only resolved by closing the gap. And if the gap is large; if the attractiveness of the vision is such that it magnifies the gap by throwing a spotlight on the stark inadequacies of the current state, then the result is pain. Human beings are instinctively motivated to lessen pain, so by creating a vision of the desired state, by becoming aware of the pain attached to staying put, we tap into a basic human motivation – that of avoiding pain.

And there, as Hamlet would say, is the rub. The premise behind the creative approach to success is that the vision remains firm and the gap is closed by moving the present state towards the vision. But suppose the present is also firmly fixed, and movement seems impossible? You can increase the power of the vision, enhancing the perception of the gap between reality and desire, and so increasing the pain associated with living with that gap, in the belief that with a powerful enough drive, movement will occur. But what happens when it doesn’t? When the bonds of the present hold you fast, the goal is as far away as ever, and without movement to close the gap the pain feels too much to bear?

Humans act instinctively to avoid pain. If the gap can’t be closed by movement, it will be closed by other means. And there’s a dark irony in the way the human mind works to achieve this; left to itself it cannot help but find a creative solution. If the creativity of the conscious mind cannot find a way to close that gap, then the unconscious creative processes kick in and find another way to solve the pain problem; one that takes no notice of the conscious goal, only of the instinctive need to close that gap any way possible.

The mind’s creative solution to this conundrum? Render the vision invisible. Shut it off as though it had never been. If we can no longer see the attractiveness of the view, it’s power to cause pain has gone. And the mind’s unconscious defence mechanisms are remarkably effective in this; almost frighteningly so. This protection mechanism is entirely involuntary – there is no conscious decision to abandon the goal – and it is so powerful it is possible to wake up one morning and discover that yesterday’s drive and vision that was so intense has now evaporated and is barely even a memory. The shutters have come down.

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