Why personal strategies for success are not transferrable, and what we can learn from them anyway
“If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, … I maximize the risk of missing out on what may be the most rewarding things in life.”E.F. Schumacher
Barnacles are small water animals. Once they decide where they want to live, they spend the rest of their lives with their heads cemented to a rock.
In a speech delivered in 1990 the social scientist John W. Gardner told his audience that many humans behave like those barnacles.
We look for a reliable rock-like structure on which we can base our existence. Having found a mindset that suits us, we spend the rest of our lives with our heads virtually cemented to that rock face.
But humans are not born to be barnacles. Our consciousness and potential offer opportunities for continuous expansion. This is a privilege, and every privilege comes with a responsibility.
If we don’t accept the responsibility that comes with being human, if we stay stuck with our heads glued to certain mental structures, we degenerate and become sick.
The human eco system thrives on change, movement, and the expansion of our horizon. We are born to learn new things, explore unknown territories, and use our creativity.
We want innovation without risk, change with guaranteed success. The self-help industry has responded to those wishes. There are literally thousands of books on offer, telling us how someone got out of trouble by discovering a ‘winning strategy’.
This personal formula for success is often supposed to help millions of readers get out of trouble as well. – Or even better, the winning formula promises to prevent trouble and help us skip from one peak experience to the next.
With all the winning strategies and success formulas on the market, you might think that all human troubles would be solved by now. But this is clearly not the case.
In 1977 the influential economist E.F. Schumacher wrote in his book A Guide for the Perplexed: “If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error but I maximize, at the same time, the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important and most rewarding things in life.”
The word risk comes from the Latin risicare, meaning to navigate dangerous rocks, or to dare and face danger. When we use the word risk we imply the possibility of danger, but also the possibility to steer clear of rocks and discover new worlds, to experience adventure and freedom.
Around the time when Schumacher wrote his Guide for the Perplexed, the German biologist Christine von Weizsäcker coined the term error-friendliness. She explains:
“Error-friendliness is a property found in all forms of life. It is a necessary complement to stability …. It basically means to incorporate new aberrations, to allow for variance and thus to enhance the adaptability of living systems, be it individual organisms, species, or whole ecosystems. There is no learning without errors.”
In other words, the attempt to avoid risk, trouble, and errors – by adopting a ‘safe success strategy’ – makes us vulnerable to a risk, which might be a lot greater than the ones we are trying to avoid.
“If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure — all your life. It’s as simple as that.”John W. Gardner
My 15 month old grandson is getting in and out of trouble several times a day. He has not yet learned to avoid risk. Failure and errors are currently perhaps his most common experience.
But he is learning so many new things all the time. He is exploring and experiencing his world and his life in his own way. At the same time he is creating something very important and rewarding.
In his book Self-Renewal John W. Gardner wrote in 1964:
“In infancy, when the child is learning at a truly phenomenal rate … he is also experiencing a shattering number of failures. … By adolescence the willingness of young people to risk failure has diminished greatly. … By middle age most of us carry in our heads a tremendous catalogue of things we have no intention of trying again because we tried them once and failed … If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure — all your life. It’s as simple as that.”
The avoidance of trouble, risk, and errors keeps us stuck in certain structures. They may seem rock solid, but they are also highly uncomfortable. We expect our fixation on winning strategies for success to lead to the experience we desire.
However, paradoxically, troubles manage to creep in through the back door. Risk and failure seem to be part of the ‘magic formula for success’.
Why? Because without risk and failure there is no creativity. We would never be able to discover anything new. When you walk through life following in some safe and proven footsteps of another person, what you’re experiencing isn’t your life.
Creativity is essential for success, not just in individuals, but for our entire society. This means we have to be prepared to experiment, take risks, fail, and get into trouble. We need to remain error-friendly.
“It is not important to know, whether one is successful; success often follows paths, which are only known to the universe.”Christine von Weizsäcker
The many so-called success strategies have made me curious. I wanted to find out whether a ‘magic formula for success’ actually exists. So I’ve taken a few success stories, thrown them all into one cauldron and watched what crystallises from the self-help brew.
The following ‘magic formula for success’ emerged:
Step 1 — Get into trouble.
Step 2 — Reach your limits.
Step 3 — Acknowledge your trouble as part of your unique experience.
Step 4 — Recognise your personal relationship with your trouble.
Step 5 — Take responsibility for your part in this relationship.
Step 6 — Accept your trouble unconditionally.
Step 7 — Witness the transformation of your trouble.
Step 8 — Harvest the unique discoveries you make through this experience and reap the rewards.
This formula for success is a natural sequence of events. We can observe this process in the stories of many successful people who have been in trouble, resolved it successfully, and become teachers of transformation.
Here are 4 well known examples:
Wayne Dyer had a very difficult childhood, he grew up in an orphanage. In other words, his life started in a troublesome environment. He naturally reached his limits at an early age. Wayne recognised his difficult circumstances as part of his life’s task and went through various profound transformations. He harvested many discoveries, shared them in his work and reaped the rewards by becoming a successful author and public speaker.
Louise Hay too had a troubled childhood and various painful experiences as a young adult. In her fifties she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, which pushed her to her limits. Louise accepted her trouble unconditionally, cured herself through ‘the power of the mind’ and wrote about her healing story, which later became a bestselling book. She reaped the rewards of her troubles by becoming a successful author and publisher.
Neale Donald Walsh lost a successful life and career. When he became homeless and penniless, he reached his limits. He took responsibility for his experience, started to engage in ‘Conversations with God’, and witnessed a transformation of his whole life. He reaped the rewards of his trouble when he became a successful author and spiritual teacher.
Eckhart Tolle suffered from severe depression. At the age of 29 he realised, ‘I cannot live with myself any longer.’ At this point he reached his limits. When taking responsibility for his trouble, Eckhart had an experience of profound and inexplicable bliss. Through a regular practice of meditation Eckhart discovered ‘the power of now’ and witnessed the transformation of his life. He is reaping the rewards of his troubles as one of the most successful spiritual teachers.
Wayne, Louise, Neale, and Eckhart have probably helped many people with their teachings. All four of them have acknowledged the value of the troubles they had to live through and accepted them unconditionally.
However, this value is not always recognised by their followers. We don’t want to take responsibility for our troubles – let alone accept them unconditionally.
We would love to get rid of them. We are desperate to find shortcuts, skip the troubles, and go straight to the experience of reaping the rewards, because our brains are cemented to the rock of material success.
As long as we focus on material results, we have very little capacity for appreciating the creative process in its totality.
If you take the barnacle-headed approach to success, you risk missing out on the most important and most rewarding things in life. You risk missing out on experiencing the life that is uniquely yours.
In 2011 E. F. Schumacher would have celebrated his 100th birthday. At the symposium, held in memory of his life and work, Christine von Weizsäcker spoke in his spirit, when she said: “It is not important to know, whether one is successful; success often follows paths, which are only known to the universe.”
© Veronika Bond, 2016
This article is complemented by an e-letter published on the same date.
If you don’t want to miss our Friday Letters in the future, subscribe now.