3 traps of growth and how to overcome them

January 27th, 2016

Growth is dangerous. We labor to see things grow, yet when we become enamored with the fruits of our labor, bad things happen. It has the potential to lead us to believe that it’s only outcomes that matter, when it’s actually the opposite. Regardless of your endeavor, it’s not outcomes that matter, but the creative process. In fact when you focus on growth, it will elude you. Growth isn’t the goal of an endeavor; it’s the outcome of a focus on creating.

As I describe in my book Think Like a Five Year Old, the lie of self-glory is one of the three great destroyers of the creative process.

When we’re focused on the labor — the process — good things happen. When we become enamored with the spoils and the fruits of the labor, bad things happen.

Three reasons we struggle with growth

The challenge is our own carnal knowledge. We are too self-aware, and in our supposed savvy we find ourselves focusing on the adulation. Especially if we’ve been successful in some capacity in the past. It happens everywhere. For example, I think this is the main reason the vast majority of championship coaches can’t win a title with a second team.

Harvard Business review named three reasons we struggle with growth:

  1. Attribution error. We puff ourselves up — we think our success was due to our talents and our current model or strategy and we give short shrift to the part that environmental factors and random events may have played. (I’d phrase that last part to factors beyond our control — which is most of them.) 
  2. Over-confidence bias. We become self-assured and believe we don’t need to change anything. We get stuck in our ways. (History is littered with stories of successes who didn’t see disruptive change coming. Here are 11 examples.) 
  3. Failure-to-ask-why syndrome. When we experience success, we quit deconstructing our work. We stop asking the tough questions. 

In short, success ruins us. After we’ve seen it, we know what it looks like.

We want it again, but without the work.

I have experienced these things the hard way. In 2011, after some years of marketplace “success,” I recused myself from my own platform. I had begun to feel disconnected from my own creative work. I turned inward for a while, and just focused on writing.

Eventually, some time after I made this decision, a surprising thing happened.

I began to see good new ideas. I was no longer trying to develop ideas for the sake of turning a profit or sustain previous success, like I had been doing, but for the pure joy of the work. I’d overcome my own success, and the result was new growth.

Three ways to overcome the traps of growth

What I’d experienced was exactly what author Henri Nouwen describes in his book Bread for the Journey as “fruit.” Nouwen discusses signs for knowing what you are making is fruitful — and not simply successful. Here are three tests for determining how authentic your work is:

  1. It comes from weakness and vulnerability. We might phrase this as the struggle. Good work is candid, not packaged. It is born and in and shaped by the mess. Success must have struggle. 
  2. It is unique. Everybody’s special, yada yada. This isn’t a cat poster – what this means is related to #1. It comes not just out of your gifts, but your struggles. When it comes to making new things, the mess you own is just as important as the gifts you’ve been given. 
  3. It brings you joy. While the creative process has lows, and isn’t necessarily about happiness, it is about a deep contentment in knowing you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. This knowledge is as good as it gets. 

The joyous irony is that when we stop worrying about success, and just focus on the work, we’re more likely to find success.

Where do you find success in your life? Where do you find struggle? Are you failing enough? If not, be careful that the creative well doesn’t run dry.

Len Wilson is the author of Think Like a 5 Year Old: Reclaim Your Wonder & Create Great Things from Abingdon Press. He blogs at LenWilson.us.

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