As we journey through life, we are creating our world and our world is simultaneously creating us. Much of who we are and what we will become is determined by environmental factors that we cannot control. Much of who we are and what we will become is determined by personal choices that we can control. As we experience our world -- and it experiences us -- we live in a circular cycle of constant change.
So, the question becomes: How can we forecast our environment so that we are aware of its influence over us and how we can use what we learn to our success?
For instance, in San Diego, where I live, I can always identify the neighbors who are fanatical sailors, surfers or golfers. They're the ones checking their phones for hourly weather updates. A bumbler like me might think that San Diego has some of the most reliable weather on the planet, but to these guys, every knot, degree and percentage point of humidity counts! They are determined to participate, enjoy, and succeed at their sports. That's why they use all the tools at their disposal to determine if the wind on the Pacific Ocean will be blowing, the surf will be up, and the course will be playable. They are not only aware of the environment, they go out of their way to forecast it so that they can choose their plan of attack for that day.
Few of us shape our days with the obsessive forecasting that avid sailors, surfers and golfers do. If we did, we wouldn't be blindsided by our environment so often. Yet, once we acknowledge its power over us, we realize that forecasting the environment is necessary if we are going to achieve our goals.
Let's take a closer look at how to forecast our environment. There are three interconnected stages of importance here: anticipation, avoidance, and adjustment.
Successful people are aware of their environment. In the major moments of our lives, when the outcome really matters and failure is not an option, most of us are masters of anticipation.
For example, when an ad agency team enters a client's conference room to pitch an account, they've already honed their presentation, researched the client's biases, and rehearsed sharp answers to deflect any pushback. They imagine the positive emotional temperature in the room when they're finished--and then design their pitch to create it.
It's the same with trial attorneys who never ask a question to which they don't know the answer. Their entire line of questioning a witness is based on anticipation.
When our performance has clear and immediate consequences, we rise to the occasion. We create our environment. We don't let it re-create us.
The problem is that the majority of our day consists of minor moments, when we're not thinking about the environment or our behavior because we don't associate the situation with any consequences. These seemingly benign environments, ironically, are when we need to be most vigilant. When we're not anticipating the environment, anything can happen.
I once thought it would be useful to introduce two of my clients to each other over dinner. I should have known better. I knew their political differences. Needless to say, it didn't go well! My big mistake was a failure to anticipate their behavior in the after-hours environment of dinner at a restaurant--when both men considered themselves off-duty, free to say anything, because it would have no business repercussions. I realize now that proper anticipation would have led to.
Peter Drucker famously said, "Half the leaders I have met don't need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop."
It's no different with our environment. Quite often our smartest response to an environment is avoiding it.
- If we're returning home late at night, we don't take a route through a sketchy high-crime neighborhood.
- If we've given up drinking, we don't hang out at a bar.
- If we're fair-skinned and burn easily in the sun, we skip the beach.
- If we detest our neighbor Todd, we politely turn down his invitations to visit.
We're generally shrewd about avoiding environments that present a physical or emotional risk or are otherwise unpleasant.
On the other hand, we rarely triumph over an environment that is enjoyable. We'd rather continue enjoying it than abandon or avoid it. Because of our delusional belief that we can control our environment, we choose to flirt with temptation rather than walk away. We are constantly testing ourselves against it. And dealing with the shock and distress when we fail.
It's a simple equation: To avoid undesirable behavior, avoid the environments where it is most likely to occur.
Of course, there are many moments in life when avoidance is impossible. We have to engage, even if doing so terrifies us (for example, public speaking), or enrages us (for example, visiting our in-laws), or turns us into jerks (for example, conducting business with people we don't respect).
Adjustment, if we're lucky, is the end product of forecasting--but only after we anticipate our environment's impact and eliminate avoidance as an option. Adjustment doesn't happen that often. Most of us continue our errant ways unchecked. We succeed despite, not because of, falling into the same behavioral traps again and again. Adjustment happens when we're desperate to change, or have an unexpected insight, or are shown the way by another person (such as a friend or coach).
It's not a Cloak & Dagger Operation!
So, the bad news is that the environment is a relentless triggering mechanism that, in an instant, can change us from saint to sinner, optimist to pessimist, model citizen to jerk--and make us lose sight of who we're trying to be.
The good news is that the environment is not conducting a cloak-and-dagger operation. It's out in the open, providing constant feedback to us. Though we're often too distracted to hear what the environment is telling us, in those moments when like the golfers, surfers, and sailors in my neighborhood, we're dialed in and paying attention, the seemingly covert triggers that shape our behavior become apparent and we can anticipate, avoid, and adjust as needed to make real changes in our lives.
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Please view the Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog. The next video in the series Triggers: Circular Creation accompanies this article. I'll post these blogs once a week for the next 50 weeks. The series will incorporate learnings from my 38 years of experience with top executives, as well as material from my previous research, articles and books, including What Got You Here Won't Get You There, MOJO, Coaching for Leadership, and Succession: Are You Ready? The blogs will also include material from my exciting new research on engagement and my upcoming book Triggers (to be published by Crown in 2015). Pre-order Triggers at TriggerstheBook.com!