This website covers knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

Triggers: Or wearing the world like a loose garment

Marshall Goldsmith's Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts - Becoming the Person You Want to Be is a great, quick read. It has a lot of nice connections to other materials I've read about how people behave and think over the past few years. I'm sure it was recommended by other readers of similar materials.

The approach of this book is to show the reader how to think about their own behaviors: what triggers it and how to change it. He is particularly interested in meaningful behavior change: how we behave with one another, although plenty of other examples are used as well (i.e. weight loss). These are the behaviors that people have the greatest difficulty in changing - and in some cases don't realize (or don't admit) are affecting the people around them. This is the stuff that isn't "easy" - if it were, the book wouldn't be necessary, along with the entire self-help industry.

Triggers, in Goldsmith's conception, are those things that fire off a response, a behavior - good and bad. In the context of this book, behaviors are triggered by the world around us: people, places, things. And the world around us doesn't always operate "for us" it just operates, and it is our responsibility to respond differently. Behavior change is all about responding differently to those inconsistent / variable / troubling triggers around us. That is the goal of the book - provide  techniques to deal with the world. 

Wear the world as a loose garment, which touches us in a few places and there lightly.
— St. Francis of Assisi

The thought I have after a few days of cogitating on the book is the classic quote from St. Francis of Assisi. Goldsmith strongly emphasizes the idea that our environment (people, places, things) have a strong influence on how we respond - the environment presents a strong trigger to behavior that is largely out of our control. Improving or changing my behavior is strongly dependent upon awareness of these triggers. And that is where this St. Francis quote comes to me. I can't control the outside world (though I can control where I go), but I can control my response to it. "Wearing the world like a loose garment" means that every ebb and flow around me does not require a response - it doesn't have to trigger me the way it did in the past. Of course, no one is perfect either. Let that go too.

A large part of creating lasting behavior change is having awareness of how I operate and how I am triggered. Goldsmith talks about this in the early part of the book, where he describes the types of triggers and how they work. I think this is where a lot of the "loose garment" connection has come to me. Not only are triggers linked to the environment (though Goldsmith emphasizes that a good portion comes in this way), but they are also connected to the things I believe about myself that don't always bear out. I heard a lot of the ideas from Leadership and Self-Deception in the explanations of triggers - particularly the internal justifications I make to myself. One of those beliefs is that if I set a plan, surely it will come to fruition - particularly if it is a plan for myself. But how often does that really work? Do I successfully complete everything on my checklist? Do I go for that bike ride or not eat that chocolate that I promised at the beginning of the day?  

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
— Reinhold Niebuhr

Goldsmith describes his "wheel of change" that describes the options people have when thinking about change.  Usually, I picture this as change / don't change, but he includes more in the wheel - to give a feel that there is more of a continuum: Create (new ways of operating), Preserve (keep, or improve what is there), Eliminate (stop doing), and Accept (can't change right now, but at least stop fighting it).  It feels like the Serenity Prayer fits here. Goldsmith talks about acceptance being amongst the hardest of these because it doesn't feel like action. But I think this is one of those things that connects to a Drucker quote that he references elsewhere, "Half the leaders I have met don't need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop."

How to think about acceptance in a new way? Goldsmith dedicated a chapter to the phrase, "Am I willing, at this time, to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?" He abbreviates it as AIWATT ("ay-what") - and it is a great reminder that there are things I could change, but don't have the time/energy/willingness to make the change. And if I don't, say so, and move on. Accept it.

The later parts of the book provide a number of technique and structures on how to slow down the trigger-response framework, so that I can have a better chance to chose the response I want. Even if that is a few microseconds of cushion.

One of the big elements Goldsmith brings is what he calls active or engaging questions. Rather than asking yourself (or having a coach ask) yes/no or other passive questions, as questions about the effort you are making to change? Instead of "How happy were you today?" change it to "Did you do your best to be happy?" Instead of thinking "what can I get out of the situation?" think "what can I bring to this sitaution?" The claim Goldsmith makes is that the passive questions make it easy to blame the environment - I wasn't happy because XYZ. Or I didn't practice what I learned because of ABC. The environment is the environment, active questions ask what I've done regardless of the environment. 

Along with active questions, Goldsmith reinforces the value of having a coach or someone else with whom I can be responsible and follow-up. In his work with advisees, he sets up a regular time to follow-up with these people to ask them relevant active questions. Did they do their best to make the change they want to make? This really sounded a bell for me. It's so easy to assume that once I've read a book or sat through a "training" session that I can figure it out and start operating in a new way. Of course, that doesn't work - I need ongoing reinforcement and opportunities to check in. This is exactly what coaches and advisors do. 

Having a coach, setting up regular time to meet or check-in with that coach, using active questions, these are examples of creating structure to help make the change we are trying to make. The structure creates an environment to enable change. This can range from having a well-designed meeting agenda, to asking myself those active questions, to having reminders placed where I might need them most. I enjoyed the example of the executive who kept an index card in front of himself during meetings to remind him of the behaviors he wanted to demonstrate.

Some other quotes and thoughts from the book:

  • Amongst the belief triggers that Goldsmith describes (chapter 2) is that "I shouldn't need help and structure" which is exactly opposite to what he discusses in the book.  But I found this comment interesting: "This is a natural response that combines three competing impulses: 1) our contempt for simplicity (only complexity is worthy of our attention) 2) our contempt for instruction and follow-up; and 3) our faith, however unfounded, that we can succeed all by ourselves." As he says, this belief is the opposite of humility. 
  • "To avoid undesirable behavior, avoid the environments where it is most likely to occur." (chapter 7) Again the idea of changing people, places, things where possible.  And when it isn't possible, set up structures to deal with the environment in new ways. Give yourself an escape hatch. Goldsmith calls this "adjust" - be aware of yourself to know that the environment WILL throw curveballs, and be ready to adjust to what is there.
  • The Parable of the Empty Boat I hadn't heard before, but it connects to the Loose Garment as well. Whatever happens around me does not have to trigger a negative response. I am the one responsible for the reaction - not the thing that triggered it. My favorite version of this is to laugh at strange driving (tailgating, frequent lane-changing) and think that they must be in a hurry to get to a bathroom. 
  • "When we offer our help, we are nuding people to admit they need help." (chapter 15) And conversely when we don't offer help, people are less inclined to ask for it. This is a hard lesson to learn - each of us like to think we know what we are doing, but there are always things we can learn too. I learn this one often.
  • "Better than nothing is not even close to good enough - and good enough, after we make a promise, is never good enough." (chapter 19) Ouch. I think this was saying that we need to make our best effort, not a half-baked one. And it reminds of yet another parable - which child is better, the one who declines to help and then does so anyway, or the one who promised to help but does not (or does it half-baked)?

TOC in software

Wirearchy - from John Husband