There's an old axiom, perhaps lesser heard these days, but arguably now more important than ever: "don't rest on your laurels." It originates from ancient Greece, where victors in hard fought competitions were crowned with a wreath made of laurel leaves. Resting on them however (an expression that first appeared in writing in 1831), was meant as a warning - victory or success in any form isn't a reason to stop striving, to reconsider, or to contemplate better. Indeed, it's a real danger if you do stop. Trouble is, we do it all the time.

How Breakthroughs Happen Is Easy To Forget

Working at something grand - think progress, creativity, or creating new value - takes effort, and lots of it. We may live in a world where the marketing pitch promises the quick and easy, but anyone who's ever achieved anything of substance let alone something breakthrough knows better. And yet, even those who achieve at the highest level, have to keep reminding themselves that a true breakthrough is a cumulative thing, and part of the never-ending story of what it means to advance. Their insights are good reminders for all of us.

"The praise that can come from a great idea realized," visual artist and MacArthur Fellow Gary Hill told me, "can cause you to ignore that new ideas are rising even as the current ones feel like they have just begun to bear fruit." That's the thing about creativity and breakthrough ideas - they aren't stationary things. They're not of a single moment either. Creativity isn't some tool or trick you pull out only when you're in trouble. It's a mindset you cultivate every day, in every thought. And the truth is that, taken alone, many if not most of those daily thoughts are pretty pedestrian. They become something of value, something breakthrough, as they layer upon one another, morph and even replace each other, on and on, ad infinitum. When we think otherwise, there's a dangerous ripple effect. We stop asking questions, and simply advocate for the answers we already have. We build borders around what we know and what we do, rather than exploring the possible beyond what we currently know. And eventually, we simply fail to breakthrough. As Hill points out, this lackadaisical dynamic is one even the presumed geniuses among us can easily forget.

Of Two Minds

It's a fact: We humans like a good finish. The Greeks knew it to be true. We like the victory lap, the crowning achievement, and the many other things that say the hard work is over, and that we've risen above 'what was' to something 'better still' one more time. Just as much, we like the idea that all that good stuff hard earned will last forever and continue on as is. Here are your reality checks.

First of all, it's just not true. Any big idea, any solution, and advancement, is a result of calculating the variables that exist in any one time to render a good result. But inevitably, those variables are just that - of that single moment in time when they were computed into something great. Variables vary. So too then must the outcomes and our thinking. The fundamental fact we can't get around, no matter how good our ideas are right now, is that things are going to change - these days, ever more rapidly and dramatically, and we'll have to morph the status quo once more.

There's another fact that goes hand in hand with this truth of perpetual change, and that's the reality that something inside each of us likes the idea of change and a move towards better still, even wants to actively court it. "Even though we create the status quo," says environmental geographer and MacArthur Fellow Ruth DeFries, "staying in it runs counter to our DNA."

What To Do: Find The Power In The Pause

Pursuit and achievement are the twin pillars of our reality. It's never just one or the other. They ought to be equal partners in our daily mindset as well. Getting there is easier than you think. But you have to pause to see how. Literally.

"We need to be interrupted and not just carried along with the flow," said Fellow and conservation biologist with the Field Museum, Steve Goodman. "We need to be jostled out of the immediate. We need to create space." What he's talking about is what I call taking 'a deliberate pause.' Sure, you could wait for spontaneous and unexpected moments that cause you to be jostled out of the immediate to come on their own. But by deliberately choosing to pause, and doing so as a matter of habit, you actually raise your odds of seeing the unexpected, both good and bad, sooner, giving you more time to adjust, to create, and to seize the opportunity. This is what the most innovative people and organizations on the planet and across sectors do, each in their own way. That ought to be motivation enough to consider making it your habit. But it's also true that to do otherwise is to, well, rest on your laurels, as the saying goes. It might be worse yet - Goodman suggests that "Failing to (pause and recalculate) is growing into a new and radical problem we grossly underestimate." Now that's something to pause and think about...

Published on: Nov 21, 2019
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