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Nov 5, 2012

A funny thing happened on the way to the book review (Part 2)

There has to be a better way to spread some great ideas we overlook

By Dave Crisp

The two books recommended in the last post (The Power of Habit and Rip It Up) make great sense and point us toward methods for cutting through to better results faster with less stress and struggle. But they aren’t really about new ideas. So why do we need a continuing stream of such works when the concepts are pretty straightforward and could be applied by any individual or organization?

Reading these two books made me step back and re-read one that made a vast difference in my life at 17 and after: Psycho-Cybernetics by Matthew Maltz, often thought of as one of the earliest forerunners of today’s flood of self-help. It remains different from other early works that might fit in the genre. Many of those focused more on selling or getting rich — Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, leading toward the now-famous Canadian Brian Tracy who’s created his very own flood of similar books all repeating much the same advice that would help with any habit you need to build. Essentially they all call for "positive thinking" — visualizing as clearly as possible what you want, then working steadily to turn the visions into dependable behaviors you need to achieve those things.

Echoing in the back of my mind are all the psych studies showing that, of the The Big Five personality traits that psychologists now seem to agree are fundamental, the one most likely to ensure success at work is "conscientiousness," which I translate as “habits.”

To the extent you turn behavior into habit, to that same extent you can depend on it to repeat consistently and conscientiously in every situation. This was even echoed by a former British submarine officer who taught public speaking — saying that what they looked for in Navy officers above all else was consistency. In his view, the worst officers were simply those whose sailors couldn’t depend from minute to minute on being treated the same way. They didn’t command by habit.

One book title led to another on Amazon and Google, and they all point at the same principles. On any book’s page you can see a list that Amazon finds people often “buy with” the one you’re looking at — typically a list of 15 pages of items, seven to a page, making at least 105 similar works that self-help fiends habitually look to as the next purchase. These represent even older, as well as much newer, books of the type, so you can be sure the list could go a great deal longer than 100 titles. When I happened to read a biography of an early essayist that I’d also read in my teens, Montaigne, it reminded me he also built much of his advice on the principle of habits — writing around the year 1570.

So there is just one question: Why are we still not teaching this stuff in formal classes in every sort of program in the land?

We continue to put leaders in place to whom these concepts are apparently unknown and we continue to raise generations who have to find them out in the most whacky forms by stumbling across nutty fads or casual reading instead of more scientifically justified and clearly scientifically explained principles. Since effective business seems to be our only serious potential salvation, since it alone could make war, starvation and poverty unnecessary, why aren’t the key principles that make us effective at it universally taught in a business-like way.

Duhigg manages something closer to that than most, but still at times sounds in realm of trying to convince us to try ‘new’ or dubious ideas.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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