Learning how to do hard things well requires building your muscle for making difficult choices, understanding the structures that contribute to your advancement and eliminating competing goals. Structural tension can help you discover how to create advancing patterns and to sustain advancement. This concept is applicable whether you’re building a business or building a life. You must create enough tension between where you are and where you want to be to generate enough energy to propel you in the desired direction. With each step, you will need understand the “structures” required to sustain your advancement along the way. Here’s more on structural tension and how to advance well:
Structural Tension is the relationship between a vision and current reality. The discrepancy between your current and desired state creates “tension” which Robert Fritz defines as a dynamic force which seeks to restore equilibrium. Also, this tension is what determines the path of least resistance (think of the tension that results in pulling two ends of a rubber band in opposite directions).
Structures can refer to physical structures such as architecture or abstract structures such as organizations. In this example, we are defining structure as the arrangement of interrelated elements in a material object or system. Structures have two behaviors:
- Oscillation – A repeating pattern of advancing toward, then retreating from a goal. It’s often described as taking “one step forward and several steps back.”
- Advancing – A pattern of taking sustainable steps toward a goal. Each step building on the other until the destination is reached.
Waterfall Climbing or Choosing a Path
During a trip to Costa Rica, I had an opportunity to explore one of its rainforest. This experience was offered through an adventure package for tourists, which included a rain forest and waterfall adventure with a tour guide. The only requirements were regarding wearing comfortable, waterproof shoes and having the fitness capacity to walk for at least an hour. Cool. It was a rainy day already, so we were fortunate in that we were able to tour the rainforest with our own private guide, as opposed to touring with another group. The first part of the journey began with a downhill hike through the rain forest using trails and bridges overlooking multiple waterfalls and natural pools. Along the way, we learned a lot about the ecosystem: the neighboring communities, plants, animals, rivers and falls.
Upon reaching the halfway point, which is a natural pool at the foot of the waterfalls, we are asked to make a choice:
- Return to the basecamp by traveling uphill via the trails and bridges that led us there OR
- Hike up the waterfalls, back to the basecamp
The catch: Our guide informed us that once we’d made a decision, there is no turning back. Essentially, you must decide if you’re going UP because once you start climbing, the journey backward is much harder. The first choice offers the path of least resistance; we’d already traveled that route, so we knew what we were getting into, but we also wouldn’t learn or see anything new on the way back. The second choice offers more “learning” and while it was the shortest route back (in distance, not time), it was surely the most challenging. On that day, our goal was to maximize adventure and learning, so we (cautiously) opted for option #2 (in spite of my horrific thoughts regarding snakes and creatures in the water and my fear of not being physically strong enough to endure the climb).
For all ventures and adventures, to reach new heights, you must commit to the journey, to raising the stakes and to pushing beyond your perceived limits. Along the way, we learned how to advance properly, sometimes this involved using vines, branches and rocks to move forward, stretching in uncomfortable ways , holding hands :), crawling etc. Also, while the path was difficult, we discovered how to rest on the rocks and in the pools below the falls. Ultimately, we learned a lot more about the environment while celebrating along the way and expanding our capacity to do hard(er) things.
How to Advance
- Commit to a destination – Destination determines direction. Sustaining clarity is easier when the stakes are high enough and with simple goals and a firm commitment to not turning back. Committing to a path helps you to avoid a scenario where you’re moving, but not advancing.
- Take a Reality Check of your Current State – This is where you pause to determine, based on your current state, what is your next best step forward. Failing to properly survey your current state will result in oscillation, a repeating pattern of failed attempts to sustain advancement.
- Build your Capacity (Structures) to Advance – This will determine if you can run, walk or crawl forward. If the next step is difficult, plan to take a smaller step forward. Or consider crawling. Also, consider that you may need to ask for help with taking the next step.
- Take a step. Travel lighter. To improve your chances for sustainable advancement, avoid introducing competing goals while you’re advancing. For any goal worth achieving, avoid creating barriers to advancement by introducing distractions, competing priorities, or any baggage that will make it more difficult to proceed forward. When the stakes are high enough, this step is easy. (Goal: Reach the top. Don’t die).
- Rest Briefly. After each successful step, pause to enjoy the view and to celebrate advancing.
- Then Repeat 1-5 until you’ve reach your destination.
Doing the Hard Things
The failure to accomplish “hard” goals is often due to lack of commitment, a failure to prioritize actions or an inability to abort your prescribed ways of doing things. If the old, worn path provides little advancement, limited learning or advancement that is not sustainable, create a new path of least resistance. Also, remember that crawling is still considered advancing.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” ~John F. Kennedy, Rice University, Sept. 12, 1962