Old habits die hard

I’ve met many people and companies who are fuelled by habit. And, like a goldfish trapped inside its own little bowl, they are incapable of seeing this for themselves. That is because their habits have disguised themselves so cunningly they are totally oblivious to its presence.

This is a natural human phenomenon (as David Attenborough would say). Our brains are programmed for survival, which means taking less risks and sticking to what we know. And so it’s the reassuring nature of habit that makes it so attractive, and sticky.

It’s power is in its stealth. It flies out of sight, under the radar, and slowly but surely nibbles away at anything and everything that swims against the tide. In this was habit becomes the enemy of difference, originality, creativity and curiosity. And nobody even knows its happening.

Not only do people not recognise habit, they congregate around and hide in it. Habit attracts followers, and the more followers the stronger the habit. There is, after all, great comfort in tracking the footsteps of those in front of you. That way you don’t have to worry where you’re going, or if you’re on the right track or not.

Also, the more followers the better, because habit give people what they crave most: safety in numbers. Like when you have a disagreement with a work colleague, and she (or he) says, “Well I’ve spoken to a few other members of the team, and they all agree with me”. Ah, you must therefore be right, and I must be wrong. Which also makes me the outsider, since I’m out of step with the majority view. Oh what a terrible feeling. Heck, I better get back in line.

I like to call such companies Country Club places. No one disagrees with anyone else in a substantive way. When asked for an opinion, they’ll check with the boss, swiftly agree, or hide through clichés. Questions are discouraged and giving answers is avoided. No-one contradicts a position already taken. People avoid conflict and accountability by not talking to each other. All because old habits rule supreme.

And then, just in case anyone as much as even thinks of stepping out of line, the Corporate Thought Police are always on hand to maintain law and order. They are the high priests of conventional wisdom and habit. They live to articulate what is and what shall be. Even though their knowledge is meant to fuel the activities of today and tomorrow, they got their knowledge in the past—yesterday. And yet, somehow, this ancient wisdom is way more deeply rooted and valid in the world of habit.

Nothing is more futile and depressing than being in a room with people who are fuelled by habit. People who have had their originality, creativity, and instinct beaten out of them. They look at you with the doleful eyes of an obedient dog.

If you ever find yourself in such a situation, I dare you to speak up, to speak out, and to throw caution to the wind. Sure, you may be mentally labelled by everyone else in the room as “the outsider”—rather be an outsider than a trapped goldfish I say.

Richard Sauerman
Richard Sauerman
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