In 1996 a disaster of historic proportions happened at the peak of Mount Everest. In the entire climbing season of 1996, fifteen climbers died. Eight of those deaths took place on a single day. Journalist and mountain climber Jon Krakauer captured this story in his breathtaking book Into Thin Air. Krakauer didn’t just uncover the story after the fact, he was on the mountain that day.
You would think that by now Everest would have become such a commercial expedition that anyone with sufficient money and a little climbing ability could make it to the summit and back. While that’s largely true, it’s not that unusual to hear of people dying. The 1996 disaster was different. Aside from the number of people dying on the same day, it was inexplicable.
The weather on the summit can kill you in the blink of an eye. Weather changes everything. Only the weather on this day was no different than usual. No sudden avalanches pushed a group towards death. No freak snowstorms blew them away. No, their failure was entirely human.
Into Thin Air puts part of the blame on the stubbornness of Anatoli Boukreev, a Kazakhstani climbing guide. While there is some evidence to support this claim, most climbers are, by definition, stubborn and arrogant. Despite this, disasters of this magnitude are rare. There was something more at play.
We’ll never know for sure what happened, but it looks like an example of mass irrationality.
Only 720 feet from the summit, in an event that has since become known as ‘the traffic jam,’ teams from New Zealand, the United States, and Taiwan, representing 34 climbers in total, were all attempting to summit that day. Their departure point was Camp 4, at 26,000 feet. The summit was 29,000 feet. Those 3,000 feet are quite possibly one of the most dangerous spots on the planet. As such, preparation is key. The Americans and New Zealanders co-ordinated their efforts. The last thing you want is people walking on each other, impeding a smooth progression up and if you’re fortunate, down the mountain. The Taiwanese climbers, however, were not supposed to climb that day. Either reneging or misunderstanding, they proceeded on the same day.
Now the advance team also made a mistake, perhaps from confusion about the number of climbers. They failed to secure safety ropes at Hillary Step. This wouldn’t have been such a big deal if there were not 34 climbers trying to reach the summit at the same time. As a result of the ropes not being laid, progression was choppy and bottlenecked.
The most important thing to keep in mind in any attempt at Everest is time. Climbers have limited oxygen. Weather can change in a heartbeat, and you don’t want to be on the summit at night. If you leave Camp 4 at midnight and things go your way, you might be able to reach the summit 12 hours later. But, importantly, you also have a turnaround time, which depends on weather and oxygen levels.
This is the time that no matter where you are, you’re supposed to turn around and come home. If you’re 200 feet from the summit and it hits your turnaround time, you have a very important choice to make. You can attempt to climb the last 200 feet, or you can turn around. If you don’t turn around you, increase the odds running out of oxygen and descending in some of Everest’s most dangerous weather.
In this case, the teams encountered a traffic jam at Hilary pass that slowed progression. They disregarded their turnaround time which had just passed. American Ed Viesturs, watching from a telescope at Camp 4, was in disbelief. ‘They’ve already been climbing for hours, and they still aren’t on the summit,’ he said to himself, with rising alarm. ‘Why haven’t they turned around?’
On that day and with those oxygen supplies the last safe turnaround time was two o’clock. Members, however, continued on reaching the summit upwards of two hours past this time. Doug Hansen, a postal service worker from the New Zealand group, was the last to the summit. It was just after four. While he made it to the top, the odds were against him ever coming back.
Like seven others, he died on the descent. Descents are normally difficult and prone to mistakes: you’re tired, oxygen is low, and you drop your guard. In this case, the weather added another variable. A blizzard had come in quickly. Going down was nearly impossible. Rescue workers saved as many people as they could but the -40 temperatures, blizzard, and darkness combined to make the elements too strong.
The death toll on Everest in 1996 was the highest recorded in history. And we still don’t clearly understand why. Chris Kayes, a former stockbroker turned expert on organizational behavior, has an idea though.
Kayes suspected the Everest climbers had been ‘lured into destruction by their passion for goals.’ They were too fixated on achieving their goal of successfully summiting the mountain. The closer they got to their goal, he reasons, the harder it would be to turn around. This isn’t just an external goal. It’s an internal one. The more we see ourselves as accomplished climbers or guides, the harder it is to turn around.
“In theology,” writes Oliver Burkeman in, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, where a version of this Everest story appears, “the term ‘theodicy’ refers to the effort to maintain belief in a benevolent god, despite the prevalence of evil in the world; the phrase is occasionally used to describe the effort to maintain any belief in the face of contradictory evidence.”
Borrowing from that, Chris Kayes termed goalodicy. He also wrote a book on it called Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mount Everest Disaster.
In the corporate world, we’re often focused on achieving our goals at all costs. This eventually reaches the status of dogma.
This insight is the core of an important chapter in Burkeman’s book, The Antidote:
[W]hat motivates our investment in goals and planning for the future, much of the time, isn’t any sober recognition of the virtues of preparation and looking ahead. Rather, it’s something much more emotional: how deeply uncomfortable we are made by feelings of uncertainty. Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future – not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present. ‘Uncertainty prompts us to idealise the future,’ Kayes told me. ‘We tell ourselves that everything will be OK, just as long as I can reach this projection of the future.’
We fear the feeling of uncertainty to an extraordinary degree – the psychologist Dorothy Rowe argues that we fear it more than death itself – and we will go to extraordinary lengths, even fatal ones, to get rid of it.
There is an alternative, of course. Burkeman argues that “we could learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty, and to exploit the potential hidden within it, both to feel better in the present and to achieve more success in the future.” (In fact, this is the strategy Henry Singleton, one of the most successful businessmen ever, pursued.)
Burkeman argues that a lot of our major life decisions are made with the goal of minimizing the “present-moment emotional discomfort.” Try this “potentially mortifying” exercise in self-examination:
Consider any significant decision you’ve ever taken that you subsequently came to regret: a relationship you entered despite being dimly aware that it wasn’t for you, or a job you accepted even though, looking back, it’s clear that it was mismatched to your interests or abilities. If it felt like a difficult decision at the time , then it’s likely that, prior to taking it, you felt the gut-knotting ache of uncertainty ; afterwards, having made a decision, did those feelings subside? If so, this points to the troubling possibility that your primary motivation in taking the decision wasn’t any rational consideration of its rightness for you, but simply the urgent need to get rid of your feelings of uncertainty.
Goals Gone Wild
The goalsetting that worked so well in (Gary) Latham and (Edwin) Locke’s studies, … had various nasty side effects in their own experiments. For example: clearly defined goals seemed to motivate people to cheat. In one such study, participants were given the task of making words from a set of random letters, as in Scrabble; the experiment gave them opportunities to report their progress anonymously. Those given a target to reach lied far more frequently than did those instructed merely to ‘do your best’. More important, though, (Lisa) Ordóñez and her fellow heretics argued, goalsetting worked vastly less well outside the psychology lab settings in which such studies took place. In real life, an obsession with goals seemed far more often to land people and organisations in trouble.
The General Motors Example
One illuminating example of the problem concerns the American automobile behemoth General Motors. The turn of the millennium found GM in a serious predicament, losing customers and profits to more nimble, primarily Japanese, competitors. Following Latham and Locke’s philosophy to the letter, executives at GM’s headquarters in Detroit came up with a goal, crystallised in a number: twenty-nine. Twenty-nine, the company announced amid much media fanfare, was the percentage of the American car market that it would recapture, reasserting its old dominance. Twenty-nine was also the number displayed upon small gold lapel pins, worn by senior figures at GM to demonstrate their commitment to the plan. At corporate gatherings, and in internal GM documents, twenty-nine was the target drummed into everyone from salespeople to engineers to public-relations officers.
Yet the plan not only failed to work – it made things worse. Obsessed with winning back market share, GM spent its dwindling finances on money-off schemes and clever advertising, trying to lure drivers into purchasing its unpopular cars, rather than investing in the more speculative and open-ended – and thus more uncertain – research that might have resulted in more innovative and more popular vehicles.
When we reach our goals but fail to achieve the intended results we usually chalk this up to having the wrong goals. While it’s true that some goals are better than others, how could it be otherwise? But the “more profound hazard here affects virtually any form of future planning.”
Formulating a vision of the future requires, by definition, that you isolate some aspect or aspects of your life, or your organisation, or your society, and focus on those at the expense of others. But problems arise thanks to the law of unintended consequences, sometimes expressed using the phrase ‘you can never change only one thing’. In any even slightly complex system, it’s extremely hard to predict how altering one variable will affect the others. ‘When we try to pick out any thing by itself,’ the naturalist and philosopher John Muir observed, ‘we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’
Turning Towards Uncertainty
What would it look like to embrace uncertainty?
For this Burkeman turns to Saras Sarasvathy, who interviewed forty-five “successful” entrepreneurs. Saravathy’s findings are surprising. She found a disconnect between our thoughts on entrepreneurs as successfully pursuing a goal-oriented approach and reality.
We tend to imagine that the special skill of an entrepreneur lies in having a powerfully original idea and then fighting to turn that vision into reality. But the outlook of (Saras) Sarasvathy’s interviewees rarely bore this out. Their precise endpoint was often mysterious to them, and their means of proceeding reflected this. Overwhelmingly, they scoffed at the goals-first doctrine of Locke and Latham. Almost none of them suggested creating a detailed business plan or doing comprehensive market research to hone the details of the product they were aiming to release.
The most valuable skill of a successful entrepreneur, “isn’t vision or passion or a steadfast insistence on destroying every barrier between yourself and some prize.”
Rather, it’s the ability to adopt an unconventional approach to learning: an improvisational flexibility not merely about which route to take towards some predetermined objective, but also a willingness to change the destination itself. This is a flexibility that might be squelched by rigid focus on any one goal.
Underpinning Sarasvathy’s “anti-goal” approach is a set of principles she calls ‘effectuation.’
‘Causally minded’ people, to use Sarasvathy’s terminology, are those who select or are given a specific goal, and then choose from whatever means are available to make a plan for achieving it. Effectually minded people, on the other hand, examine what means and materials are at their disposal, then imagine what possible ends or provisional next directions those means might make possible. The effectualists include the cook who scours the fridge for leftover ingredients; the chemist who figured out that the insufficiently sticky glue he had developed could be used to create the Post-it note; or the unhappy lawyer who realises that her spare-time photography hobby, for which she already possesses the skills and the equipment, could be turned into a job. One foundation of effectuation is the “bird in hand” principle: “Start with your means. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity. Start taking action, based on what you have readily available: what you are, what you know and who you know.” A second is the “principle of affordable loss”: Don’t be guided by thoughts of how wonderful the rewards might be if you were spectacularly successful at any given next step. Instead — and there are distinct echoes, here, of the Stoic focus on the worst-case scenario — ask how big the loss would be if you failed. So long as it would be tolerable, that’s all you need to know. Take that next step, and see what happens.
‘See what happens’, indeed, might be the motto of this entire approach to working and living, and it is a hard-headed message, not a woolly one. ‘The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning,’ argued the social psychologist Erich Fromm. ‘Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.’ Uncertainty is where things happen. It is where the opportunities – for success, for happiness, for really living – are waiting.
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is a counter-balance to our modern belief that happiness is only a click away.
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