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Crossing the Rubicon

December 4, 2011

I was on the London Underground sometime ago and was struck by the signs Mind The Gap. Of course, it’s part of a safety campaign to get people to pay attention when entering and exiting the train. However, as I was sat musing amongst the throng of morose passengers, upon closer inspection Mind the Gap struck me really more of a philosophy than just a simple tube safety sign.

Each of us is someplace in life, and we’re all probably trying to get somewhere else. The gap is the distance between those two. For Londoners, the Underground is so second nature that many of them don’t even think about the gap, minding it is almost automatic. For me, my instant thoughts were how do I close the gap between where I am and where I want to be? I found it really stimulating my thinking as I sat there waiting for my stop. Why would anyone ignore the gap? Make it happen, do what it takes!

In a life context, ignoring the gap comes with consequences like missed opportunities, unaccomplished goals and ignored dreams. In business terms, failure to Mind the Gap means lost client opportunities, missed innovation and sales shortfalls.  Perhaps I should simply read the newspaper rather than musing when on the tube!

Just over two thousand years ago, another ‘gap’ was crossed with dramatic results. The Rubicon is a small stream in Northern Italy that marked the boundary between Gaul and Ancient Rome. Any one crossing it was automatically committing an act of confrontation against the state, so when Julius Caesar, then a general, crossed the Rubicon on 10 January 49BC, he intentionally declared war on the Roman Senate. This is the origin of the phrase, Crossing the Rubicon, meaning to take an irrevocable step, beyond the point of no return. As he crossed, Caesar is quoted as saying Jacta alea est, (the die is cast) as he made the decisive move, a bold statement of his intent. There was no going back, he was audaciously locked into that ambitious course of action.

Enough of early Roman history you cry! Well, we all have a choice in how we run our lives and whether we want to cross our own Rubicon. The decision not to cross the Rubicon is why people look back on their lives and think if only. There is another famous Latin motto, Carpe Diem, seize the day, which applies here. Doesn’t it feel good to push yourself out beyond your comfort zone and try to achieve something new? Doesn’t it feel fantastic when you succeed? The question to ask yourself is this: Just how much of a Caesar am I prepared to be? How much of a don’t just sit there do something about it mindset do you have, and are energised and motivated for action?

Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal’s landmark research revealed that only 10% of us work purposefully to get a Bias for Action and purposely get things done, whilst the other 90% dawdle (a word from my vocabulary, don’t think you’d find this in an academic research paper!) procrastinate and spin the wheels, inertia over action. From this, they identified four types of attitudes and behaviours:

  • Frenzied – 40% of us juggle tasks in a highly energetic but unfocused manner
  • Procrastinators – 30% of us work on the correct tasks but lack energy and focus
  • Detached – 20% of us are disengaged altogether
  • Purposeful – 10% of us get the job done

Apparently, what is missing is simply willpower to apply consistent and energetic behaviour with a focus on getting things done – action must be focused on achievement rather than on just producing activity – are we busy doing the right things, aimed at meeting our goals?  Discipline, Clarity and Focus – one of dna people’s core philosophies, resonates here.

Your Rubicon is something that will make you feel stretched, and yet their research showed that often people are negative about trying to cross their Rubicon. To overcome this negativity, you need the ability to visualise success and the courage to commit. Of course, Caesar’s actions in crossing the Rubicon were deliberately confrontational. For us, this is akin to taking clear and decisive action to move our business forward by introducing some new ideas, or confronting those barriers holding us back – something we’ve always wanted to do, but never done.

Time and again we make big plans but don’t follow through. Heinz Heckhausen and Peter Gollwitzer have undertaken extensive studies into this, and the two German psychologists have developed the so-called Rubicon model of motivation to identify the traits of people who achieve outstanding success in several walks of life and what stands them apart – take a look at their at their study, what can you take from it for yourself?

This links to the concept of mindsets, a simple idea developed by the psychologist Carol Dweck in her research on achievement and success. She expresses the concept of the growth mindset – where people believe their talent and abilities can be developed through commitment and hard work and aiming for targets and goals. Brains and talent are just the starting point, it’s all about focus, an appetite for learning and resilience to achieve those Big Hairy Audacious Goals. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

A fascinating recent study by Dominic Johnson & Dominic Tierney (you can tell I’ve had some time on my hands to read recently) prescribes The Rubicon Theory of War. When people believe they have crossed a psychological Rubicon and perceive war to be imminent, they switch from what psychologists call a deliberative to an implemental mindset, triggering a number of psychological biases.

So there’s some interesting and easy to access academic stuff, which enables us to understand better those people who are focused on raising the bar to unbelievable heights of personal-best achievement and conquering  their own Rubicon. The common traits are focus on goals, and being action oriented. Ask yourself how clear your goals are, and what you’re doing to make it happen.

So, how to capture this in a simple take-away from a blog? Moses had his very own ten commandments, I’ve got three thoughts and seven suggestions (but more of those another time, they’re work-in-progress).

Three Thoughts:

  • Inner-Vation: Choose your attitude. Breakthrough self-imposed mental barriers, build a dragon-slayers’ mentality. Ask yourself why can’t I do this, and lean forward, don’t lean back – today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost. Life’s too short to go unnoticed, so do something that makes a difference.
  • Ignition: Get the right mindset. Get started. Do stuff that has an immediate impact – we can’t do everything at once, but we can do something at once. Play for unreasonable short-term wins, and no matter how you perceive yourself, get stuck in – a barking dog is more useful than a sleeping lion.
  • Implementation: Engage and focus your willpower. Think Execution – literally! Actions speak louder than words, as the Chinese proverb says talk doesn’t cook rice. Life rewards people who take action – 20% thinking, 80% doing should be your attitude to getting stuff done and following a plan.

Well, all that from a bit of Roman history. History often signposts us to other ideas we can bring to our current everyday thinking. For example, take Edmund Blackadder’s statement Baldrick I have a very, very very cunning plan – to which Baldrick replies Is it as cunning as the fox that used to be Professor of Cunning at Oxford University but has moved on and is now working for the UN at the High Commission of International Cunning Planning? Yes replied Blackadder.

Keep an eye out for my next blog, The Seven Cunning Habits of Highly Effective People, a historical allegory to shape your cunningness, but more in the style of Baldrick, than Covey.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Rae Ellingham permalink
    December 5, 2011 8:56 am

    Enjoy your blogs Ian, keep them coming and pleased to hear you are well.

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