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Book Excerpt: Happiness at Work


Stop using the labels "good thing" and "bad thing," advises Srikumar Rao in his new book, Happiness at Work. The point is, you never really know how anything will turn out

There is something you do that hurts you a great deal, and you don't even realize you do it. If someone points it out to you, your tendency is to deny it. Even if you acknowledge it, you don't feel particularly troubled. It seems innocuous.

Everyone does it. In fact, doing it is embedded into our culture. What is it that is so common and so deleterious? It is your habit of making instantaneous judgments about everything and then sticking a label on whatever happens. In particular, I am talking about the labels "good thing" and "bad thing."

Observe yourself as you go through a typical day. Stuff happens to you. As it does, you immediately judge it and label it. Dozens of times. Hundreds of times. So often that you no longer recognize that you're doing it. It is a deep-seated habit. Consider these fairly typical situations:

You go to the coffee machine, and only the dregs of the previous pot are left.

If you want fresh coffee, you have to clean the pot and brew it. ("bad thing")

Your assistant calls. Her son is ill, and she has to take him to the doctor. She expects to be in but can't say when.("bad thing")

There's an unexpected crisis in Asia, and your boss has to leave immediately to sort it out. Your meeting with him, which took two months to set up, is canceled. ("bad thing")

The canceled meeting means the report you're working on doesn't really have to be completed by the end of the week. ("good thing")

You get a voice mail from your biggest customer. She wants you to call her back immediately. What could she want? ("probable bad thing")

Your hard drive crashes, erasing the document you were working on. ("bad thing")

The tech guys say that the crash is pretty complete, and they can't recover the files for you. It costs several hundred dollars to send it out to a forensic PC specialist who may or may not be able to help. ("bad thing")

The PC specialist can recover about half the files on your hard drive. The ones you really need are in this set. ("good thing")

Your new PC is set up so that all your files are automatically backed up every night. The most you can lose in the future is one day's work. ("good thing")

You learn that your company's CEO called to set up an extended meeting with your colleague. You haven't heard from him, even though you've left a message. One of the two of you will be promoted. ("very bad thing")

You receive a six-figure bonus. ("very good thing")

Your teammate, the one you dislike, gets a seven-figure bonus. ("very bad thing" that makes your own bonus slide down from "very good thing" to "OK thing")

You get a call from your spouse. Your in-laws are coming for dinner on Friday and may stay the weekend. ("badthing, very bad thing, super bad thing")

Your daughter's SAT scores came in; she got 2390. ("good thing")

If she hadn't flubbed that simple math question, she would have had a perfect score. ("bad thing")

Your doctor calls. Nothing to be alarmed about, but he would like to rerun some tests. What does he mean, nothing to be alarmed about? What tests? Why does he want to do them over? ("very bad thing")

And so it goes on, minute by minute, day after day. Most people use the "bad thing" label three to ten times more often than they use the "good thing" label.

Each time you use the "bad thing" label, no matter how fleetingly, you're adding a tiny bit of stress to your life. You may think that's trivial. It isn't. You may even claim that it has no effect on you. You're wrong. Cumulatively, it has a huge impact on you.

When you label so much of what happens to you as "bad," it reinforces the feeling that you are a powerless pawn at the mercy of outside forces over which you have no control.

And—this is key—labeling something a bad thing almost guarantees that you'll experience it as such.

If you look back on your life, you'll find many instances where something you labeled a bad thing turned out to be not so bad after all and perhaps even a good thing. Such as the time you called everyone over for a football party and your TV blew, so you played charades instead, and everyone had a complete blast.

Here is a perfect example of how difficult it is to know immediately whether something is good or bad.

He was a good swimmer, a very good swimmer, and was training to compete in an important meet. He slipped on a patch of ice and broke his wrist. For weeks and weeks his coach kept him on the sidelines kicking, while his teammates practiced furiously. Initially, he was devastated and felt that his career was over. Then he simply buckled down to doing what his coach told him to do.

At the meet, in one of the crucial events, his opponent swam the race of his life. He was quite behind at the halfway mark and should have lost. But the weeks of kicking had given him muscles he'd never had before. He kicked even harder and touched the finish wall a whisker before his inspired opponent.

The swimmer was Michael Phelps.

From Happiness at Work by Srikumar Rao, reprinted with permission from McGraw-Hill. Copyright 2010.

Srikumar S. Rao received his Ph.D. in Marketing from the Graduate School of Business, Columbia University and his M.B.A. from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He conceived the pioneering course, Creativity and Personal Mastery, the only business school course that has its own alumni association, and taught it at various institutions including Columbia Business School, London Business School, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley and Long Island University. His talks are hosted on many sites including www.TED.com. Read more about Dr. Rao at http://www.srikumarsrao.com and follow him on Twitter @srikumarsrao.

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