No, not the fence!

A group of us had gone for a fun day out at the Milton Keynes Xscape. The plan was to spend the morning ski-ing on real snow in the Snowdome, the afternoon flying in the skydiving windtunnel, and then rounding off the evening with a curry and a couple of beers.  Perfect easy-access adrenaline!

One friend was a little wary of the morning session.  She hadn’t been on skis since having a couple of lessons about 15 years earlier, but reassured us, and herself, that it would all come back like riding a bike.  Alas, this turned out to be a case of optimism far exceeding ability.  She cheerfully rode the button-lift to the top, pointed her skis down the hill, and promptly lost all semblance of control.  As she rapidly picked up speed and flailed her way downwards, she noticed the orange fence to her left marking the edge of the slope.  Her eyes were drawn hypnotically to it, and as if of their own volition her skis started to turn irresistibly towards it.  With a cry of “No, not the fence!” she gave herself up to gravity and the inevitable, and crashed spectacularly into the nylon mesh.  Fortunately, it performed as designed, and she was unhurt, save for severely bruised pride as the staff untangled her and escorted her firmly off the piste.

Unwittingly, she had offered us a perfect demonstration of the phenomenon of Target Fixation.  This is something that, amongst others, pilots and motorcyclists are taught about.  I had learned of it during my parachute training.  If we allow ourselves to become fixated on obstacles we wish to avoid, we send unconscious signals to our body, and end up flying, driving, or in her case ski-ing, into the very object we are trying to miss.  To counter this, we are taught the mantra “look away, steer away” – your body will follow your eyes and mind, so you must look where you want to go, rather than where you want not to go.

I think there is a lesson here that goes well beyond skis, motorbikes, planes and parachutes.  In our working life, we very commonly map out our plans in terms of what we want to avoid – “I don’t want to upset my customers”, “I don’t want to expose us to too much financial risk”, “I don’t want to over-extend our resources”, “I don’t want to raise too many expectations”.  This is just another form of target fixation, and as we get hypnotised by the potential hazard that looms in our consciousness, we are drawn into over-caution, paralysis, and a seemingly paradoxical slide into the very thing we were trying so hard to avoid.

As with riding a motorcycle, the trick is looking where you want to go, not at what you wish to avoid.  Set positive goals – “I want to delight our customers”, “I want to manage our budgets”, “I want to invest our resources wisely”, “I want to make sure we can deliver what we promise” – and you will find it much easier to focus your efforts on achieving them.

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