Finding a Unifying Theme: Step 1 – Eliminate Superstition


On or around March 1st will mark my last day with Nortel after over 12 years. How is that for a push to find what you really want to be doing?

So, time again to answer the question, what will be my Unifying Theme?

For the attentive reader, you will recall that the title of this blog came from the book Freakonomicsby Levitt & Dubner. When in discussions with their publisher, they were confronted by the apparent fact that their manuscript didn’t contain a ‘Unifying Theme’, which –in their publisher’s estimation– was essential to a successful book. Because Levitt & Dubner could not immediately articulate what their theme was, they capitulated to the publishers and addressed the lack of a unifying theme right at the start of Freakonomics.

Around the same time I read Freakonomics, I was trying to figure out a title for my blog. What was I about? What was I going to write about? Would my blogging lead me on a path to discover where my true motivations and passions lie? Or would I –as I suspected– continue to find a diverse range of topics interesting –and blog-worthy– but never find any one area compelling enough to focus a large percentage of my time? At least as a consolation: if a book as successful as Freakonomics can succeed without a Unifying Theme, it must not be all that important!

You can imagine how crushed I was to learn, in Levitt & Dubnert’s sequel Super Freakonomics, that they had discovered that their first book actually did have a unifying theme. They decided it was: ‘people respond to incentives (although not necessarity in ways that are predictable of manifest)‘. In hind sight, I am really glad they didn’t lead with that!  The ‘no unifying theme’ preamble was much more mysterious and compelling!

Rats!!  Now they have gone and found their ‘Unifying Theme’, what about me?! Should I become an (micro-)economist?? And do micro-economists feel inferior to macro-economists?  But I digress…

Back to the topic at hand: what do Unifying Themes have to do with superstition?

Superstition has several definitions, but I am concentrating on actions based on “a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like.” (dictionary.com)

While you may think of things like ghosts, Friday the 13th, etc. I am thinking of more every-day examples:

  • Belief that if you just had more money, you would be happier.
  • The behaviours that got you where you are, will get you where you want to go.
  • Your income says something about how valuable a person you are.
  • You can work for the same company your whole career.*
  • Other people can give you the affirmation you need to make you life worthwhile.
  • People are only motivated by money.
  • Retirement will make it all worth it.

Its pretty easy to understand where superstitions come from: when you discover two things that often correlate, but don’t spend the time or energy to discover if they are causal. Just imagine the successful executive who has many good attributes, but also regularly yells or belittles her employees.  It would be fair for her to assume that her personality is what got her success, but is all of it really contributing to her success? If she stopped yelling at employees would the success go away? Might her performance actually improve?*** You don’t want to be like the pigeon that keeps dancing in a circle expecting food, just because the researcher once trained it that food would appear.

To find the ‘Unifying Theme(s)’ for your life, I think the first place to start is by removing your superstitions and gaining a better understanding of what really makes you happy. Test those assumptions in life that have kept you from doing the things that you want to do. Get your friends, family, co-workers to reflect back to you what they see as your motivations and passions. Better yet, invest some time and money in a good mental health practitioner** who can illustrate your superstitions and motivations. Various tools can help you find out your preferences, one of my favourites is from Gallup Research: StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths

Enough from me. Any advice from my audience on your approach to finding your ‘Unifying Theme’? Success stories are particularly welcome!

* Not one I ever had. I can’t believe how long I lasted at Nortel. There is probably a whole other blog post on that one.

** Finding one of these is hard, but very valuable.

*** There is a good book specifically addressing this topic: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: