Escape the Hamster Wheel
- How our mindsets help or hinder us
When you’re the older brother, growing up with an unspeakably pretty kid sister is a recipe for stress. You find yourself investing in karate lessons, amateur bodybuilding and basic firearms training. You start early with the Prozac.
With a twelve-year age gap between us, I had already moved out of the house when I got the inevitable call from my parents: “Doug, we all knew this day had to come, and it’s finally here. Lauren’s brought home the first one. We’d like you to come around and meet him, but before you do, a word of warning… He’s kind’a surly. He has a bad attitude, and his hygiene is…well…questionable!”
This, of course, was Lauren’s very first hamster.
Meeting the new addition
I arrived at the Kruger household to meet the tiny critter, and took a look at him, arranged for display purposes in his cage on the coffee table.
As I leaned over his cage, the hamster saw me, got a fright, and tried to make a break for it. But that was when it got interesting. His instinct was first to jump into his running wheel, and then to try to escape me. When his frantic efforts finally fizzled out, he got out of his wheel and turned around to see if I was still there. I was. Hot on his heels. So he got back into the wheel and ran like crazy all over again.
I watched him repeat this fascinating display so many times that, somewhere in the hypnotic episode, I came up with a new philosophy on life (Some people have epiphanies at monasteries, some on mountain tops – what’s wrong with having one in the presence of a brown and white fluff ball named ‘Chuckles’?), which I ultimately dubbed, “The Rules of Hamster Thinking.”
…And the Rules of Hamster Thinking are:
1. Hamsters make up rule that work against them
2. Hamsters do things the way they’ve always been done; and
3. Hamsters do what all other hamsters would do.
…In other words, your average hamster is its own worst enemy, simply because of its approach to basic thinking.
Interestingly, Hamster Thinking is not limited to your kid sister’s fluffy pet vermin. It’s all over the corporate corridors too.
98% of corporate employees are firmly entrenched hamsters
The other two per cent have an odd habit of moving the world forward.
Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.”
So, what’s the difference between them? The reasonable and the unreasonable? The hamster-ridden and the hamster-free?
Grasp that distinction and not only can you begin your own hamster-exorcism ritual, but it might change the way you approach your business.
Can I have a volunteer?
In my keynote address (now titled ‘Escape the Hamster Wheel’ in honour of the above event), I carry out a little experiment. It tells me a great deal about the way people think and it works like this: First, a member of the audience joins me on stage. Without giving any instructions, I place a piece of string in front of their feet and a tennis ball in their hands. I walk to the other side of the stage where I place a bowl on the ground, and it’s at this point that I issue my first instructions: “Your mission is to get the ball in the bowl. Three… two… one… GO!”
Can you guess what the overwhelming majority of people do?
Naturally, they try to throw the ball across the stage and into the bowl. Did I tell them they had to stand behind the line? No. Do you think throwing it will work? The answer is, ‘Never.’ Even if you lob that sphere with Glenn McGrath-like accuracy, it will simply bounce out, or knock the bowl over. And yet they will try it over and over. Can you hear that little wheel turning?
The trick, of course, is simply to walk over to the bowl and place the ball down gently within it. So why don’t people do that? Because most of us are completely preoccupied with ‘how’ we assume things are supposed to be done, rather than ‘what’ we want to achieve.
Think end-results first
This particular brand of hamster-thinking is engrained in human beings, simply because we learn by watching others. We copy and paste. And actually, there’s nothing wrong with that approach per se. That’s how we learned to walk, talk and socialize as infants; by watching our parents and duplicating.
But because workplace goals are ever changing, observed behaviour may not be the most effective teacher. We just start copying one thing and the goal-posts have already moved.
Becoming a hamster-free thinker begins with reversing this approach. Don’t fetter your mind with the ‘how.’ Focus on your end goal. What do you actually want to achieve? …In your life, in your relationships, in your career? …In your next month of sales?
The piece of string in your mind
In the professional world, we all too often fall into this trap.
Perhaps you can relate to this example of inner dialogue: “I’m not even going to try to get through to the CEO, because I’ll never get that far.” Really? Do you know that for sure? Or are you simply assuming that you will fail before you’ve even tried? Are you making up a rule – no more binding than a piece of string at your feet - that is working against you?
I have experienced this phenomenon many times myself, in the course of initiating big projects in my life. It’s all too easy to waver emotionally in front of a perceived piece of string. And yet, on the occasions where we take the risk, we often surprise ourselves with remarkable results.
The piece of string at the radio station door
I can recount three separate occasions on which I wanted to present for different radio stations. Each time I felt the fear of the perceived piece of string. Each time, I reminded myself of the Rules of Hamster Thinking, and opted to step over the piece of string, walk through the front door of the station, and try. And each time, to my eternal surprise, I got to see the person I needed to see and ended up presenting on that station.
More often than we realise, the string exists only in our minds.
Think ‘end results.’ You’ll be surprised how this little Copernican Revolution jump-starts the creative part of your brain. Crystallize the goal, and your creative mind – diligently applied – can find the means. And the chances are that the means will not be conventional, because the results of convention are almost always ‘average.’
But who wants to be average? Escaping from your own hamster wheel begins with overcoming the first rule of hamster thinking: Don’t make up rules that work against you.
After all, what’s holding you back? …a piece of string?
- Douglas Kruger is a speaker, trainer and author, and 5 x winner of the SA Championships for Public Speaking. See him in action at www.douglaskruger.co.za, or email: email@example.com