Want Business Success and Avoid Depression? Be Willing to “Wear the White Belt”

Photo: Mirandala (Flickr CC)

Photo: Mirandala (Flickr CC)

The VentureFizz website lets you “see what’s buzzing in Boston’s tech community.” The site includes links to a wide gamut of blogs by Boston entrepreneurs. One of the better blogs is Seeing Both Sides by Boston venture capitalist and former entrepreneur Jeff Bussgang, including his post, Should Entrepreneurs Be More Like Teenage Girls? As my wife and I are extremely proud of our two teenage daughters, this post easily caught my attention.

Jeff Bussgang’s post refers to an article from The Economist which suggests that the more willing a person is to give up on “unreachable” goals, the less likely they are to be depressed. Dr. Randolph Nesse of the University of Michigan suggests that just as pain is a warning you should stop you doing a damaging physical activity, so too low mood is a mental warning that you should stop doing a damaging mental activity – in particular, pursuing an “unreachable” goal.

The article goes on to quote a Canadian university study that may support Nesse’s hypothesis. The study measured depression and “the goal adjustment capacities” of 97 girls aged 15-19. It was concluded that the girls who experienced mild depressive symptoms could more readily disengage from “unattainable” goals and were also less likely to experience severe depression in the long run.

“Persistence is part of the American way of life,” (Dr. Randolph Nesse) says. “People here are often driven to pursue overly ambitious goals, which then can lead to depression.” He admits that this is still an unproven hypothesis, but it is one worth considering.

What concerns me is how one defines an “unattainable” goal. Is the goal in question really unreachable, or is it unreachable without a long period of new learning and practice?  Is it a really a ridiculously futile goal, or is it what I called in a recent post a “Grit Goal”?

Jeff Bussgang hits the nail on the head when he refers to the research of Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck on this topic:

Dweck’s research shows that successful people in business, sports and life have “growth mindsets” rather than “fixed mindsets”.  The “growth mindset” is one in which a person believes that one’s world view is less about ability and more about lifelong learning.  “Growth mindset” individuals feel they can always learn from experiences (failures and successes) and … focus on the learnings and the self-improvement opportunities that come from adversity.

Carol Dweck’s work (which I mention in my above-linked post on “Grit Goals” and is available in detail in her book Mindset – thanks to Jeff for that link!) seems to both echo and compliment the messages of George Leonard’s classic book Mastery, an absolutely essential read. The person with a “growth mindset” Carol Dweck identifies is the same person who will readily agree with George Leonard’s description of “mastery” as a “journey” that “brings rich rewards, yet is not really a goal or destination but rather a process…available to anyone who is willing to get on the path and stay on it, regardless of age, sex, or previous experience.” (Mastery, p.5).

Even more importantly, a person on the road to mastery, whether learning a new skill, a new sport or seeking mastery at their job, must learn to love the ongoing practice and learning itself that mastery demands; love the journey rather than coveting the “destination” of a rigid goal. Having read Mastery, I suspect many goals are mistakenly deemed as “unattainable.”

I also suggest the perspectives of George Leonard and Carol Dweck have enormous implications on the personal brand one wants to convey both to the workplace and the outside world. A strong personal brand must include a robust “growth mindset,” eager for knowledge and “willing to play the fool” as Leonard writes; that is, not afraid to make inevitable mistakes that go with the process of lifelong learning and mastery.

George Leonard’s book ends with a moving conclusion: he conveys the story in which Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, now very old and near death, tells his students he wants to be buried in his white belt. George Leonard suggests that Jigoro Kano recognized at the moment of death, we are all white belts – beginners for whatever may happen next. Similarly, in life, to choose to get on the path of mastery requires a person to “wear the white belt”: to choose the path of lifelong learning and personal groth, to admit they don’t know everything, and yes, to be willing to “play the fool” and inevitably make the mistakes that coincide with learning.

So, just as George Leonard concludes his book, to achieve true business success, enhance self-esteem and avoid depression, and add authentic value to the personal brand you want to convey to the world, you must “be willing to wear the white belt.”

If you liked this article, you may also like:

For Success, Grit Beats Intelligence! (Or: Use Business Intelligence Software to Achieve Grit Goals)

Animal Metaphor Farm: Don’t be a Gorilla or Eagle…Be a Crow

The Power of Critical Thinking (or: Devil’s Advocate, Get Thee Behind Me!)

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2 thoughts on “Want Business Success and Avoid Depression? Be Willing to “Wear the White Belt”

  1. I really loved your article and the White Belt analogy really made me think about “Plato’s Republic” as well as Kant’s “being an end in your self” ideology which points to us looking within our own means and desires and setting personal goals which we always attain because they are routed within our being.

    1. Thanks Anna, very interesting observation. I confess I haven’t read Plato’s Republic since I was a sophomore pursuing my undergrad degree, but I will have to rectify that! Any Plato scholars care to weigh in?

      In a sort-of similar vein, I was thinking of a blog entry on using some insights of Aristotle to most effectively use business intelligence, but it’s still half (or maybe 1/4) baked…

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