The Goldilocks Principle (#661)

A client complained to me recently that he needed to become more disciplined, as he was failing to hit his targets in several key areas of his business. Years ago when I was first starting out as a coach I might have taken his complaint seriously and worked with him on becoming “a more disciplined person”, even taking the time to explore his patterns of self-sabotage and encouraging him to ‘just try harder’ and ‘focus more’ on what he really wanted.

But it’s become more and more clear to me over the years that success is less a matter of becoming a different kind of person than of finding what already works well for us and doing more of it. In other words, what holds us back is not some flaw in our character, but rather a blind spot in our understanding. I call this “the Goldilocks principle” – the idea that there is always a way of doing anything that fits just right for you.

Do you think you’re too lazy to succeed? Consider the story of Marc Allen, the millionaire publisher behind such personal development classics as Creative Visualization and The Power of Now. I had to get special permission to interview him for my radio show at 11am one week as he normally won’t do anything remotely business related until after lunch, a habit he engendered long before he achieved his financial success.

Are you not tough enough to make it in the dog-eat-dog world of business? Then you might find it difficult to account for the multi-million dollar financial and socially conscious success of hippie-ice cream entrepreneurs Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who balance the demands of their conscience with the demands of running a successful company by creating an imaginary entity they call “the monster” that makes their difficult business decisions for them. As Ben reputedly told Jerry when economic realities made it necessary to let employees go, “the monster is hungry – the monster must eat!”

I told my client the story of a man who designed new buildings for college campuses. In his original designs, the man used to draw in not only the new building but also the routes of access – all the sidewalks to and from the parking lots and other buildings. But to his dismay, when he would visit the campuses months later, he could see that students (and even some teachers) were often ignoring the sidewalks and making their own pathways to the new buildings, ruining the grass and making for some awkward patterns of foot traffic.

Rather than complain about the disrespectful students and irresponsible teachers, the designer came up with an innovative idea. Instead of trying to create a pre-determined path for people to follow, he began designing and placing the buildings without putting in any sidewalks at all. Then, after the building has been in use for a while, his team comes in and builds the sidewalks where the footpaths have naturally evolved.

The point is, you can either try to adapt yourself to fit in to what you think of as the “right way to succeed”, or you can employ the Goldilocks principle and find a way to succeed that fits “just right” for you.

And as George Bernard Shaw famously said:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.


1. Think about what has worked well for you in certain projects in the past. What is it about the way those projects have been structured that enabled them to work so well?



  • Steve’s Story:
    As an accountant, I am always able to get everything done by the tax deadlines by bringing in extra help for the big push. It’s also helpful to me to know that I’m going on holiday immediately afterwards so that no matter how hard I’m working, I can always see a clear finish line ahead of me.



  • Chris’s Story:

          As a writer, having set times to write means I don’t have to think about it before or after. Because I always              write at the same time every day, people know I’m not available at those times so they adapt their requests                around my schedule.

  • Alison’s Story:
    As a mom, I find the family trips that work best are the ones where I have told the kids (and my husband) what to pack so many times that they complain to me that I must think they’re all idiots. I don’t think they’re idiots – and I notice with interest that when I don’t do that, they always forget things and complain about them later!

2. Now, think about a project you have coming up. How could you apply the “Goldilocks principle” to that project? That is, what system or structure could you put into place that will work beautifully for you, even if no one else would ever think to do it that way?

    • For Steve:
      I’ve been trying to get my house all organized and Zen ever since the kids left home, but to no avail. This June, I’m going to actually throw a “House Clearing” party over one weekend – 30 friends, outside catering, and even live music on the Saturday night. We’re going to spend the first 8 hours or so emptying the house of everything, and then we’re only going to put the stuff I really want to keep back in. I’ve got two charity vans arriving at 8am Monday morning, so I can see the finish line. Anything not back in the house by then will be given to charity!

    • For Chris:
      For years now, I’ve been telling myself I should take more holidays, but I’ve always been too scared that I’d miss out on work. Starting this year, I’m taking August completely off and going travelling, no matter what. I know that once people realize I’m not available during that time, they’ll find a way to keep any projects that are perfect for me until September!

  • For Alison:
    I run a home-based business and it’s always bothered me that people let me down by saying they’ll do something and then not doing it. I’m going to repeat every agreement so many times that my business partners complain to me that I must think they’re idiots. Not only will that make it much more likely that they’ll do what they said they would, I’ll know that if they don’t it’s because it’s time to get new business partners!

Have fun, learn heaps, and find a way to apply this tip to your life that fits just right for you.


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