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Posted on: Sunday, 12 June 2011 by Rajiv Popat

(And Why Most Programmers Don't Start Something New)

If you've landed with a safe job the excuses for not blogging or not starting a side project are numerous.

No one is going to read what I write so why blog? No one cares about what I build so why build? I don't get enough opportunities in my organization so I am out of shape. And the best of them all, I am just too busy to start anything.

The real answer as to why you don't start initiatives outside of your work life however, may be hidden in the experiment on dogs that Martin Seligman, now the father of positive psychology observed in his years as a graduate student. Shawn Achor talks about this experiment in a rather intriguing fashion in his book The Happiness Advantage. He explains:

To understand the psychology of failure and success in the modern business world, we need to step back briefly to the tail end of the Age of Aquarius. In the 1960s, Martin Seligman was not yet the founding father of positive psychology. He was only a lowly graduate student, studying the opposite of happiness in his university's laboratory.

Older researchers in Seligman's lab were doing some experiments with dogs, pairing noises, like a bell, with small shocks to see how the dogs would eventually react to the bell alone. Then after this conditioning was complete, the researchers would put each dog in a “shuttlebox,” a large box with two compartments, separated by a low wall. In one compartment, the dogs would get shocked, but on the other side they would be safe from shocks, and it was easy to jump over the wall.

The researchers predicted that once the dogs heard the bell, they would immediately jump into the safe half of the box so they could avoid the shock they knew would follow.

But that's not at all what happened. As Seligman now tells the story, he remembers walking into the lab one day and overhearing the older researchers complaining. "It' s the dogs," they lamented. "The dogs won't do anything. Something’ s wrong with them."

Before the experiment started, the dogs had been able to jump over the barriers just fine, but this time they were just lying there. While the researchers contemplated what seemed to be a failed experiment, Seligman realized the value of what they had just stumbled upon: They had accidentally taught the dogs to be helpless.

Earlier, the dogs had learned that once the bell rang, a shock was sure to follow, no matter what. So, now, in this new situation, they didn't try jumping to the safe half of the box because they believed there was nothing they could do to avoid the shock. Just like the workers at the Johannesburg construction company, they essentially figured, "why bother?"

A follow up experiment by Seligman talks about how this idea of learned helpless translates to offices and work environment of today. Shawn explains:

The fact is that in our modern, often overstressed business world, cubicles are the new shuttleboxes, and workers the new dogs. In fact, one study shows just how closely we humans resemble our canine counterparts.

Researchers took two groups of people into a room, turned on a loud noise, and then told them to figure out how to turn it off by pressing buttons on a panel. The first group tried every combination of buttons, but nothing worked to stop the noise. (Another example of devious psychologists at work!)

The second group, acting as a control, was given a panel of buttons that did successfully turn off the noise. Then both groups were given the same second task: They were put in a new room, the equivalent of a shuttlebox, and were once again treated to an obnoxious noise.

This time, both groups could easily stop the noise by simply moving a hand from one side to the other, just like the dogs could easily move to the other side of the box. The control group quickly figured this out and stopped the blare.

But the group that had first been exposed to a noise they couldn't stop now just let their hands lay there , not even bothering to move them or try to make the noise stop.

As one of the researchers said, "It was as if they’d learned they were helpless to turn off noise, so they didn't even try, even though everything else the time and place, all that had changed. They carried that noise-helplessness right through to the new experiment."

These experiments educate us that each one of us is vulnerable to learned helplessness. Understanding it, is the first step to avoiding it, both in your personal and professional life. 

So the next time you think of working on changing the culture within your organization, or starting a blog or taking up a side project during the weekend, or starting that product that you always wanted to start and there is a voice in your head which starts talking about those excuses or telling you how helpless, non-talented, busy or tied up you are, remember the helpless dogs.

Maybe (and I am just saying maybe) the real reason why you are not starting is that deep down inside you probably know that you're going to fail. The voice full of doubt is just your way of telling yourself, "why bother?".

Are you really prepared to fail early fail often or are you just letting your learned helplessness get the best of you? Just a little something to think about.