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Seth Godin makes an interesting observation in his book Tribes about the key difference between a thermometer and a thermostat and how it’s reflected in human nature. He says that a thermometer is great for identifying when something is broken after the fact while a thermostat does it’s best job to regulate temperature to stay in sync with its environment. Thermostats are leaders while thermometers are just squeaky wheels.
To put it another way:
- Thermometers like to criticize once a direction is chosen. They’re always first to notice when something is wrong, but can’t take the necessary steps to fix it. They’re the armchair quarterbacks of the world and are great at telling you what you already know. The thermometer has an ability to lead only in so much as hindsight is 20/20. They can’t plan or adapt to changes.
- Thermostats take the temperature of the room first and then put a plan in place to adapt. They’re the leaders and the visionaries, and the people you rely on to stay calm in a crisis and lead you to the next level. Thermostats are able to work past criticism and negativity and push forward even when the odds are against them. Thermostats exhibit self-control and stability.
Naturally there are corollaries in the business world but what about for personal growth and achievement? When I read this I immediately thought about the high-achievers I know and how they approach their lives. They’re all gifted in keeping things in balance and staying in control – events and people don’t inject drama into their lives because they don’t let them. They understand the factors at work and adapt accordingly with time to spare. They aren’t prone to wild swings in “temperature”.
This description also reminds me of one of my favorite Bruce Lee quotes, which is a key lesson in Zen philosophy: “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” Thermostats are masters at adaptation.
Thermostats don’t like to spend time with thermometers because it’s almost always counter-productive for them, making everything harder than it needs to be. Thermometers hold people back through negativity and second-guessing while thermostats do what needs to be done. It’s all about learning, adjusting, and driving ahead.
So… are you a thermostat or a thermometer?