Martha Carrigan | President & CEO 
Big Shoes South

Abridged from “Overcoming the Inertia of the Couch” TEDx 2014. The author finally got off the couch and edited content for this blog.

Growing up in a family of 11, we had a small couch where my parents corralled us together for the annual family picture. (It was a tight squeeze.)

counch

familyThe couches throughout a home have different purposes:

  • The family room couch – for watching a football game or taking a Sunday nap.
  • The daybed couch in the den – a place to isolate a sick kid so no one else will catch the bug.
  • The guest-only, plastic-coated living room couch – “Get offa’ that couch, it’s for company only!”
  • The basement couch – to escape from parental view with friends.

The couch is a place to take important pauses in life: watching, healing, entertaining and escaping. Sadly, it’s also a picture of getting stuck. When we stop moving forward and plop in the couch, it’s hard to overcome what medical pros define as inertia.

Have you experienced it? When I worked as a high school college advisor, students put off starting college applications or writing essay answers. In our business connecting companies with talent, people don’t realize they are stuck in a dead-end job. In my own early career, I was stalled in a job search. I’d come home, drop on cushions and channel surf. A couch potato.

The simple version of inertia expressed in Newton’s Law of Motion is: “The tendency for an object at rest is to remain at rest and for an object in uniform motion is to continue in that same direction or motion…unless acted on by an outside force or energy.”

What is that outside force in human inertia? The answer is you and me. The tool is the couch. Here are some tips to be the anti-inertia force of change in someone’s life.

Tip #1 – Share the couch.

A chair is designed for one person. But the couch has a horizontal frame designed to be shared by two or more people. Sitting with. Discussing together.

When I worked as a college guidance advisor, students were overwhelmed by the volume of questions in applying to colleges. So, they wouldn’t start. Meanwhile, a parent would stand vertically over them coaching, “You’d better write that essay!”

By coming alongside in the horizontal space of the couch and sharing a conversation, we communicate “I’m interested. I’m in this with you.” We help the other person sit back and view the overwhelming issue from the next cushion over, a different perspective.

Instead of asking “What are your extra-curriculars?” or reminding a student to “Write an essay about the time you broke your leg,” a couch conversation starts with curiosity.

I ask, “Tell me about your day last Saturday.” He answers with a shrug, “Hung out with my neighbor.” Sharing a couch conversation meanders through that answer and listens to learn more. I ask, “Tell me about your neighbor.” He answers while checking his text messages. (I do not sigh…I listen.)

“When I was little, my neighbors would stop and talk with me about the old days. I’d play with their dog, Charlie. When I got older, they paid me to walk Charlie. They became sort-of grandparents attending my concerts and school plays. They got older and sick, so I helped mow their lawn and shovel their driveway. The husband died from cancer a few months ago. Last Saturday, me and my mom dropped off a meal to the wife. I sat with her and talked about the old days. I didn’t know she’d die that night. I mean, she wasn’t in the hospital or anything.”

From that couch conversation, we discovered the student had: extracurricular activities (theater and concerts), paid employment (dog walking), volunteer activities (lawn mowing, snow-shoveling), and an answer to the essay prompt, “Describe how you got through a challenging day.” That’s a good start for overcoming college application inertia. A shared couch conversation asks questions to get to know a person rather than fill out a form or get something done.

Tip #2 – Invite someone off of the couch.

We couch-sitters don’t even realize we’re stuck. Remember the times you sat all day playing video games, reading or watching TV? You didn’t realize you blew four hours on the couch until mom called, “Come eat dinner!” It can be that way with our jobs.

“Come to _______!” (You fill in the blank.) Provide incentive for someone stuck in the cushions to get up and join others in a different activity. Maybe it’s an invitation to develop new skills, go somewhere different or try something new. It may not be life changing but just being invited creates new momentum and helps someone break free from inertia.

I recently met a talented designer who graduated from a highly respected east coast school. She was doing all the right things yet was stuck, floundering in her job search – nothing seemed to work. Her grandparents asked her to visit them in the Midwest. While there, they invited her to volunteer with them at a homeless shelter. She ended up serving coffee next to the hiring manager of a creative agency…where she’s now working. The invitation ‘off the couch’ to serve at the homeless shelter was the outside force that moved her toward a job. I hear variations of this story all the time in my work.

Tip #3 – Pull, Don’t Push

One last tip to overcome couch inertia. Did you know a couch is purposely designed deeper and with a lower center of gravity than a chair? (Look it up. It’s called the popliteal height.) It’s why we sometimes need a rocking momentum and “A little help here!” to get off the couch.

Most of us want to help the person stuck in inertia. We give a gentle nudge, push or poke that ends up feeling like judgment, accusation, or control to the one in need.

(Nudge) ”Why don’t you join Toastmasters?”

(Push) “Hey! Here’s a job. You should apply for it.”

(Poke) “Have you contacted the career center at school?”

To paraphrase Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Push a string and it will go nowhere at all. Pull a string and it will follow wherever you wish.”

“Push a string, it will go nowhere at all”                      

Push

 

 

 

 

Pull a string and it will follow where you wish”

Pull

 

 

 

 

 

 

Early in my career, I was underemployed in retail, lying on the couch and depressed. My well-meaning mom was frustrated for me. She’d give me a little push, “Just go work for your dad until something better comes along.”

It was a friend who pulled instead of pushed. He knew I loved music and the arts. He drew my vision away from “I’m stuck!” by asking if I’d help his sister as a marketing volunteer at the City Ballet. I wasn’t sponging, I was helping. It was a vote of confidence that my skills could help someone else in a meaningful way. (In the old days, we called that an internship.) I got a ‘real job’ less than six months later in marketing. When someone is sucked into the cushions, offering a non-threatening use of their talents in an area of their passion helps pull them out.

A lot of things result in inertia, particularly life’s transitions. As a metaphor, couch Inertia can be overcome by:

  • The design of the couch. Share the horizontal side-by-side space. Sit with someone in conversation and help her discover the strengths of her story.
  • Invite someone who may not even realize he is stuck to do something new, go somewhere different, change the pattern of his “stuck-ness.”
  • Instead of a pushing with ‘Try this, try that…’ pull someone out of the couch cushions by connecting her with a passion, interest or opportunity that applies her skills in a non-threatening way.

“The tendency for an object at rest is to remain at rest and for an object in uniform motion to continue in that same direction or motion...unless acted on by an outside force or energy.”

How’s your view from the couch?