Virtuous Spirals – the Power of Choice

Virtuous spirals, or cycles, according to Wikipedia, are positive chains of complex interactions and events, reinforced through feedback and that produce favorable results. In the short run, these chains tend to continue in their current direction. This can be experienced as “positive momentum.” The counterparts, or negative expressions, of this phenomenon are vicious spirals.

I have a virtuous spiral story to share with you. In the narrative, I make the connection between the choices I saw (and took) and the surprising opportunities that unfolded and shaped positive outcomes.

The Story

This fall, my colleague and friend, Joe Slatter, and I presented a pre-conference workshop at the ISPI EMEA conference (International Society for Performance Improvement Europe Middle East Africa) in Gotebörg, Sweden. We also planned to sight-see in two other Scandinavian cities, traveling by train and staying at Airbnb lodgings. We intended that our trip become an adventure, beyond the confines of our business trip. Opportunity #1

We arrived at the Copenhagen airport on a Sunday afternoon. Within an hour I realized I had lost my passport. Major bummer! I felt embarrassed. More importantly, I was worried that I would ruin Joe’s trip and damage our friendship. Though reticent to speak up, I knew I had to say something to adjust our plans. That was a critical, but easy, choice to make. Opportunity #2

When I told Joe what had happened, his response and comment was world-changing for me. He said with a smile, “Here comes the adventure!”

What an extraordinary reframing of our situation. In a heartbeat, my embarrassment vanished, as did my concern for ruining his time abroad. I chose to accept the gift of freedom from my own guilt. With this positive interpretation, we could then problem solve how we would proceed. It created options and opportunities to live our adventure.

We took time later that day to inform airlines, airport and police of the situation, hoping that my passport would be found and turned in. Recognizing that hope was not a strategy, we planned our route to the embassy for the next day. We slept well knowing that we had done all we could.

In good spirits the next morning, we took a Metro ride into the city center that brought us to a juice bar/coffee shop across the square. The sign above the door was Joe and the Juice. We entered and immediately saw a poster above the barista bar – a long-haired, heavily tattooed, and bearded guy staring back defiantly. The caption across the picture was perfect: Choose your attitude.

Opportunity #3

The poster matched our experience and reinforced the choice of self-leadership about mood, intention and action. In fact, one of the primary roles of leadership is to set context. We did, and it affirmed our plan.

Opportunity #4

We had a very good conversation with the barista and an excellent latte (Joe knows about these things, so I trust his assessment). Our path to the embassy was somewhat circuitous and scenic. We arrived in great spirits. We had positive and uplifting interactions with the embassy staff. Their guidance allowed us with a clear idea of what was needed and when we should return.

We traveled next to the police station, where we waited in line and I completed the necessary paperwork. Still in a positive mood, the police responded in kind. Our mood seemed to invite reciprocal engagement. By mid-afternoon I had my temporary passport and could cast aside fears of being unable to return home.

The rest of my trip was excellent. To my surprise, what I found most satisfying about it was the 30 hours from when I declared my passport lost and when we returned to our Airbnb apartment the next day. I noticed that I felt a sense of personal power and efficacy. Both of us enthusiastically anticipated the next day’s adventure.


Over the past several months I have had time to reflect on our adventure and how it relates to my work and life experiences. It seems that in the flow of things, we all have opportunities to take a step back, look with fresh eyes and learn from experience. Our reflections can help us see differently and make new choices. For the sake of “better,” we could run experiments, focusing more on what we were learning than how well we were executing.

If you choose that path, here are some ideas to create new contexts and open new opportunities at work and in other domains:

  • Reconnect to your purpose to reengage motivation and meaning;

  • Listen from a nonjudgmental position;

  • Start a new story to establish a compelling and aligned context;

  • Choose your mood to one that supports your intention;

  • Ask yourself ‘what’s the missing conversation?’ then ask it;

  • Challenge your self-limiting assumptions to discover what more might be possible;

  • Make the time to prepare for important interactions;

  • Make the time to schedule, then take action on, important but non-urgent commitments;

  • Design and implement practices that enable balance and well-being at macro and micro levels.

Each of the choices you make and the related actions can begin a virtuous spiral. What’s most important is getting started, persisting and learning as you go.

In your work and life, how do wise choices and the virtuous spirals they may create inform your experiences and inspire your future? I’d like to invite you to a conversation I am hosting in the Executive Suite in LinkedIn. We can explore and expand on the ideas of seeing opportunities, making choices and triggering virtuous cycles. Let’s move this conversation forward together. Jump right in. The water is fine. I believe it’s a new world.

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