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The myth of ‘the one thing’ and why three is much better



Lisa Earle McLeod

The human mind hates complexity. When something goes wrong, we want to know the cause, and we want it to be simple.

Believing that one single thing causes the person to get sick or the marriage to fail or the business to go belly up makes it seem more manageable; it gives us a feeling of control. If the bad thing happened to us, identifying one thing gives us a place to lay blame, or possibly fix it. If the failure is someone else’s, pinning it on one thing enables us to tell ourselves that we can prevent it.

Yet there’s never one reason something goes wrong any more than there is one reason something goes right.

Here are three areas where the myth of one thing causes problems, and how to reframe around three things:

1. Health

The mind body crowd would have you believe that you can positively affirm your way into wellness. Natural food lovers think food determines your energy and lifespan. Yoga instructors claim flexibility will keep you dancing until you’re 120.

Logically, we know that good health depends on many things. Yet we tend to focus on the stories we like and ignore evidence that we don’t care for. We talk about the non-smoker

who got lung cancer, the smoker who lived to 100, and the runner who died of a heart attack to affirm our own lifestyle.

Pretending that it’s one thing is an easy out. We can pin good health on things that come easily to us, in my case a positive attitude and good gene pool, and ignore the areas we find more challenging, which for me include lack of sleep and a penchant for Merlot.

Action – If you’re serious about living a long life with energy, choose three big areas of focus.

2. Relationships

The first question people ask when they hear about someone’s divorce is usually: Why did they split up?

Part of our curiosity is a penchant for gossip. I also believe that we want to understand the demise of other relationships to avoid a similar fate.

The worst “one thingers” tend to be the people splitting up. Talk to someone in the middle of a divorce: they’ll likely tell you that the one thing that went wrong with their marriage was their spouse.

But it’s never just one person, any more than it’s the affair, the travel, the in-laws, the baby or lack of a baby. Relationship failures are rooted in a million seemingly small things, and both parties’ inability or willingness to work through them. Even if one person is horrible, you chose them and you represent half the equation.

Action – If you want a lasting relationship, choose three things you can do on your own to make it better.

3. Business

In Good to Great, which I consider to be one of the best business books of all time, Jim Collins and team went looking for the one thing that made an organization great. They never found it. Instead, they discovered that greatness was rooted in myriad daily actions whose collective sum was greater than their parts. Business leaders looking for one thing tend to lurch from one initiative never finding the magic bullet.

Action – If you want your career or business to improve, choose three big things that will move the needle and give them your relentless focus for three months.

Success or failure is never one thing; it’s lots of things. Sorry about that.

‑ Lisa Earle McLeod is a sales leadership consultant (


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