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On The Anna Karenina Principle

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This is how Leo Tolstoy opens his masterpiece Anna Karenina, in which the pursuit of happiness comes at a very heavy price (especially for Anna).

The sentence has been taken to mean that, if a family is deficient in just one thing (money, religious harmony, sexual attraction, parenting skills), it is doomed to unhappiness. As we prepare for the family fest that is Christmas, this thought may not bring comfort to us all.

As well as one of the great heroines of literature, Tolstoy’s eponymous novel also gave us the ‘Anna Karenina Principle’. This holds that, without a predetermined and narrowly defined set of success factors being in place, in more-or-less equal measures, an enterprise is doomed to failure. 

The Principle has been applied to many things, from schools to politics; big corporates to the stock market; and even to nature and science. It is used to describe a condition of harmony and delicate balance which must be maintained if an organization or a system, is to survive.

But perhaps what Tolstoy was actually trying to draw our attention to was not the narrow determining factors that are necessary for happiness, but rather what happens if we fail to adapt when the circumstances around us change because, as we all know, change is inevitable.

Coaching invites us to step outside of ‘received wisdom’ of the conventions, beliefs and assumptions of the organisation or culture we are part of, and look at ourselves and our situation with a fresh perspective.

When clients use the language of inflexibility (“It has to be my way, or the high way”) or resist enticements to come out of their comfort zone (“I have always done it this way”) coaches can work with them to encourage adaptability in a number of ways, for example by exploring strengths, capabilities and values to help build a stronger sense of self.

According to the recent book by Viv Groskop (The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature (Fig Tree). Anna Karenina was on a quest for personal authenticity which was doomed to failure because she was trapped inside a rigid system that she could not, or would not, conform to. And she mistook the handsome Vronsky as her escape route. Perhaps, if she had been able to find a good coach in 19th century Russia, the book may’ve had a happier ending.

"As well as one of the great heroines of literature, Tolstoy’s eponymous novel also gave us the ‘Anna Karenina Principle’."
"Coaching invites us to step outside of ‘received wisdom’ of the conventions, beliefs and assumptions of the organisation or culture we are part of, and look at ourselves and our situation with a fresh perspective."