Planned, or just an accident?

“I was never particularly ambitious. Things just happened.” So says cricket legend Ian Chappell.

Think about your own successes, those that put you in the top one percent, or even one-in-a-thousand. Were they chosen goals, or did the good outcomes just occur?

Example 1:  Mark Zuckerberg didn’t plan on being a business star with Facebook. It began as a sort of game, an online jest.

Example 2:  Supermodel Kate Moss was discovered at JFK airport in New York at the age of 14 while returning from a holiday with her parents.

Instead of having big audacious goals, perhaps all we need is to place ourselves in the way of opportunity, watch for natural or accidental gains, then develop them as far and fast as possible.

Goals are often applied to activities in which feel “behind” or inferior, eg weight loss or passing exams. These goals help us succeed, although the results are unlikely to be world-beating. They may simply raise us to normal levels.

This type of achievement can be even more satisfying than where we outrun a lot of people and finish up in the leading bunch.

But the really top results may be those that were never actually planned.

Photo by Elisa Ventur

 

No, boredom isn’t always bad

In a previous post, we talked about having more than one project going at once, to provide continuing progress. When one gets stuck, you can switch to another.

This sounds fine, but there’s a caveat. Changing projects can undermine the boredom that got you going in the first place.

Huh?

OUT OF BED

With luck, our work provides not only an income, but also the fun of creating, problem solving and completing. Work can be interesting and stimulating, something that gets us out of bed in the morning, ready to take on the challenges of a new day.

sleep

An antidote to dullness and ennui, in other words.

However there’s more than one way to slice this apple, and the truth is that alternative projects can undermine interest in the first one, killing the urge to complete it. This isn’t just about using up the energy or time that can be spent on something else. It’s about the hunger that impels the task.

Example 1: After jousting with your editor on the phone for an hour, you’d rather slit your wrists open than make those marketing calls.

Example 2:  Designing your new kitchen online was fun. Too bad about the client newsletter that’s now overdue by a week.

Ideally, our ventures should work to satisfy different internal masters, rather than competing to achieve the same ends. Otherwise there’s a chance we’ll lose interest forever.

Don’t let your projects fight each other to keep the boredom at bay.

Photo by Nastya Dobryvecher

 

Blowing your nose in space

We all know that goal-setting is an important forerunner to improvement. And hard goals are supposed to be better than easy ones.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon,” said John F Kennedy in 1961.

The Americans met the deadline, although three astronauts died in a capsule fire in 1967 because of an untested escape process.

Big goals stretch our resources and make the adrenaline flow. We therefore become successful, faster. Or so the theory goes.

Alright, I’m going to grow my business by 15 percent each year and retire before I’m fifty. That’s a nice hard goal. Should help me get there.

Problematically, it doesn’t.

FOCUS ON PROCESS

Leaders are fond of thinking up quantitative goals, sometimes call performance goals. But the troops can do better when working for qualitative outcomes, often called learning goals.

There is a difference. Instead of saying “I’m going to reach the quarter-finals of Wimbledon this year”, it’s more effective to declare “I’m going to improve my best weapon, my backhand slice.”

Focus on the process, and the outcome will look after itself.

SMALL OR LARGE STEPS

Performance goals look attractive, because it’s simple to adjust the quantity in order to get the right degree of difficulty. If Wimbledon 2021 seems too hard, let’s aim for 2023. If 15 percent business growth is too tough, we’ll cut it back to 12.

Yet learning goals can be just as easily tweaked. One big step can be divided into two smaller steps, or vice versa. For now, the ambitious tennis player can aim for a great slice into just one side of the court.

It’s said that what can’t be measured can’t be managed. But a quantifiable goal (which looks great on a graph or spreadsheet) assumes a degree of control over the outcome that in practice often isn’t there.

The moon within nine years? How about scratching my nose in a spacesuit?

Photo by Fionn Claydon

 

Over the top, almost

I recently went to a performance of Verdi’s nineteenth century opera, La Traviata. Like modern musicals, it was a multi-media spectacle, combining singing, dancing, narrative, an orchestra, scenery and lighting.

The outdoor harborside setting boosted the opportunity for grandiose effects, including fireworks and cast members arriving by boat. An enormous 3.5-tonne chandelier with 10,000 Swarovski crystals overhung the stage.

SWEET SPOT REACHED

The whole enterprise was over the top – almost.  This is surely the key to success in entertainment, communication or almost anything, which is knowing how far to push and when to ease back.

The sweet spot is the point just before the effort falls over the line into absurdity or ridiculousness.

Changing entertainments, watch any motor race and check the lead car. You’ll see lots of small evidence of the traction limits being approached, such as brief wheel locks during braking, sideways judders on the bends, tail wag under acceleration.

The winner is the person who can drive fastest without spinning out, colliding or failing to take a corner.

JUST THIS SIDE

The skill of motor racing is not to drive safely and under control, but to keep the car just this side of catastrophe. Similarly, an accomplished producer or communicator knows exactly where the traction limits lie.

Of course each medium has its own parameters or variables. Opera is not the same as motorsport or a politician’s speech.

But people who have mastered the sweet spot principle are invariably the most successful. This was just as true in Verdi’s time as it is today.

Photo by Borna Bevanda

 

Clear and hot – or strain and pain?

focus

Focus is good, they say. It’s supposed to be a key to success – concentrating on what works, and not getting distracted. Whole books have been written about it.

Short-term focus means fixing on a task and not wasting your day on side activities. Then there’s sustained focus, over a longer period. Enemies of this are said to include acquisitions, new ventures, and sitting on too many eggs at once.

Unrelenting focus isn’t always for the best, though. It can lead to number watching, impatience and unnecessary fiddling.

Not everything happens just when we want it to. Projects get stuck. Trying to push them forward isn’t always going to work. We need to rest, wait for inspiration, let time to pass. 

NO ITCHES

That’s when alternative ventures are valuable. They allow us to lie fallow on the prime one, without the feeling of going nowhere. We can move from one to another without getting itchy. 

Two side projects are good. Three may be even better.

Contrast between activities is useful, for example gardening as a break from book writing. The secondary projects need not be profit-related. When business progress is stubborn, you can switch to improving your tennis slice.

Everyone wants Unicorn rates of growth, like those of Airbnb or Uber or Clubhouse, but mostly this isn’t how it happens. Growth typically occurs on a compounding basis, which means that the first few years show modest returns.

Maybe it’s like planting an orchard. No matter how ambitious we are, or how much effort or intelligence are applied, a few seasons have to pass before the first crop. There’s a natural maturation process that can’t be rushed.

Focus sounds clear, hot, laser-like. Just what we all want to be. But it can also lead to forced thinking, strain and pain.

Focus isn’t always sharp.

Photos by Michael McAuliffe and Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum

Where did it all go?

Most of us have heard of the resources curse. The notion is that countries blessed with natural resources don’t end up doing as well as those that start out with nothing. Think Venezuela with all its oil, versus Japan, possessing few natural advantages.

The concept can apply equally as well to people.

Those endowed with gifts sometimes cruise along, not as diligent as others, and often accomplishing less with their lives.

GIFTS GONE

Having never worked for their blessings, these people may not know where these came from. Consequently, they don’t know how to protect them or reclaim the gifts when gone. 

Possible types of bestowed advantages include sporting talent, family money, social connections, educational opportunities, good looks and intelligence.

Big achievers often come from behind, spurred on by an acute awareness of what’s lacking in their lives. They get enormous satisfaction from filling this deficit.

The “lucky ones”, meanwhile, sit back and wonder where on earth it all went. 

It’s not how you start out that matters, it’s what you become.