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

2021: A Break Odyssey

Instead of making new year resolutions for 2021, here’s a better idea. Break something, pull it apart, and remake it.

The problem with resolutions is that the associated actions have to be continued for at least three months in order to convert them into a habit.

The brain pattern – and the muscle memory that goes with it – needs to be replaced by another. No easy task. Each time that we fall back into the legacy, comfortable way of doing something, it continues to be strengthened. A clean break is needed.

One problem with forming a new pattern is that until it’s properly in place, we keep making silly errors and causing ourselves to look stupid to others.

Too bad. It’s an unavoidable part of the process.

Most people don’t attempt to build a new habit. Instead they try to get a better result from the old less-than-optimal pattern of thought and action. That’s as likely as persuading your dog to bring in the letters instead of chasing the mailman. 

If you’re a cruel-minded kind of person who loves to win against others, their habits are invaluable. You can use them as a guide as to what these people are likely to do next. They rarely alter their routines.

Still, in a year that’s been a nightmare for many, there’s been progress. Folks have been forced to adapt to new situations, which has meant changing the old ways of doing things.

Let’s make that a harbinger of 2021 – a year for the dissolution of bad habits. Many of them are not actually bad, just not as useful as they could be.

Break, pull-apart, remake. A tenet for the twenties.

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.