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

 

A Fool Such as I

It’s humiliating to make business mistakes – especially the habitual ones that have gone undiscovered until now. “Why have I been doing this, all these years? How idiotic.”

After that, it’s gratifying. Embarrassing realizations are forerunners of steps forward, precursors to progress. 

RED-FACED

In a sense, continuous improvement is a matter of moving from one mistake or omission to another, seen in retrospect.

  • Color blind people can’t read our logo.
  • Google isn’t indexing a lot of my pages. Why didn’t I submit a sitemap? 
  • We qualified for that subsidized loan 24 months ago, without being aware of it.

Continuous improvement, once you’ve got over the red face, can feel like a dull way to make progress. How much more exciting to create breakthroughs.

But when viewed closely enough, “continuous” actually looks like small steps or innovations. It’s just a matter of scale.

On that basis, make a fool of me anyday.

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.

Successful by choice

There’s usually more than one way to accomplish something. Ideally, you’ll want to have at least three methods open to you.

If fitness is your goal, for example, try not to rely on jogging alone. Also have a choice among swimming, weights, exercise machine and sport.

WHICH TODAY?

Varying your activities will “keep your body guessing” and make you fitter faster. It’s also great to be able to get up in the morning and ask “what one will I do today?”

If yoga is your thing, train regularly with more than one group. Self-employed? You’ll want at least three clients.

Not only does variety stop you getting bored, it also creates a buyer’s market. The providers of activities will have to compete against each other for your attention, which means you get the best possible deals. 

A range of alternatives isn’t usually possible at the start. Let it evolve. Begin with a single activity, than add to that as opportunities arise.

Achievement – it’s a matter of choice.

For now, hang loose

It’s great to be in control, but sometimes this can throttle your efforts.

Early-stage enterprises are ambiguous, uncertain animals that are never a perfect fit with the market. They need a lot of tweaking and changing.

Being imprecise over goals and methods can be an advantage.

During the Vietnam War, the insurgents and North Vietnamese used the Russian AK-47 semi-automatic rifle, which was very effective in battle because it was engineered slack. U.S. forces, by contrast, were saddled with the fine-tolerance M16 weapon that in its early form needed frequent cleaning and often jammed, resulting in unnecessary loss of life.

LOOSE AND EASY

Anyone who plays tennis knows the virtue of a floppy serve and a relaxed grip. This allows a whippy racquet motion, using the pivot points of the fingers, wrist, elbow, shoulder and back. The grip is tightened up before the racquet contacts the ball.

Ever listened to Bob Dylan’s early songs or read the prose poems on his album covers? Their meanings are often vague and impressionistic. They say almost whatever you want them to, which gives them wide applicability.

So too with business. Hang loose until the moment when you have to tighten up. Let market forces and other uncontrollable variables tell you what you need to know.

Be free, people.

Invent – or just get better?

Who isn’t hoping for the breakthrough that will transform their enterprise – the innovation that will set the world on its heels?

Hard to find, and more progress can be made by the less exciting method of continuous improvement.

Well, it’s not exactly continuous. More ‘fits and starts’. Still, if you’re always on the look-out for these minor opportunities for moving ahead, you will find them. And they do add up.

DIFFERENT SCALE

In a sense, innovation and continuous improvement are the same thing. It’s just a matter of scale. Breakthroughs look like a continuum when they’re viewed from a sufficient distance.

You’re more likely to advance with accumulating baby steps than if always looking for the transformative ‘smash hit’. Occasionally you’ll enjoy one of these, but it’s difficult to plan for.

Bust the charts or succeed by stealth? The answer is at your feet.

Can’t face another day

Write every day, we are told. It’s intended as good advice, whether we’re creating fiction, a blog, or other forms of non-fiction.

The idea is that a regular habit will maintain the flow of thought and get the job completed faster and better than a spasmodic effort.

Yet if we undertake other focused disciplines on a daily basis, we run the risk of overtraining. Anybody who has worked out hard knows the bad feeling of not being able to face another session at the gym because neither the body nor the mind is ready for it.

What’s so different about writing?

In defiance of commonsense, people are expected to be able to push beyond a funk, favor perspiration over inspiration, force themselves through the wall.

This makes little sense. The mind can become exhausted, no less than the body.

DAILY CHURN

By all means look at your writing every morning, assess it, think about where it’s come from and where it’s going. But don’t feel you must churn out another 500 or thousand words, just because today is another day.

Nothing is as good as coming back fresh from a period of rest.

The 21st century Howard Hughes

I looked at a couple of movies recently about the mid-20th-century entrepreneur Howard Hughes. These were The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and The Amazing Howard Hughes, with Tommy Lee Jones.

Both movies told interesting stories, the first focusing on Hughes’s early years, the latter protraying his decline into eccentric old age.

What startled me was the similarity between him and our current rich visionary, Elon Musk.

Hughes made his pile selling drill parts during the Texas oil boom, then parlayed the cash into blockbuster movies, operating an airline (TWA) and making extravagant forays into aircraft design.

His six-engined Spruce Goose was at the time the largest aircraft ever built. It barely got off the ground and has been hangared ever since as an awkward reminder of Hughes’s overreach.

FATED TRAJECTORY? 

In a similar vein, Elon Musk got rich from the internet revolution, bought into the car company Tesla and has ambitions to be a space transport pioneer.

Both men had or are having trouble reining in their cashed-up dreams to keep pace with the reality of what they’re trying to achieve.

The Musk story is still unfolding, but how fascinating to see if the second half of the man’s life will mirror the fated trajectory of his forerunner.