Students and Identity

This is the third post in a thread for university students about strategic thinking. The first step was to reconsider how we might see the future (in a strategic sense). Now we move to how we can make “investment choices” — to fugre out who we are! Onward!

One of the more painful experiences I have had in life is the sense of despair at not knowing who I wanted to be. BTW, this hit me pretty hard not too long after I finished university. As you might see from my earlier post, I had not prepared myself very well for post-university life. And when it arrived, it was difficult for me to stop thinking of myself as a student. I knew that I was to become something else —  and preferably somebody who added value to society, but who? How? I didn’t know. Nor could I see quite how to figure it out. Not knowing, I asked successful people how they chose their professions, but their answers — even when they were full of details and emotion — were specific to their situations. They didn’t seem like answers for me!

BTW, in this frame of mind, I developed a fascination for stories about identity. I was especially fond of Kafka, and his masterwork, The Metamorphosis. Gide was more comforting as he mocked the process of forming identity. I carried his “Vatican Cellars” around nearly as if it were a holy work. I could go on and on. But you might ask yourself, what artistic expressions about identity draw you in.

In order to get beyond the problem, I needed an intellectual tool that I did not have at the time. Later on, I understood that this tool was to properly frame the question. The question “who do I want to be?” presumes several things. First, it presumes that who I was at that moment was not good enough. I would have to change somehow, giving up my current identity. We are already off to a bad start — no one really wants to do that.

BTW, this probably explains why I got such great fun from being with people like me who resisted changing. Who celebrated who they were then. I thought I liked them because I had a naturally rebellious streak. Looking back, I think it was more likely that it was because we shared the same resistance to what we perceived as a threat to ourselves.

Second, it assumes that there was a right answer — some new identity awaited me, like a new suit hanging in the closet that I only had to take out and put on in order to find success. And not seeing what that perfect new identity was, I was frozen into something that by definition was less than perfect. Ooops! BTW, as Roger Martin points out, believing there is a right answer is a strategic problem. Strategic thinking is not about producing a right answer. It is about dealing with uncertainty. In other words, where no right answer is apparent. Smart people — and people who want to be smart — get in trouble here precisely because of their tendency to look for that right answer, instead of thinking strategically.

Is there a way to re-frame the question and get a better result? Of course there is. Notice the focus point? It is on “me”. When I focus on “me”, I lose focus on other things. Like the rest of humanity and the planet on which we live. Rather than focusing on “me”, I needed to focus on things outside of me — the real world. This sounds easy, but I had been trained for nearly two decades as a student to focus on “me” — my learning. It seemed normal and it was not so easy to change.

But check out the kinds of difficulties that focusing on “me” caused. I wanted to be a success, so on the occasions when I imagined what success looked like, I imagined myself already having mastered something. Like standing in front of the orchestra waving my baton or accepting the Nobel Prize, or delivering a stirring state of the union address to Congress or winning the championship, or vacationing on my yacht. But one cannot just jump from humble recent university graduate to Nobel Prize winner with a snap of one’s fingers. There was a huge chasm between “me” and “successful me” and it was scary to think whether I could leap over it. From a strategic point of view, notice how I inadvertently multiplied the apparent risk of failure?

Another diversion – I loved James Thurber’s Walter Middy story and laughed out loud reading it … without realizing how similar Middy’s fantasy life was to my own!

So how to get the focus away from “me” and the risks that I face? The solution is rather simple. It is to abandon the idea that success is the end result. There is an alternative way of measuring success: it is in how you go forward. The journey is the reward, as Steve Jobs  exhorted his workers at Apple. This sounds great, but how does one change one’s focus from getting a reward (ego gratification) to being on a journey? The answer is to gamify the process.

When we play a game, let’s say a sport, or even if we just watch a game, we get engaged. Our creative imaginations are open and working. That is the whole point. Csikszentmihalyi calls this “flow” and he argues that it is what we are looking for in in our quest for a meaningful and “happy” life. An engaged life. BTW, you might be surprised to find out that this is not what most people experience from life. Research shows, for example, that in the US, only around 30% of people are actually engaged in their work. So if we can gamify our work — really get engaged in it — we have a competitive advantage already.

From a strategic point of view, there is another benefit to gamification. When we play a game, we stop thinking about the ultimate reward. The payoff. We are not going to put on our CV, for example, that we just won that pick up basketball game. And even if we lose at tennis to our girl friends who have a surprisingly good backhand, we can and have to laugh about it. Ditto for any game. Gaming takes us into process. It gets us moving. It energizes us. And in the world of strategy, we need to be moving — not standing still fearing risk of failure.

Before going much farther here, we should take note of the two great enemies of gamification. They are (1) being overwhelmed and (2) being bored. When a game gets too difficult or the risks from losing get too high, we get overwhelmed and give up. This is why the best games offer us a “step up” — ways to improve our playing skills one step at a time. Boredom also destroys gaming — when the game is too easy or repetitive there is no meaningful challenge. And without a challenge, we stop playing. The trick in managing gamified experience is to balance the two, stepping up incremental levels of difficulty as we play and move from beginners to masters of the game. A quick tip — If you want to practice your gamification skills, keep track of how often you feel overwhelmed or bored, and what you do about it.

As an aside, look around you. Not at the things that are there. But at the barriers to gamification that people experience. What is overwhelming? What is boring? Can those things be changed? Think about it.

So back to our problem. How do we gamify who we want to be? We know that it is not by fantasizing about great rewards from having already done stuff.  It is instead, seeing how we can emotionally connect to doing stuff at a higher level. How do we connect? There are any of a million ways that people get themselves connected. Most start by watching what other people actually do and thinking if we want to be a part of it. We can and should learn to watch people play in order to figure out what game they are playing. Indeed, there is a game behind every activity in life. Equally important, we might watch what we do and ask ourselves why we are doing it. We always are playing a game. We just don’t verbalize what the game is.

Lafley and Martin, two pretty smart guys, wrote about gamification in their book called “Playing to Win”. It is a pretty intense book about business strategy, but their thoughts on gamifying the process of strategic thinking apply to everyone. They argue that there is no point in doing anything unless your do it to “win”. Not just to survive or get through the experience, but to win. That is a pretty bold statement, and it is not one that I would have thought of back when I was a student. But I didn’t understand gamification back then. I understand it much better now, and I think that they are right. There is no point to doing anything unless you do it to win.

If you agree, this becomes a nice tool to help gamify what we do — anything that we do. We can and should ask ourselves, “what is winning here?” Or, “am I just surviving here?” If we are just in survival mode, it is time to kick into gear. And here is the fun thing — we can create our own games. We are free to decide what winning is in any context. Having trouble getting started on that assignment? Winning may be just getting yourself over to the library. Then you can begin a new game.

So how do we use this to help us see who we want to be in life? To answer this question, we need to understand the question a bit better. We want to be happy, right? So what makes us happy? This is an age old question, and it is one that we are starting to understand a lot better with research on how the brain works. Dan Kahneman and others offer us some pretty important insights.

Here goes! We tend to think that experiences make us happy. Like that nice ice cream cone or vacation. In fact, happiness is in the interpretation of the experience, not the experience itself. You can be happy, for example, suffering from exhaustion while you play an amazing game of tennis or climb a mountain or trek in the rain forest. And it turns out that we interpret experiences in two different levels. The first level is based on what we get from it not. That is the experiencing self. The second level is what we remember from it. That is the remembering self. Ready? The two are not the same.

That is right, what we remember from life is not really what happened. It is what we select from the experience that was important for us. And our remembering self trumps our experiencing self in how happy we perceive ourselves to be. So, drum roll please! If we want to get better at understanding who we want to be, we need to understand how to create great memories. Those memories are the most important thing we have.

So what memories are we creating? It seems that the most important memories we have are about connecting with other people. In other words, if we want to see who we want to be, we need to learn how we want to connect with people. It is the ultimate game.  Winning is about making high value connections, given the limits of what we are capable of and what is needed. In this game, even taking out the garbage morphs into something completely different.

A quick aside – You might complain that you can’t change what other people do without “power” or “authority”.  In fact, authority is over-rated when it comes to strategic problem solving. King Canute could not control the waves, and modern CEO’s cannot force their employees to get “engaged” in their work. We are students of developing strategic engagement, which is something altogether different.

Here is the final point on this “who do I want to be” problem. In fact, we really don’t want to “be” anyone. We want instead to connect to the most important stuff and add the most value possible. Once we decide that is what we are doing, we start creating great memories. We will be giving meaning to the connections we make as we gamify our learning about them.

On a meta level, Lafley and Martin argue that this translates into the initial strategic question that we must ask and answer — “Who do I want to be in light of what people do?” It is a choice, and a critical choice that starts a game. Starting the game, we play with the “who” we are creating in order to have an impact. We change as we play the game at higher and higher levels. We become part of  an adventure rather than something standing outside of the things happening around us.

Remember – there is no single right answer. There are just answers that you learn from your experience that add meaning to them.

So back to my own life. Remember? I thought I had to change who I was. In fact, I only needed to change the way I did things based on what I saw around me. Any and all changes that were needed would happen automatically as I learned how to play the game. But that is not how I was educated. I was educated that knowledge trumps all. It is not true. Knowledge is just a tool for gamifying life. And gamification starts by seeing connections between what people do and how I can add to it.

This greatly simplifies the problem at hand. And I can simplify it even more. There is a difference between “success” and “winning”. We are successful when we do all we can to prepare to win. We can rest easy at night knowing that there is no more to do. In this context, you might listen to the great John Wooden talk about success and winning. Wooden was brilliant at “gamifying practice”.

So is that it? As we gamify who we are, we are on the right track to develop a more acute strategic sense. But we need another tool in order to build up our capacity to learn from what we do. It doesn’t just happen. We need a focusing tool. Stay tuned! That is next!

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