Life Hacking for Students

I have a certain sympathy for graduating university students. As I remember well, they are expected to march out into the world without the basic training to deal with the world. And they are supposed to have asked and answered the dreaded question “what am I going to do with my life?”

One quick tip – at that stage of your life, you are totally unqualified to answer that question. Don’t even try. Why?  “Your life” is not a thing like a car or even an event like a vacation. It is more like a rather complex ecology of different things that are connected through the invisible strands of time. This ecology requires nurturing and exploring which then produces a degree of understanding. So, what things you will want to do will evolve as you do them for reasons that are most likely rather obscure right now.

So what can you do? Well, you can read my 6 part thread on how to think strategically about your situation (you can find it in the “Tread for students” category on the right side of this page). A word of caution. Thinking strategically won’t offer you an answer to the above question. Even after studying the strategy guide intensely, you still will be unqualified to answer it. But it will help you understand the question better. And understanding the question will position you to think about it more clearly. It also can lead you to start taking some first steps “into” your future. That is critical, because as you will find out, the future is something that happens one step at a time. Try skipping a step, and you are in doggie doodoo. Ditto for not taking steps as they become clear. Creativity evolves out of movement. Not the other way around.

This is a nice starting point to introduce a key thought. Movement to build creativity implies a mindfulness about your movements. In other words, do what you do well and you will learn from the doing.

Students: Take Me to Your Story Teller

This is the sixth and last post in my thread about strategic thinking. I am targeting university students in this thread to introduce some ideas that open the door to better strategy. Now we tackle the last, and perhaps most important idea of them all. It is the thing that binds all of our thinking together: story telling.

This last post actually takes us one step beyond “strategy”. It i snot about positioning ourselves for the future (something we all have to do). It is more about how to see stuff. How to generate the inspiration to be part of the adventure. Strategic thinking helps you use that energy. But it does not necessarily generate the energy. So where does that come from?

Mankind is trapped in time. Our lives move from present to future and we cannot change that. Our pasts grow ever larger as our futures shrink. And between the two are the fleeting moments that we experience and that are then gone. No matter how much we might want to hold onto a given moment in time, or go back in time, we cannot. We march remorselessly forward, one step at a time until we expire. and then our children live on and do the same. Even when we rebel, throw down our tools, and just sit still or refuse to get out of bed like Oblamov, time still moves on.

Research shows that even though we live with this phenomenon every minute of every day, we do not see it for what it really is. We tend to think that what is happening right now is the perfect realization of what led up to now. In a sense, that the story is over. Thus, hopefully, future change will be minimal. Dan Gilbert discusses this in his TED talk. And it appears that the more we love the self — what we are now — the more we cling to the present. This, perhaps, explains Tolstoy’s great depression when his great work was behind him and he began to consider the reality of his own death.

Why is this important? Because it brings out a natural human tendency to get trapped in small, bounded stories and ignore much larger and more engaging things around us. I imagine an old Nordic couple arguing with each other so intensely that they do not notice the tremendous aurora borealis (northern lights) shimmering above them. These two might each have devised clever strategies to cope with the other. But the more deeply they go into their argument, the more trapped they are by it. Bill Ury talks about this in terms of managing conflict, and he makes some interesting points about getting perspective. But we don’t only do it when we are in conflict. We do it all the time and this is a strategic problem.

I have seen this in myself in moments when I felt I could not go on with life without that one thing that was missing. What was it? Well, fill in the blank – it was a girlfriend or a car or a vacation or a good grade or justice for some imagined slight. In each case, the feeling was totally irrational, and yet powerful. At that moment, the one thing seemed like the only thing I needed in life. I lost perspective and got trapped in the present or worse still, the past.

I also see this in companies that I work with. They are successful at what they do now. But they cannot imagine doing anything differently — even if it would be better. They cannot find the “next step up”. Tod Zenger writes about this for HBR. He argues that companies get trapped in a given strategy long after that strategy has served its purpose. In other words, we can be very good at implementing a strategy, but less good at seeing new strategic possibilities beyond what we are engaged in right now. Just as I was, these companies are trapped in the present tense.

Todd’s suggestion to avoid this trap is to start with a “theory” rather than a “strategy”. The theory is a broader hypothesis about what what causes people to do things. This sounds a bit abstract, but I think he is on the right track. Jeff Bezos, for example, articulated this “theory” that drives Amazon forward – that people want 3 things from shopping (1) cheaper prices, (2) broader selection, and (3) faster delivery. Amazon relentless strives to deliver all three and the company innovates as needed to meet these timeless desires of its clients.

Nice theory Jeff! Notice that he has created a storyline. And it is a storyline that has no ending — except if evidence shows that the theory is somehow wrong. In that case, Jeff will need a new and better theory. But assuming he is right, no matter how smart Jeff is — and apparently he is very smart indeed — he cannot know now how Amazon will be able to continue meeting the demands of its clients based on the above hypothesis. No single innovation that Amazon creates now will trump all future innovations. Jeff has positioned the people he works with to be part of a great story. Not just a single strategy, but an evolving storyline.

Doing this well aint easy. But if we can manage it, building a great story that illuminates why we do what we do ties together everything else we have been discussing. When we are part of a great story, we intuitively understand the dynamic at play . We do not need to get into our slow reasoning processes to get us out of bed in the morning. Great stories are greatly energizing. They open our eyes to new strategic possibilities.

How do we start building great stories for ourselves?  This is a skill that we develop as we do it. But there are a few guiding principles that can help our practice.

A starting point — stories are not about the details in the story. They are about how those details connect into a larger whole.  Put it this way, things themselves are interesting for why we see them. What is the larger universal idea behind them? We start feeling stories by simply asking that question. Why does something excite us? A coffee mug, for example, is not just a thing. It is also the expression of generations of learning how to make and shape ceramics. Is there a future for coffee mugs? If so, why? Ditto for everything we see in our home. The TV, the stereo, the computer, the doorbell, and the people who live there (me included). We can and should practice seeing the “why” along with the “what” to start building stories.

We can take one more step. These connecting links are mysterious. We don’t see them right away. As Tood says, they are interesting as “hypotheses” about the thing. This mysterious nature of connecting links introduces an interesting dialectic between what we see and what we do not see  – the unknown. Stories are not about the known. They are about attempts to understand the unknown. The unknown makes even a mundane thing curious. Jeff Bezos doesn’t really know why people buy stuff. And it is likely that his theory doesn’t explain everything. But it proposes a theory about the unknown that is interesting.  So to start seeing great stories around us, we need to build an appreciation of the unknown rather than just asserting what we think we do know. The key point – we don’t know how great stories will turn out. We only know why we want it to work out. So as we build stories, we know only 2 things: (1) the theory and (2) facts that are either consistent with or inconsistent with the theory.

So great stories are about searching for the universals that we cannot see by proposing and testing theories. And as we search, we play out certain roles. Or, putting it another way, we become characters in our own stories. There are at least three and each of the three can be energizing.

The first is the story of the novice or beginner. In this story, we see something for the first time. Before we see it, it was unknown. Now, through the story, we have seen something new. And that is the whole point of the story. Looking back on my university days, this was in fact the story I was living. Everything was new. Yet, how quickly I wanted to move on from the new! I did not appreciate that this is a great story in itself.  From a strategic point of view, every great project starts here. Every great idea has its humble start in a single insight that leads to a theory and then a strategy. And so the beginner story is highly valuable for that reason.

The second is the learning story. After we have seen a challenge, there is a great story in what we do about it. We move from novice to apprentice. Think of Neo training in the kung fu studio with Morpheus in the film Matrix. Or the entire film, the Karate Kid. Or thousands of other stories where the novice must invest in skills building. Notice that in this story, the challenge is already known and it is assumed to be important. Questioning that challenge is not part of this story. And if we do question the value of learning, we will not learn.

The third is the story of mastery. Can we prevail in a given context? These days, we are deluged with this type of story. The story of “super heroes” and “geniuses”. Or great players performing in championship games. We hear that these are “ultimate tests”.  And so we like to think of ourselves as masters of our own ultimate tests as well. But in fact, this type of story is relatively short – one asserts mastery in a given context or not, and the story is over. Then we need to move onto a new story.

Each role has its own importance and story type. And to nurture our individual capacity to be part of great stories, we should recognize the roles that we take on as we act.

So that is it. We started from defining the strategic challenge of creating a future self. We worked on how to build focus and gamify and re-think how we connect with others. And now we see that all of these efforts work if they fit into a great story. A theory about what makes life “insanely great”. From this perspective, as Csikszentmihalyi argued in his book Flow, llife has no inherent meaning. It has only the meaning that we give it in the stories that we create. Strategic thinking positions us to give that meaning.

Onward!

Student Connections

This is the fifth post in a thread about strategic thinking. It is targeted to university students, and meant to introduce a framework for using strategic thinking to get ahead. The tools so far have focused on re-shaping what we think and what we do about the future. But they leave out a key strategic challenge – how we connect to others in the adventure. That is next!

During the time I was a student, I put a high priority on who I was connected with. This was in part a matter of my own identity – I wanted to be accepted in the groups that I identified with. The thought did not occur to me back then that this was a bit limiting. Why? Dave Logan brings this out in his TED talk about his tribal leadership model. It is worth tacking a look at Dave’s TED talk. He clarifies why not all groups are equally dynamic or even healthy. Going beyond Dave’s idea, once you are in a less than great group, research suggests that it is likely that the group will impact on your attitude – for better for worse.

These are serious concerns, but there is more. Steve Johnson first turned me on to the question, “where do great ideas come from?” He has a nice video about this that I highly recommend watching. To be honest, before listening to Steve, I had not considered the question at all. I had no idea. I imagined an eccentric genius emerging from a basement with a glow in his eye, or Sir Isaac Newton sitting alone under a tree staring at an apple. Great ideas come from really, really smart people. Right? In fact, the answer is that great ideas evolve out of  certain types of social exchanges. Even the greatest minds develop ideas based on their exchanges with others — not just their individual force of brain power. And that includes exchanges with people who lived in the past (via books, etc.) and the present (via that time honored artifact of the cafe society, conversation).  It is counter-intuitive, but genius is perhaps best understood as a form of conversation.

Matt Ridley takes the idea of “exchange” further. He argues that “ideas have sex” (an alarming thought). They do this through exchanges between people who share them and when they have sex, they create something new and better than the individual parents. Ridley goes further. He argues that the ability of mankind to make exchanges between different groups or tribes makes us special. It is our ultimate creativity enhancer. Exchange trumps all else. So if exchange trumps all else, we should be thinking strategically about how we do those exchanges.

These are heady thoughts about the value added from connecting with people. BTW, heady thoughts that I would never have come up with on my own. In that respect, they illustrate what Steve, Matt and others are talking about. And when I thought about it, I began to see that we swim in a sea of social exchanges. When we read a book or watch TV or play a video game, social exchanges provide the foundation for what we are doing. The author wrote the book fur us, the producers, director and actors collaborate to tell you the story on TV, and the designers and programmers developed the computer game. Indeed, the game probably introduces you to digital characters that you are encouraged to interact with. And internet multiplies the possibilities for exchange in ways that we are just beginning to figure out.  Indeed, figuring that out may be the defining characteristic of the 21st century.

So how to look at this from a strategic point of view? Perhaps we should start by realizing how vulnerable we are in the realm of exchanges. We cannot live without them. And yet, not all exchanges have equal value. They can be both incredibly empowering and equally destructive. Can we maximize the gain? To do that, we could use some tools — sort of an exchange toolbox.

Where do we start? We might start by asking what motivates these exchanges in the first place? Why do people do it? If we can answer that, we have identified the fuel that makes the engine roar. Well, boiling it all down, Adam Smith, Bentham et al probably got it right. The answer is most likely self-interest. People are profoundly self-interested. We are hard wired to be that way. And it is most likely that we structure our exchanges to advance our own interests.

It is a rational way to look at the world. Right?  But we know now that it is not 100% correct. Dan Kahneman brings out that perceived self-interest is not the same thing as rational self-interest. And we act as much on perceived self-interest as we do rational self-interest.  Malcolm Gladwell brings this out in his book “David and Goliath” and in his recent Google talk. His point is that we all want to connect with institutions that we perceive are great and mighty — in a word, prestigious. We do this even when it is not really in our interest — for example when we could have gotten more form joining a less prestigious source. This is useful from a strategic point of view. Promoting quality exchanges means engaging emotions, not just intellect.

So, how do we engage these emotions? Dan Pink offers some ideas in his book “Drive” (and it confirms what Gladwell was saying) . People get motivated by things that appear to be bigger than they are. What are these things? Money and power? In fact, these things appear to be great only when you don’t have them. There are much bigger things out there. And they are connecting to great purposes, achieving mastery and/or achieving autonomy. Yes, we have seen these categories before.

If Dan is right, the most compelling exchanges offer a connection to at least one of the above. How? Humans have been using a tool to do this for as long as we have used language. We connect people to greatness through stories. All stories share a common structure. They all start with establishing an emotional connection to the main characters. Then they move on to the challenge that threatens these nice folks (some sort of dark force). The dark force always appears to be more powerful than the characters.  There is a clash and the nice folks overcome the dark force. Then there is a celebration. Once again, the elements are (1) connect with positive emotions (2) introduce the challenge (3) overcome the challenge (4) celebrate victory.  Dan Pink’s great motivators appear in the first part of the story. The challenges are the opposites of the great motivators (think matter/anti-matter). And overcoming the challenge is the moment of great creativity – it is where we find the most high quality exchanges or eurika moments. Notice that celebration only comes at the end of the story!

Now comes the fun part of our adventure — putting the above to use to position ourselves in order to make high quality exchanges. I have talked about “overcoming the challenge” as the key moment (climax) of the story. That is what it feels like. But in an exchange, we actually see something quite different. What we see is a transaction. An agreement.  We either reach agreements with people or we do not. And having quality exchanges boils down to producing quality agreements. So we need to translate our emotional story map (what we feel) into a transaction map (what we actually see). Here goes! Hold onto your hat!

The transaction map has three phases – pre-transaction, transaction, and post transaction. And here is the key idea. We need different types of communication styles in each phase.This is an essential idea to make our communications more effective. And it is not immediately apparent. We need to think it through carefully to see why. Here goes!

So let us consider the pre-transaction phase. It is what we see in the first part of our story (where we establish emotional connections between the characters). In this phase, it is critical that the characters are likeable — that connections are possible and potentially rewarding. This idea obsessed Roger Fisher and Bill Ury (two very smart guys who taught at Harvard). These two smart guys were frustrated that negotiations often produced conflict. Why? It had to do with the way people saw each other across the negotiating table. Instead of seeing potential partners, folks saw — potential threats.

In other words, people were ignoring a key part of the story. They were racing to get to the story climax before they established who the characters are. In our framework, they were trying to do a transaction before they completed the pre-transactoin phase of the exchange. Ooops! Fisher and Ury wrote their great book on negotiation, “Getting to Yes” to address that issue. It was btw, published back in 1981 and it is one of the more important books of that period.

They bring out that in negotiations, one can achieve a better result by taking into account and acting on the “interests” that the parties share rather than just taking positions and demanding concessions (bargaining). Discovering complementary interests opens the door to learning and more creative exchanges. And doing it well requires a set of skills that we need to practice. Fisher and Ury laid the foundation for a huge amount of new thinking about communication, negotiation, conflict management and institution building. No student should go into the real world without some basic understanding of it. Trust me on that one.

But this is just one phase of the story. We need to move to the transaction phase. Let me emphasize once again, it presents an entirely different emotional framework and therefore has to be treated differently than the pre-transaction phase. In our story framework, we feel the threat of the “dark force”. In the real world we see the need to make a decision and act on it.  There is a huge amount we could say about decision making. Most important, we are not as good at it as we think, and Chip and Dan Heath bring out why no in their book “Decisive”. It is sobering reading. The key point for us is that in this phase of the story, we are no longer focused on positive emotions. We need to act in an effective manner and so we need to learn how to set aside our emotions. Courage becomes more important than good intentions and even genius. And btw, really smart folks tend to have more difficulty than average folks. Perhaps they see too much to make timely and effective decisions.

So we are focusing on “agreements” as the building blocks of exchanges. Can we say what great agreements look like? They do share one characteristic. They are not about maintaining the status quo. They take the story to the next step. To the conclusion. For this reason, making great decisions brings into play leader/follower thinking. I don’t refer here to the so called charismatic leader. And I am not talking about the person in a position of authority (the CEO). I refer instead to the person or persons who take responsibility for the future of the group. This can be a person working at the lowest level. But it is a person who translates principles into motivated action. Leadership is fickle because it emerges most noticeably in crisis. But if we think of “crisis” as merely one type of transaction setting, we might say that the leadership makes transactions possible. And, btw, this is very important when we are trying to bring about “change” – the dark force always seems to resist the change.

And in the post-transaction phase? In the old days, this was interpreted as the moment to celebrate and go back to sleep. But these days, it is more about asking what doors have been opened from the transaction. What is now possible that was not possible before? What did we learn from the adventure? What is the next adventure? So we think in terms of “cycles of innovation”. This is what got Rita Gunther McGrath excited when she wrote “The End of Competitive Advantage”. Her point is that the cycles of innovation are speeding up – old strategies to milk the cash cow as long as possible don’t work in this setting.  In this faster paced world, it is not unexpected that it takes four or five or more of such cycles before people involved in new transaction fields get it right and do something great. In other words, in a fast-moving context, failed transactions are expected and can be rectified in the next go round if we learn from what we do.

We could go much further into the above, but for our purposes it is enough to see that each transaction phase has its purpose in making connections function. Neglecting any of them when you build relationships is highly dangerous. Like rushing to make an agreement without thinking through the interests of the parties. Or ignoring the  learning from what we achieve. And we should see by now that connections in each phase require a different strategic posture. Pre-transaction connections are open and exploratory. Transaction connections are about efficient execution. Post- transaction connections are more analytical.

This is a lot to think about and I hesitate to add to it. But there is one more thing to keep in mind. We experience at least two different types of connections in the modern world. One type is composed of individual connections where we exchange ideas one to one with others. The second type of connection is within and between institutions.  On the individual level, we seek great partnering. Great relationships. And we can get more from our relationships if we think strategically about them and practice using the above communication tools. But what about institutions?

This is a pretty complicated area and we can’t get into it in detail. But one thing is apparent. Our institutions are structured based on what worked up until now. That applies to the public and private sectors. But in the 21st century, we are likely to see new patterns of exchanges that produce a faster pace of learning and change. That suggests that the institutions we use will likely change too.

How? Well, we are just beginning to understand how the pre-transaction phase can add value. There are lots of examples of this. But our private sector institutions (corporations) are not well positioned to operate in this field. The pre-transaction phase works far more efficiently if connections are open and extend beyond the firm itself. You get a lot more idea Input. Universities (like MIT) can do a more broad range of things. And this issue is what drives folks who advocate for “open innovation” and “peer-to-peer networking solutions“. Also, post-transaction assessments work better when those assessing what happened are not just covering their butts inside a firm. Some think that big firms can be better organized to innovate faster. Some argue that client input can and should be integrated into pre and post transaction phases in order to make markets work better. Crowd funding, for example, gives consumer input into the design selection process. And others look to “innovation factories” like YCombinator that may speed things up. These and the start-up world seek to build “ecologies” around innovation. So, we can see that corporations acting on their own may not be the ultimate in terms of accelerating innovation. They are not about to disappear, but we may not need them as much as we did in the past. So what types of institutions do we need? Well, that is not 100% clear yet. And perhaps there is no single answer.

But we do understand the trend. Our institutional framework will evolve to meet what people perceive is in their best interests over time. We are waking up to the central role that exchanges play in helping us get ahead in life. So we can expect institutions that facilitate this will thrive. This means institutions are likely to adapt in ways that enhance our creativity. If this interests you, check out Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Creativity”, where he builds a social model for enhancing creative exchanges.

And there is one more trend to keep in mind. In the old days, one could get ahead by mastering a complex  knowledge base (like medicine or law). We rewarded such “experts” highly. This is still the case. But there will come a time (and probably sooner than we think) when computers can do nearly everything better than we can. That includes making decisions using expertise. For example, we got over our shock long ago that a computer can defeat even the greatest grand master at chess. This means that computers will take over a significant amount of work that we now delegate to experts. But not all. As I said, computers will do nearly everything better than we do. Humans will still be better at understanding why we do things. And human expertise will focus more on that element of making transactions and decisions. This is called “freestyle thinking”. How does it work? Well, consider that while a super-computer can defeat a grand master in chess, it cannot defeat a grand master teamed up with other computers. Freestyle thinking will elbow its way into the mainstream, vastly enhancing access to expertise and empowering teams that use that expertise effectively.

We have come a long way in this post — from seeing the importance of exchanges to structuring exchanges to make them work better to thinking about institutional change. We are now in the world of platforming. A world that we will no doubt learn much more about in the 21st century.

So, is that it?  Anything more to put in our strategy toolkit? Well, there is one more idea to explore. Is there something to hold all this together? We have touched on the strategic value of story telling here. Next, we will go a lot deeper into it.

Student Focus

This is the fourth post in a thread for university students on strategic thinking. So far we have considered the role of future thinking and gamified identity. Now we move to the critical area of building focus.

We are on an adventure here to figure out how to think strategically. We have solved part of the puzzle. We know now that a lot depends on how we think about the future. And we know that strategic thinking starts off a gamified learning experience about connecting who we are with what we do. But what happens after we start playing? Is our strategic thinking over? Not by a long shot. And now we will take a look at how to play.

We started off by saying that strategy is what positions us for the future. I argued this positioning is what help us win the games that we create and play. The point is not just to play, but to win. However, winning is not guaranteed (or else we would not need a strategy, right?). So as John Wooden said, what counts is what you learn — after you know it all. After you have decided what you want to do. Translating that into our model, we need a tool that helps us learn from what we do once we see ourselves in the game. And that is a focusing tool.

Most famously, focus is “saying no” to distraction. As Steve Jobs said, focus means saying “no” to doing even good stuff so that we can concentrate on creating “insanely great” stuff. It is about conserving our limited resources! And btw, it is useful to reflect that as a human our cognitive resources are limited. We can only take in a limited amount of data per second and we can only see things one way at a time. And our will power? That is a resource that is quickly exhausted (like a muscle). So there is a lot to learning how to say “no” to some stuff if you want to be able to say “yes!” to great stuff. And this is something that gets harder in the modern world as the number of distractions multiplies. So focus is at least in part about sticking to an agenda that you believe in. That is easy to understand, and something that we can practice.

But there is a problem. Concentration itself does not guarantee learning from what we do. It does not produce creativity. And from a strategic point of view that extra learning and creativity is at least as important as the doing itself. Washing the dishes every day does not guarantee I will learn how to wash them better. So we need something more from focus. We need something that opens the door to improving how we do important stuff as well as learning how the process could be improved. We want more “continuous innovation” from our lives.

How do we do that? The first step is to understand more clearly how we think as humans. Dan Kahneman brings this out very well. We like to think fast, using intuition. Malcolm Gladwell writes a lot about this in his book “Blink”. Much of the time, our intuition is reliable and thinking fast empowers us to do stuff fast. But intuition is not always right. And when it is wrong, we get into trouble. We have a cognitive tool to do better and that is our slow thinking (analytical thinking). And Dan points out that it is something we don’t like to do. But it is our slow thinking that enables us to get behind the surface of things. We can’t do that with just intuition. It is something that a genius like Richard Feynman liked to talk about. He felt there is a certain beauty in it. An art form in itself.

So back to our adventure. To learn from what we do, we need to engage our slow thinking. We still will use intuition (indeed, we can’t help it). But we need to understand when and how to switch between fast and slow thinking. In pre-fab games, we do this routinely. We run around on the basketball court until someone calls “time out!” The time out is a call for slow thinking. And, of course, as Dan Coyle and others bring out, this is what practice is for. Not just to mindlessly repeat something, but to analyze the key components of what you need to do so that you can figure out how to do it better.  I especially enjoyed Dan’s post on how Saun White trained for the Vancouver Olympics.

So how can we use this “mindfulness” as we play out our own strategic games? I have two suggestions. First, we need to be mindful of something called “leveling”.  We play games at different levels: beginner, intermediate and expert. And we don’t play — and should try to not play — all games at the expert level. If we are just trying out something, it is totally ok to play at the beginner level, not caring that we are awkward or lose. It is fun to be a beginner. But if we are playing a game that is critical to a life issue, we need to level up to the expert level.

Here is the thing – we all are tempted to level up if we can. That is why video games can be so addictive. They offer no value in terms of life skills. But they may offer the chance to get to level 80 Wow! We have limited resources and when we commit to leveling up in life, we need to ask why we are doing it. Will leveling up help me be the person I want to be in light of what other people do?

These are critical questions that students need to think about. What am I leveling up and why? It is not necessarily the subjects that you major in (like economics). It may be in writing skills or strategic thinking. But as we move on in life, it gets more and more critical that we have mastered the core skills needed in the area where we work. That means selecting areas to work on and leveling up.

There is a second mindfulness issue to work on. If we are committed to doing something well — to level up — we need to see the path to get there. Tim Ferriss talks about this quite a lot — identifying the 20% of what you do that gives you 80% of the result. Master that 20%, and in most cases, you are a top performer. For example, I went to law school to become a commercial lawyer. What 20% of the things lawyers do gives them 80% of the results to be a success? I can say from experience that a key skill area has nothing to do with law. A huge amount of lawyering is about managing conflict and negotiation. Oddly, my law school did not tell me that and did not offer courses in those areas. Strange. Lesson learned: you can get ahead faster if you figure these things out earlier.

Back to our adventure in mastering focus. We have gone beyond just knowing how to say “no”. We are now starting to think slowly to learn from what we do. We are asking should I level up? And if so, what 20% will get me there?

This is useful if our challenge is relatively clear cut, let’s say to become a great chef or to learn a new language. But it assumes that you can break down your challenge into parts. What if the parts are not so visible? Can we bump up the motivation to help us see deeper into problems faster? To get more creative in finding solutions when the solutions are not obvious?  The answer is “yes”. But it is a qualified yes.  This is a second type of slow thinking, and it is about what energizes us.

Let’s start with a pretty basic idea. Some things energize us and some things don’t. And the fastest way to get stuck in a strategic sense is to feel drained of energy. To feel alienated from what you need to do. What to do?  There is some surprising research on this issue. As we procrastinate it gets harder and harder to do anything. But if we take a first step and do something, it gets progressively easier to do more. So if you are resisting cutting the grass, just commit to taking the lawn mower out of the garage. In other words, taking a step opens the door to doing and learning. Using our terminology above, to feel energized to play a “beginners game”.

And what if I don’t know what step to take at all? What motivates me then? Well, we know from gaming that motivation does not arise from deep meaning. We get very excited about all sorts of meaningless games. So what is it that motivates us to play? The answer is competition. As humans, we seem to be hardwired to compete. Not to the death. And not to be humiliated as a loser. But in friendly competition. We use this in playing our pre-fab games and we can use it to gamify our lives to.

In pre-fab games, the competition is made clear by the rules. But when we create our own games, we create our own rules as well. These rules can start from identifying the opponent – the so called “enemy”. The opponent is the thing that will defeat us. Without an opponent, we tend to drift. Famous NBA basketball coach Pat Riley talked about this quite a lot. According to Pat, we all need an identified enemy. He liked to personify the enemy – the person who is training more mindfully than you are. The person who will prevent you from winning. If you don’t know what steps to take, you may start by identifying who your opponent is.

Lafley and Martin take this argument to a higher level in their book about gamification. They agree that competition is critical to making the game work. And they argue that you should always compete against the best people in the world.  There is no point in winning against losers. So, who are the people you admire? People who have done or are doing amazing things? They are your competition. Or at least you can see them that way to get motivated. What holds us back from doing this? Usually, it is that we have not thought carefully what choices those high performers made to reach their status. If we start thinking of them in terms of choices, we have a basis to compare their choices and our own.

There is another way to do this. Dan Pink offers this other way in his book “Drive”.  In that book, Dan asks what things motivate people to be more creative in solving problems? Hint: the answer is not more money. Offering more money has a neutral and sometimes even slightly negative effect on creative problem solving. And based on research, Dan offers three categories of motivating influences on our creativity. They are (1) to be connected to a great purpose (save the world) (2) to see the path to mastering something (like becoming a zen master – leveling up) and (3) attaining autonomy (becoming the decision maker).

I think of these things as a way to organize “enemies”. Great purposes generally suppose great external opposing forces. Achieving mastery makes you your own enemy. Achieving autonomy assumes both internal and external obstacles. But whether you look at it this way, or just find motivation in one or the other category, we have a tool for slow thinking. Even if we are stuck and cannot practice to master a given game, are we doing things that motivate us? If not, what around us offers the energy that we need? We know we need to generate energy to get that first step done.

You might ask, why is this hard to do? The answer may surprise you. The problem is not with you. It is in the way humans think. As I said above, we tend to use our intuition rather than our slow thinking. There is a reason for this. We perceive only a small fraction of what goes on around us. We are not capable of seeing more. In order to function at all, we need to form beliefs in what is around us. And the brain does this at the subconscious level all the time. In fact, our beliefs strongly govern what we see. And as such, they create limits on what we can see and do.

It is a critical point in understanding focus. We create these limits without thinking about it. Without realizing the potential mischief it can cause. And therefore, we might consider that the assumptions underlying our beliefs are our main enemy. That being said, we can overcome this problem with aggressive questioning of why we believe what we do. Let’s call it “aggressive slow thinking”. Simon Sinek argues, the “why” question drives all others. Having a clear answer to “why” we are engaged in the game makes the game more engaging and breaks down our belief in “what” is important and “how” things should be done. You might call this “playing the why game”. Start with what you are doing and ask why you are doing it. then ask why that it is important? And when you have an answer to that, ask again, why is that important? You will be surprised how many layers you have to go through to get to the root of your beliefs.

There is one more focus challenge in our adventure. Bruce Schneier brings this out nicely in his TED talk. As humans, our cognitive functions evolved from what was needed in order to survive in primitive times. That included producing strong reactions to immediate risks – like seeing a tiger in the woods. We ran without thinking about it (so called fast thinking, as Dan Kahneman calls it). Our brains are hard wired to react  when we see the risk. We have no problem focusing on what to do. However, modern life poses a different sort of challenge. The more common strategic issues that we face relate to things that we cannot see in front of us. They might be political, legal, economic, business, environmental, or so on. Thinking strategically about these types of challenges requires a new type of focus – on the model driving the system rather than the thing or event itself.

Here is a quick thought experiment. Ask yourself, how dangerous is it to step into a 747 jet liner? There is no way to know with any degree of precision. Nor can we find out as a passenger on that commercial airliner. The amount of risk depends on the implementation of a system that protects us from known risks. It is a model for maximizing safety. That model was developed by persons who studied why airplanes have crashed, and once it did, what injured passengers and crew. Each risk factor demands a counter-safety measure. If we trust the system, we don’t think about the risk. Indeed, we learn not to think about risks at all as we fly over the ocean.

This translates into a strategic focus problem. We live within a maze of interconnected models. None of them are perfect and all of them are evolving. If we want to connect to things people do, we have to connect to the models that make those things possible. And not just to understand them, but to improve them. Most important: not to accept them as things beyond change. As 21st century humans, we need to master the game of working with and improving modeling.

Thinking back on my student days, I will confess that I had lots of focus issues. I was a procrastinator. That is, I needed a immediate threat (like an exam) to get motivated to focus. Without that threat, my thinking was largely “fast” or instinctive. I distrusted my — any one else’s — ability to get beneath the surface of things. To slow down. Nor did I think that competing was essential. This was out of fashion back then. Nor was I highly motivated to level up. I didn’t realize it then, but a lot of these issues could have been resolved if I had worked on how to focus. For me, that came later.

So, that is our introduction to focus. Focus is our learning tool to master the games that we commit to. We choose our focus points and learn from them. Is that it? Well, not really. There are a few more strategic problems we need to work on. For example, we don’t live alone – relationships are important and play a critical role in how we develop and implement strategies. Here is a peak at the type of thing I am talking about. That is next!

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!

Future Thinking for Students

This is is the second post in a thread for students on the basics of strategic thinking

In my first post, I argued that university students should get a better introduction to strategic thinking. That it is a key skill set. Now we get to work, unpacking what strategy is and how to “do it”.

Strategy is what we do in order to position ourselves for the future.  I will unpack the “what we do” idea a bit later on. But before we do that, we might ask why we need to do anything? What is it about the future that gives us trouble? The conventional answer is that students are not ready for the real world. They don’t know enough. They need more knowledge. Is this really the problem?

If it were the problem, then life would be just a matter of absorbing knowledge. Like filling the gas tank of a car. Unfortunately, knowledge alone does not solve problems. It doesn’t get anything done. And the future is about what we get done. Not just what we know we should have done. So we might start off our quest for strategic insight by reflecting how the future comes about. What humans do to make the future happen.

Put on your seat belt for some bad news. Research shows that humans are really, really bad at thinking about the future. If you want to get into that idea, check out Dan Pink’s book “To Sell is Human” or Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Decisive”. When we close our eyes and try to visualize the future, what we see is not usually what we will get. And we rarely anticipate the future consequences of what we do now. We are far more focused on the “now” part. In other words, when it comes to creating a future, we are “flying blind”. Like a pilot flying over the ocean at night, we need instruments or tools to help us see where we are going.

This does not seem like an earth shattering statement. And yet, it is. It is because research also shows that we think just the opposite. We think that we are very good at predicting the future. Indeed, we seem to need the feeling that we are in control of what is going on. And so we assert that we (as individuals) are far more important than the events taking place around us. Pop culture is full of this story line. Sadly, research shows that we are way overconfident in our ability to see the effects of our decisions. While we assert our identity in the here and now — and invest our emotions in the here and now — we generally ignore what is coming. This is a human bias that we all need to recognize when we look in the mirror.

There is a bit of good news here for you, as a student or recent graduate or as a person trying to figure out what life is all about. The good news is that you don’t need to blame yourself if you find yourself unable to figure it out. It is not your shortcoming. We all suffer from the above. It is part of what makes us human. So if you are bummed out that you have made some bad choices or are stuck, let it go! This feeling is pretty normal in life, at least for part of the time.

These shortcomings would not be a huge problem if the future would be pretty much like the present. Which, btw, is what most people tend to believe. Party on, dude! And it is not surprising that we believe it will be, because for the vast majority of our time on the planet as humans (at least 200,000 years) things really didn’t change that much from generation to generation.

Here is a factoid worth remembering — Rapid societal change is a radically modern phenomenon. One that we are still adjusting to as a species. You can think of it this way –  our intellectual toolbox includes our pre-modern belief in our ability, indeed our need, to “be in control” in the present, along with our modern experience that the changes around us are pretty much out of our individual control.

This is disjointed, to say the least. And perhaps the disjointed nature of our modern consciousness (supposedly in control, but out of control) explains why some of us  seek to squeeze so much out of the present moment. It seems like all we have. And so we revel in it, even to the point of self-destructive behavior and violence. But keep this in mind — as we demand more and more from the present, our sense of the future and appreciation of the opportunities it may bring atrophies. Given our human tendencies, we can easily become prisoners of the present. Nicht gut!

Strategic thinking helps us get out of this prison. And that is why we want to master some basics of strategic thinking. There are essentially three parts to it – seeing more clearly what is going on, making decisions, and learning from what we do. that is it. So let’s consider that first step – seeing more clearly.

Some good news – we are already doing it here. The first step is to step back from the rather arrogant pose that we know it all. That we don’t need any tools to get better at strategy. We do. Consider this — In most aspects of life, we are not in a position to understand fully why things are the way they appear to be. Our consciousness takes in but a limited amount of data compared to the amount of data that is around us. Based on that very limited sample, we decide that we “see” what is going on.

James Burke makes this point about what we see and know in his TV series (made into a book) called “The Day the Universe Changed”.

Somebody once observed to the eminent philosopher Wittgenstein how stupid medieval Europeans living before the time of Copernicus must have been that they could have looked at the sky and thought that the sun was circling the earth. Surely a modicum of astronomical good sense would have told them that the reverse was true. Wittgenstein is said to have replied “I agree. But I wonder what it would have looked like if the sun had been circling the earth.

The point is that it would have looked exactly the same. When we observe nature, we see what we want to see, according to what we believe we know about it at the time.

This is called  “confirmation bias”. We tend to see what we want to believe. It is a form of intellectual laziness that we all suffer from. As Dan Kahneman brings out in his great book “Thinking Fast and Slow” we have to really make an effort to suspend our beliefs and analyze things. It is hard work just to step back, slow down and see things. And that applies especially to seeing ourselves in the context of our lives.

So how can we be more constructive? Just admitting our limitations is a start. Seeing human nature as inherently arrogant  puts that arrogance into perspective. And that is a step in the right direction if we want to think strategically. But we can and should take a further critical step in our view of the future before we get to work building strategies. That step is to “pre-judge” what is going on in light of some very important principles.

Ready to take that step? It is all about attitude. So far I have been talking about perspective – who we are as humans. We also need to adopt a certain attitude about what we do. This is not inherent in being human. We have to make the decision to adopt this attitude. Famous venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen talked about this attitude issue the other day. He was discussing how a young guy, Palmer Luckey was able to come up with a virtual reality (VR) headset.

A couple of years ago, Palmer is in his garage tinkering around. And since he’s 17 at the time, he doesn’t know that VR’s “not possible,” right? But he does realize that a smartphone screen is amazing, and that new graphics cards and chips and new interconnection technologies and new gaming engines are all amazing. And he thinks, You know what, I don’t see why this couldn’t be made to work! So he puts together a prototype [of a video-gaming headset that places a gamer in an all-encompassing VR world], sets up on Kickstarter to raise money, and a whole generation of kids who didn’t know this was “impossible” say, “Oh, that looks like a great idea!”

In other words, the mystery sauce that gave Palmer the opportunity to change his future was his attitude about what he was doing – a belief that anything is possible. Nothing is impossible. Anything can be figured out and created if we make the right investment now for the future.

This is so simple, we think it must be easy. Wrong. It is simple but it is not easy to maintain this frame of mind while we do stuff day by day. To the contrary, a little voice in the brain will keep telling you the opposite. Tell it to “cut it out!” This attitude is not optional. It is the strategic equivalent of breathing. So when people say that “self-confidence” is the key to the success of great achievers like Steve Jobs, this attitude is what they are talking about. Not an insane belief that success is certain, but the attitude that anything is possible if we focus on bringing it about. Btw, that is why Jobs was so obsessed with the idea of “focus”, something we will talk about later.

One more word about attitude. We don’t know the future, but we know what we want from it. We want to be unique and special. We want our lives to have meaning. We need to hold onto that belief (that we have a “lucky star”) no matter what. Successful people do this. Winston Churchill was one such person. No matter how great the disaster he suffered — and he suffered many — he believed that he was destined still for greatness. It may be that this sense of uniqueness is essential to generate the self-confidence that we need to face the future.

Think about it. Do you have a lucky star? Or if you prefer, do you have confidence in your future? And if this idea of confidence interests you, check out Sir Kenneth Clark’s fantastic TV series called “Civilisation”. It is an amazing dash through European art history from the fall of the Roman Empire to the 20th century. And it has a great finale. Drum roll please! After all of that history. Clark says quite directly that no civilization can long exist without confidence in the future. And that means you too need that confidence — no matter what!

Looking back at my own experience in university, there is no question that I suffered from the above confirmation bias. I thought I knew a lot more than I did and I was on lookout for stuff that confirmed it. And I thought it was normal to pretend that I knew lots of stuff that I really didn’t know. I assumed that this was what smart people did. They impressed people, right? I didn’t realize the strategic value and beauty of not knowing. Of seeing reality with fresh and young eyes.  I had not heard yet why Socrates was the wisest man in Athens – because he was the only man who knew that he knew nothing. To put it in zen terms, Socrates understood that the best place to be is at the starting point, when all things are possible. And btw, from a strategic perspective, any and all moments are starting points. Looking back, I wish I had thought more this way.

And my attitude? I had a pretty strong belief in my own cleverness. And I felt that I had some innate good sense to deal with crisis (like cramming for exams). But to be honest, I did not have a strong belief in my ability to make things happen. Ooops! I did not think that anything was possible for me. No one told me that! And so I questioned my own judgment about why I was doing stuff and how well I could do it. That made me less decisive. In turn, this narrowed the scope of my vision. My overall self evaluation – I could have used an attitude adjustment. Ah well, I came to realize these things later. Ooops!

So step one to rev up your strategic thinking –  remind yourself each day not to assume that you understand what you see. You don’t see what is behind the surface and that is ok. Real understanding is an ongoing quest to go beyond what you see, which means plugging into processes. At the same time, you must believe that anything is possible if you apply yourself to bringing it about. And you are unique! Special! Drum roll please! Doing stuff breeds creativity, not the other way around. This is what John Wooden called the “winning attitude” and it is the posture that is essential to open the door to future thinking.

Step two? Seeing the context is a good start, but at the end of the day, strategy is about making choices. Not just random choices, but investment decisions. How do we do that? That is next!

Students and the Real World

For students! Enjoy!

I started my university career back in 1973 as a rather chipper young fellow. More accurately, I was alternately chipper and grumpy. But I was brought up not to display excessive grumpiness, so as much as possible I hid it. On the chipper side, I remember well that I had high expectations. I also remember that I had not the faintest idea what I was doing. I knew what I wanted … errr … sort of. I wanted to have new experiences (let’s call it “fun”) and I wanted to be successful. I was informed by reliable sources that “success” meant getting good grades.  I thought the trick was to balance the two and just let the games begin!

So why do I say that I didn’t know what I was doing? In fact, I had a strategic problem without a solution. I knew that after four years, my university days would be kaput. Over. And I knew that I was supposed to use my four years in university to start preparing for what I would do next in life. But here the alarm bells start ringing. I had never been anything but a student. And I had no strategy to figure out how to do anything but be a student. Worse still, I had no idea of how to develop such a strategy. I hoped that it would sort of just evolve naturally. That things would just sort of “work out”. But I had my doubts, which explains in part my occasional grumpiness.

In fact, the problem was deeper. I had been educated so far that success was measured in mastering blocks of information or data. Stuff like chemistry, history, economics, etc. Successful folks mastered these data sets more efficiently than the boobs did. And this was evidenced by great grades. That is what you were supposed to strive for. But mastering blocks of information and getting ok or even great grades do not offer meaning in life. One has to use knowledge to do stuff for meaning to develop. Not just regurgitate information, but create a life. This idea had not penetrated deeply into my consciousness yet. Nor had anyone attempted to teach it to me. But I sensed that something was not quite right in school. Studying seemed artificial. Perhaps life was artificial too? Or perhaps studying had nothing to do with living well? These thoughts were troubling, which added to my occasional grumpiness.

And there was yet more difficulty. Folks around me occasionally asked me what I thought. For example, what did I think about Kerouac or Picasso or Proust or Marx or Hume or Byron or Disraeli or Kennedy or Nixon? People seemed to have strong and well developed opinions about things and they expressed an interest in my own.  But sadly, though I knew what one was supposed to think, I was not confident in drawing conclusions. I feared being caught out that at the core I was not “with it”. On a deeper level, I had a gnawing fear about being wrong about life in general. About screwing it up, so to speak.

So what happened? I did what millions of other university students did then and do now. In intellectual terms, I muddled through university, without developing any strong opinions about what life is about or what I would do with my own life. I said that I was enjoying the freedom, but that included deferring making choices about who I wanted to be and investing in those choices. And then university was over. I was kicked out of paradise, so to speak, with no idea of what lay beyond its boundaries. Ouch!

Quite a few years have gone by since then. In that time, I have been lucky to have met and worked with some remarkable people. And when I did so, I noticed that they were very good at strategic thinking. At first it seemed a bit like magic. These folks made things happen. Slowly but surely, I started developing my own ideas about why they were successful at this and what success is. I also started reading and speaking on the topic. This led me to develop a strategic skills building course. Not strategy chained to a given context – like business strategy or military strategy. But strategy that anyone can use to improve the way we exploit the opportunities that life offers us. To make things happen.

Nice story, but where does that leave us here? This evening, I saw Dan Pink’s newsletter. He offers resources for students who are thinking about how to get started in life. Nice idea Dan! It got me thinking about my own experiences  (as you can see above) and what I could offer as well. And so I decided that I would offer a short “thread” in this blog for students to introduce a few ideas about strategic thinking. Nothing too serious. Just a starting point. All free. No obligations.

The first step? I think the first step is to begin thinking more clearly about what we mean by the word the “future”. It might surprise you! Stay tuned!