I have this tendency, and maybe you do too. I think it’s born from a feeling of never quite being ready or skilled enough to accomplish something — say a job interview, or a diet, or a new hobby, or a blog, or a business. It’s caused by the fear of uncertainty that lies ahead in whatever pursuit might be worthwhile.
I believe the biggest achievers in life (and don’t lie, you want to be one of them too), have a singular, obsessive focus. A grand vision. A master plan. And they pursue it doggedly until it is realized.
So I try to bootstrap myself to a vision. And unfortunately this is incredibly easy for my uber-forward-looking brain to do. I get drunk on that vision. I succumb to daydreams and sleepless hours of bedtime fantasizing. I create movies of conversations I’ll have with mentors, or future employees.
I encumber my browser tabs with articles promising to answer the question “how do I do this?” Or I fill my Amazon cart with books from an online reading list promising everything you need to know about this. “Once I read through all of these,” I think to myself, “I’ll have developed enough expertise to begin.”
I get this rush in my chest like I’m finally about to open the lost scrolls and be given The Secret. So I settle into a chair, open the book, and be prepare to be graced with enlightenment…
But it never, ever, comes.
And then I find reality of the work is nothing like these fantasies. I’m crushed. And I walk away, rejected and defeated. Please, fate, tell me I’m not the only one.
Sure I get closer. I gain a little knowledge or wisdom. I become a better person, or better thinker. But no, I still don’t have it figured out. I’m still not an expert. And I’m still navigating with uncertainty.
I flounder. I experience the dip. I realize how hard it really is to become an expert, or to change a personality trait, or to fix a diet. And I quit. Books go unread. Tabs get closed.
You think I’d be immune to this pattern by now. I’m not.
If it can’t be destroyed, can it be managed? I believe it can. And a blog is one way to do that. By writing freely and openly about my current pursuits or interests, waking from the daydream and releasing my expectations for what each pursuit might bring, I will build a path, brick-by-brick, with destination unknown. You can only connect the dots looking backward.
Michel de Montaigne, a favorite lay philosopher of mine, took this flaneur-like approach to his own interests. He’d write an essay on whichever topic happened to excite his intellect. It seems like a more fulfilling and care-free way to live.
A great struggle in my life is to overcome building up a vision so clearly only to have reality slap me in the face. I know that by reading, instead of doing, I can prolong that slap. But it will hit sooner or later, and it will turn me away all the same.
How can we set ourselves up to expect, and then push through, the slap? Is it better to live aimlessly? No, I contend. But neither is it good to live with such a targeted and specific aim that you cannot accomplish it.
I believe, like most things in life, the optimum is somewhere in the middle. How can we feel out that middle path?
First, by setting an abstract vision for yourself — the kind of life you want to lead and the kind of achievement you strive for — you can give yourself flexibility to reorient and determine a concrete path to the next step. If it’s too concrete, the cold slap of reality will destroy it swiftly.
Second, determine the next concrete step to achieving that goal and set a deadline. Try to do it without too much research first; another failure trap. But what if research and asking for advice are part of the next step? It’s fine, but make sure you self-reflect enough to know it’s not a procrastination technique.
Third, keep a constant perspective on long-term thinking. Short-term thinking is really easy to abandon. A goal like “lose 5 pounds in a month” is incredibly short-term. The consequences of failure are small, and the ability to push out the deadline too easy. Instead, if your next concrete step is short-term, remind yourself that this short-term goal is the best thing to get me closer to my long-term vision.
Fourth, bias yourself towards action. If you don’t know if you should consume or produce, always pick produce. The most successful people in life have been those that could Get Things Done.
I am not a master at this process, nor am I entirely sure it’s perfect. I’ll write posts here as I discover more about it and how my mind works. It’s an on-going conversation. Maybe you have a different perspective, which I encourage hearing.
I can say, though, that from what I’ve gotten from studying successful people, they all do something like the four steps above. Take everybody’s default successful person example: Steve Jobs. Was his grand 25-year old vision in 1982 to invent the iPhone? Impossible. But his unflinching vision did guide him into determine that the iPhone was the next best concrete step in the mid 2000s.
What is that vision to you?