I’ve recently moved to a new city, Canberra, so I’m meeting new people and having lots of those initial-acquaintance conversations. I tell people that I studied Engineering for four years which sometimes causes confusion as I didn’t graduate: I ended up dropping out without completing that degree. When I reflect upon this there’s sometimes a temptation to regret my choice to do Engineering. In hindsight, political science, or economics, or law, might have been more useful. But such retrospection belies the fact that if not for my choice to study Engineering, I wouldn’t be who I am today. So I’m glad I made the wrong choice.
In literature on management, leadership, or self-improvement, there’s often an emphasis on goal-setting and planning. Stephen Covey, in his quintessential guide The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, urges us to “begin with the end in mind”. He writes, “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.” (emphasis added) In The 4-Hour Workweek, Timothy Ferriss is perhaps less incorrigible, but he still encourages the reader to undertake “dreamlining”, applying timelines to dreams to make them a reality.
I myself largely bought in to this approach. I identified specific areas of my life and set a vision for where I would be in three years. I then worked backwards, creating intermediate goals to propel me onwards. Each week I undertook tasks related to each goal area. I had an ‘accountability partner’, and we would discuss our goals and support each other to achieve them. I was on track. Supposedly.
The problem with this approach is that it is a doomed effort at prediction. Foremost, you are attempting to predict what will make you happy in the future. If I hypothetically aim, by 2015, to be running a small business employing more than 15 staff, I am basing this on the prediction that such will make me happy. Secondly, from the moment you begin to map out intermediate steps towards any goal, you are hypothesising about causes: what will cause the desired effect? Again, this is predictive: let us hypothesise that cause A will result in effect B. And thus it is speculative. While there may be plenty of inductive evidence from the examples of others, it is naïve to think that simply following the trail blazed by another will be sufficient to land you in their place. So this approach depends upon a misguided confidence in one’s ability both to see the future and to plan based upon supposed causal relationships. I think of the mentality that underlies this approach as the ‘prediction and planning’ paradigm.
In my case, my plans were dashed to pieces. The reason I recently moved to Canberra is because I got the opportunity to volunteer on a potentially history-making election campaign that could stop Tony Abbott from controlling both houses of Australian Parliament. After a challenging week of introspection I jumped at this opportunity, resigning from my full-time job in Melbourne, saying goodbye to my friends, packing my life into a car boot, and hitting the road. To some extent the choice to do this was easier because my goal-setting efforts had highlighted to me certain priorities in my life, with strengthening Australia’s progressive movement ranking more highly than security or wealth. Still though, this sudden change in my fortunes demonstrated to me the contradictions inherent in rigid life-planning.
Based upon my experience, this paradigm takes into account the unpredictable twistings of fate. I at least have consistently found myself unable to predict where my life might take me. I was surprised to find myself studying Engineering, but I never thought I’d drop out of university. When I went to the AYCC’s Power Shift in 2009, I never suspected I’d move to Melbourne and end up as part of the AYCC’s Senior Leadership Team. A brief internship at Adelaide Uni unexpectedly landed me a job with a waste consultancy. I didn’t anticipate how last year’s decision to study a Management Diploma would change my life, nor the changes that could be wrought on my life merely by attending a facilitation conference. But there you have it.
There are, however, two frameworks that have been of use through all these twists and turns.
The first is that I’ve always made an effort to know and be guided by my own principles. Principles, in the words of the Groupwork Institute of Australia, are “guiding statements that help to ensure our practice reflects our values.” While a life-plan can be like a soiled map – you know where you want to get to but aren’t that sure of the way – principles are a compass, helping you to make, at any given turn, the right decision.
For example, when considering a move to Canberra, I had both doubts about whether it was good for my career and worries about how it would impact me financially. I wasn’t sure if the move would help me to make progress towards my life goals. Yet I shortly realised the shallowness of such concerns. Reflecting upon my principles I realised that being part of a team stopping Tony Abbott was more important to me than those other considerations. Your principles don’t help you to get where you want, but they help you to be who you want to be. They make sure that, wherever you get to, you got there the right way.
This preparedness also exists in your skills, and, yes, your financial resources. Particularly nowadays, where the prospect of a decade-long “career” with the one employer is decreasingly likely, it’s advantageous to build a range of transferable skills that can be of use in any situation. Trent Hamm argues this in The Simple Dollar, pointing to skills in communication, time-management, information management, leadership and creativity as skills that “make it possible to maximise any opportunitythat comes your way….” In the same book he argues that one should save scrupulously – potentially having an emergency fund equivalent to several year’s salary – not only to deal with unanticipated blows but also to provide the freedom to pursue one’s dreams free of money-worry. Fortunately I read his book around the time I began my last Melbourne job, and had been saving about 60% of my total income, giving me much more security when I moved to Canberra and gave up that salary. So building a diversely-applicable skillset and a sound financial foundation presents you with more opportunities and prepares you to take them.
In conclusion, few of us can accurately predict what will make us happy in the future, or what it will take to achieve that state. Rather, one’s best bet is to know and live by one’s own principles, which ensures that your decisions reflect your values and develop you into the person you want to be. In addition, one ought to be prepared to take opportunities. Be willing to face risk and the potential for loss, hone transferrable skills, and save meticulously when you have the chance.
My own transition from the goal-setting paradigm to the philosophy of principles and preparedness began when I read Man’s Search for Meaning, just a few weeks before I left Melbourne. In it, Viktor Frankl posits that life will offer each one of us a purpose, and all one has to do is be ready to rise to that purpose. Says he,
Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it!
Success cannot be pursued, it must ensue. Listen to what your conscience commands, and carry it out.