September is my New Year. The end of hot summer days, the relief of cooler weather, the beginning of a new school year, the refreshing of routines and improving of the systems that make our day-to-day more manageable. I “spring clean” in September, donating clothes that no longer fit my children and books I’ve outgrown; reducing clutter that accumulated over the past year. I am doing so much more than cleaning house and organizing … I’m refreshing my perspective on life, and re-setting my intentions by clearing the clutter of competing demands and focusing (again) on what is most important to me.
We have a saying at pLink, “Pursuing an unexamined vision is worse than having no vision at all;” wisdom from my father that has stuck with me for more than three decades. When we are driven by today’s tasks, we can miss our purpose by a long way, and only know it in hindsight. You can travel a long way before you realize you are on the wrong road.
I am a strategist at heart. It’s in my DNA. The way I think about my life’s work and my work life is the same. So that’s the way I’m going to write to you. Here is what I’ve learned about strategy and how I apply it in my own life.
To be strategic means to have a plan with an overall aim. To be strategic about life means to have an overall aim that does not get subsumed by the day-to-day. How do we define overall aim?
Two Guiding Questions and One Principle to get to your overall aim.
What is the purpose of what you are doing? Not the specific outcomes, but the “why” behind your efforts. In the process of “getting things done,” it’s common to get distracted by an event. The event sucks people into problem solving mode and sets a new course of action, slightly shifting the trajectory in the process. If you are not guided by an overarching purpose, it is easy to accomplish many things that are not in the service of your purpose.
For example … our 8-year-olds are playing basketball for the first time. They are not very good. As parents we ask ourselves “What is the purpose of our commentary post-game?” One parent says “To help them get better.” The other parent says, “To ensure they want to play again next year.” An eye to the future and a steady foot in today says to put purpose over task every time.
Once accomplished, what is the feeling that you want to have? This one gets everybody. Feelings? What do feelings have to do with strategy? Yes, successful strategy rests on feelings. Call it motivation, morale, or engagement but at its core it’s feelings. An accomplishment will add up to a failure in the memory banks if it is not accompanied by the feeling that you are hoping for. They are the bedrock of success, and here is why.
From the perspective of you. The goals we hold in our mind’s eye are actually motivated by the way we want to feel. We think our goal is to achieve a promotion, but really that’s the means to an end. The end-state we want is to feel “accomplished,” or “recognized,” or “safe” or “successful.” Countless clients have said to me, “I thought that when I accomplished ‘X’ I would finally feel ‘Y.’” Get clear on the feelings you are going for, and that becomes a guidepost for every decision you make from there on out. “Does this decision move me closer or further away from the feelings of ___________?”
From the perspective of others. Feelings motivate action. When people feel like doing something that has meaning, the effort comes naturally and feels rewarding. When they don’t, the effort is hard, and people have to battle through resistance to take begrudging action. The desire to have meaning and purpose is universal to all human beings, and when we are working towards those things, we feel confident, accomplished and settled. This is as true in our teams as it is in our families.
Clear on intent, vague on means. If I could leave a single thought with my clients, as it relates to strategy, it would be this one …“When intent is known to the point where it’s felt in the bones, the path lays itself. When you lay the path, brick-by-brick, you are so focused on the bricks that you don’t look at the path.”
Let the long-view purpose inform the day-to-day decision-making, e.g., “Is this choice moving me closer to, or further away from, the best version of myself?” Each day you will have opportunities to move closer. When leading a team, working with colleagues, or leading your own family, communicate your intent clearly, and leave the means to them. This way you are empowering the people you need/love the most by showing them the path, and avoiding the trap of being in charge of every brick along the way.
Strategy is a revered competency in the military and business arenas, but it’s not only for warriors and executives. Life is a long-view, rich with opportunities to become better versions of ourselves. But, our focus has everything to do with what we see. In the absence of strategy, we are buffeted about by competing demands and equally attractive opportunities, shortage of time, and over commitment. With strategy riding shotgun, we are able live life like the adventure it is, rather than the chore it can become. We recognize the opportunities that align with our purpose, and say a resounding “Yes!” even when they stretch and scare us. This is life in the flow. This is the pLink way.
About the Author: Gretchen is the co-founder and CEO of pLink Leadership, LLC. Gretchen is an evangelist of the science of positive psychology in the business world writing, speaking, and training around the world on behalf of pLink. Passionate about work and life Gretchen is the mother of three and makes her home in Maryland with her husband, Michael.