The Power of Mission

Reading time: 4 minutes

Mission motivates us. It gets us out of bed in the morning.

Mission can take many forms. It can be related to your job, your sport or your family and much more besides.

It could be making millions or helping those who have fallen on hard times.

People consumed by mission do more. Achieve more. Go further.

If you don’t have a mission, then ensuring you are moving in the right direction is pot luck. A mission does not dictate the specifics of what you are doing right now, tomorrow or the day after. However, everything you are doing or commencing should be aligned to your mission. If it’s not, then how can you can make your mission a reality?

I discussed an approach to undertaking lofty ambitions in my last post Stars & Cloud Theory, I believe that the pursuit of the stars or even the clouds is impossible without a clear mission.

A mission keeps you going when you’re having a bad day. It can be considered your north star that leads you forward. A mission is your backbone. It is what you turn to when you are unsure what step to take. With a clear mission, you have a context and background to frame every choice you make. An apparent uncertainty is superceded by clarity of thought, providing the discipline and motivation to execute.

So what does a mission look like?

A mission is strategic. Lest anyone conflate the terms “mission” and “plan”, a mission is not tied to any one outcome or event. It does not have to be timebound, although it can be finite. It can span years or even a lifetime. On a similar vein, a goal is something which is very specific and has an associated deadline, whereas a mission allows failures to occur without the end game being jeopardised. A mission must align to your values. There is no point in having a mission to emulate Gordon Gekko while believing that global wealth redistribution is necessary.

Here are some examples that come to mind when I think of “mission”:

  • Establishing a colony on Mars – Elon Musk
  • “Knocking Liverpool off their perch” and dominating English Soccer – Alex Ferguson & Man Utd
  • Advocating and working on behalf of the poor and the misfortunate – Fr. Peter McVerry
  • Being a loving father/mother – Various

I like the word “mission” because it imbues a sense of action and urgency. When I hear the word mission, imagery of astronauts in space or soldiers on a battle field is evoked. Too often, particularly in the business world, “mission” is followed by “statement”, this then leads to empty sloganeering to satisfy some corporate “About” page on a website. These empty words may be referred to as a reference point but they should not be construed as “the mission”.

A mission works best if it is unambiguous and not limiting:

  • “Establish a colony on Mars” is specific but not to the extent that it pre-determines what a colony represents or how it should be achieved.
  •  If the mission is to “defeat the enemy” then there will always be a new enemy so you will never rest on your laurels.
  • If the mission is to “cure cancer”, then your mission is not complete until every form of cancer is eradicated, providing a consistent focus to your work.

Having a mission implies having systems to execute your mission, I will expand on developing and executing various systems in future posts. One such system I have described previously that you might find useful is how I prevent distractions during the workday.

Although you should be clear on your mission at all times, it doesn’t need to be immutable. You can always change your mission and re-focus. While a change in mission is necessary and sometimes unavoidable, it should be done as quickly as possible. Any ambiguity makes every decision harder.

Challenging yourself and the mission that you have is a healthy and useful exercise. Many of us suffer from confirmation bias. That being, we constantly seek more and more reasons why we are right. However it only takes one example to prove us wrong.

If you are afraid or worried that your world will be turned upside down by having one example contradict your world view, then you need more challenge in your life. No one can tell you what your mission should be. By necessity, it must be personal to you but you should be open to road testing it, sharing it and welcoming feedback from those closest to you. As I opened with, it needs to excite and energise you. Uncertainty is natural, particularly about something so significant but that uncertainty should only be temporary and not allowed to linger. Otherwise, a period of stasis will ensue.

Any highly functioning, high performing team that I have been part of has had a clear mission. Everyone was on the same page singing from the same hymn sheet. It is not possible for a group of people to operate together at their peak without a clarity of purpose and a mission binding them. Without a common, shared and consistently understood mission, their associated actions will not be made in a consistent mutually beneficial fashion.

My current stance on whether you should have a single mission or multiple missions is that you should only have one. Having more than one mission undermines your clarity of purpose. One cannot be all things to all people.

Some people may insist that they can have one personal mission and one professional mission and many do. In the short term, this is contradictory. In the long term, this is destructive. Say you want to be the best father in the world to your children (personal mission) and you want to be the best CEO in the world of the multi-billion dollar business you run (professional mission), clearly there is a contradiction. Inevitably, sacrifices must be made in pursuit of your mission. It boils down to personal decisions and priorities. Having differing and potentially divergent personal and professional missions will grate away at you. It will wear you down. A personal and professional mission symbiosis is optimal.

So what is your mission?

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Stars & Clouds Theory

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Who wants to be ordinary? Everyone wants to make their dreams come through, right?

Most people set goals or have dreams that they would like to achieve. However, many people will fall short. An antidote to this scenario of likely disappointment is to accept this probable reality of not realising your dreams. Instead change the trajectory and have bigger, loftier goals.

If you aim for the stars but fail and end up somewhere in the clouds, you will be far better off than had you never left the ground in the first place. The rationale here is that by setting a distant ambitious goal and working hard to pursue it, even if you never achieve it, you will have achieved a lot. In essence, half of a lot is much better than a lot of a little.

Say you want to run a marathon in under five hours, why not train and target running it in under four hours? You can now have an in built margin of safety in your goal. There are many other examples that this technique can be applied to, namely examinations, weightlifting, writing. Effectively, anything which can be quantified is well suited to the use of this technique.

Simply by setting an ambitious, possibly very ambitious goal, your thought process and behaviours will orient towards making it a reality. You will already have made progress because you will have primed your expectations for what success looks like. This aggressive pursuit of your goals allows your thought process to cultivate the steps you need to take to achieve them.

We all have an inherent “negativity bias” hard coded into our DNA stemming from our days as hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors were constantly aware of threats to their survival and held back resources and energy in case of an imminent attack:

“To keep our ancestors alive Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities)” – Rick Hanson

To combat this “negativity bias”, we must challenge ourselves. I’ve wrote previously about Peter Thiel and how he thinks here. One of my favourite quotes of his is:

“How can you achieve in six months that which would otherwise take ten years?”

The above quote perfectly captures the mindset that I’m trying to describe in this post. This kind of questioning forces you to come up with a plan of action and means of realising your goal.

In some ways, this technique can be thought of as a reverse Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time. What I am proposing here is to stretch your goal which then effectively compresses the time available to achieve what you might otherwise have done. By expanding your horizon and perception of what you think you can do, you are more likely to get more done and get closer to whatever starry vision you have.

This approach is not suggesting that you will fail to achieve your newly created lofty ambition. But in the case that you do not achieve it, you will have “failed better” and end up ahead of where you might otherwise have got to and in a quicker time frame than you thought possible.

There are some potential negative side effects to this approach. If you use this technique repeatedly and you are continually failing to meet your goals (albeit still “failing better”), morale may diminish and feelings of disappointment may manifest themselves. Feeling like a failure is never pleasant so I suggest using the stars and clouds strategic approach as described above in tandem with a short term tactical approach which I’m going to refer as my “Ground Game” (just to keep my analogy going…:)).

To illustrate the differing strategic and tactical approaches, here’s an example:

  • Star Goal: In the next year, I want to write a book. To do that, I intend on writing a blog post every week to develop my writing style and create content which can be adapted into a book.
  • Ground Game: In the short term, I may get distracted or lose motivation. To counter this possibility, all I’m focused on in a given week is writing my next blog post. If that is proving difficult to accomplish, my focus turns to writing just one paragraph (or even one sentence if it’s a really tough week!).
  • Possible Cloud Outcome: In the instance that I do not write a blog post every week, every post I do write will bring me closer to my lofty goal.

My general reasoning is that you need to have a really big stretch goal in order to focus your worldview and provide a target that your effort is oriented to. On this journey, there needs to be tangible achievements and short term tactics in order to achieve it. Every post I complete and publish acts as a positive feedback loop which then further makes my goal achievable and creates momentum.

Often people will use phrases like “I’d love to…this” or “I really want to do… that”, this phraseology always irritates me. I have no problem with people expressing their wishes and desires but time waits for no one. You need to be getting after it if you want to make things happen. Very few people actually go to the trouble of trying to carve a clearly defined path to making their wishes come true. I sincerely believe that just the act of starting your journey towards your goal separates you from many other people.

Often when faced with a daunting goal, we can succumb to playing a game of “Here’s why it won’t work”. If you find yourself slipping into this train of thought, change the “I can’t do it” into “If I were to do X by a particular time, then what are the actions or tasks I need to do now to make it happen?”

Allowing oneself to dream and plot a path to a faraway goal is a very positive experience. It provides the motivation and encouragement to foster the discipline to do the hard work and maintain progress. Doing that initial ideation and creative thought and the development of the why and the purpose behind the goal, it becomes easier to do the grunt work.

So in summary, if you aimed for the stars but only got as far as the clouds, rest assured you are still miles above everyone else. By having higher standards and holding yourself to them, you will have achieved massive self development and much more besides.

In closing, I wouldn’t consider this post a done deal, it’s a concept I enjoy thinking about and I hope to return to this topic and riff on it further in future posts.

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How to Hedge Against Uncertainty

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Trump, Brexit, the rise of the far right, sometimes it feels that there is no end to the current uncertainty. In the current climate, how does one set themselves up to mitigate this uncertainty?

I don’t pretend for a moment to have all of the answers but I will attempt in this post to promote thought on this topic and to identify the requisite characteristics to hedge effectively against uncertainty.

Agility
My use of the word agility here is intended to capture the rate at which you can move into a different career. Let’s say you’re a blocklayer and making a decent wedge. All of a sudden, there’s a property crash and your livelihood is effectively decimated. How quickly can you transition to a new career?

Another way of looking at this is, what transferable skills do you possess which you can use to transition to a new career? The above use of a blocklayer is not intended to limit this analogy to only manual labour. Currently there are many “desk jobs” under threat from automation, artificial intelligence and economic change.

It would be prudent to identify what your transferable skills are and how they might be useful in pursuing a new path. If you find that you don’t have many transferable skills, can you take steps to develop some?

Frugality
Are you leading a debt fuelled lifestyle? Do you really need to splurge on pay day on that needless item? Have you got a rainy day fund? The ability to live off scraps ensures that in the instance of a recession, you will be relatively less worse off then a colleague who is in up to their eyes in debt. When your existing career goes kaput the ability to live off less will ensure that you have:
a. Some savings put aside.
b. More time to live off those savings while you develop an alternative income source.

Here’s a piece I wrote on how to save more: Show Me The Money

Resilience
Faced with a negative event, how quickly can you pick yourself off the floor and get back on your feet? What are your thought processes when confronted with a setback? Do you spend time blaming external events and looking for sympathy or are you already formulating a plan to move forward?

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

Everyone has set backs, it’s those of us who recover quickest generally achieve more.

Have a Back-Up Plan
I’ve currently reading The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha.
In it, there is a process called “Plan ABZ”. It’s a simple yet powerful way of having multiple options available to you regardless of what situation you find yourself in. It’s written focusing on career topics but stems from the start up world and can be easily re-used in many other walks of life.

Plan ABZ

  • Plan A: This is what you are doing right now. You make minor adjustments and iterate regularly.
  • Plan B: This is in the same general ballpark as Plan A. It’s what you pivot to when you need to change your goal or your means to achieve it. Pivoting can occur because Plan A is not working or because you’ve just discovered a new opportunity and Plan B is now more promising.
  • Plan Z: This is your fallback, effectively your lifeboat. The certainty of a reliable, stable Plan Z allows you to take on more risk and uncertainty in A and B.

The benefit of this method that no matter what stage of life you are at, you will always be planning and adapting. This method is thus not a time specific event but rather a habitual process.

Another variation on the Plan ABZ theme is the phrase “Two is one and one is none”. This phrase stems from military circles. It means that if you are out on a mission and you bring one of anything, then effectively you have no alternative when that item, tool or weapon breaks or has been mislaid. Having two of everything will ensure that when your knife breaks, you have another ready to go and the mission will not be jeopardised.

Bringing this back to civilian affairs and specifically in a career sense, most people have one source of income. If that disappears or is greatly reduced, they are significantly adversely effected. Writing these words has made me think about this more, I hope it has the same effect on you.

In summary, a combination of agility, frugality, resilience and the presence of a back up plan will ensure that no matter what scenario you find yourself in, you will be able to get your life back on track.

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The 3 Commencement Speeches I Keep Going Back To

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Watching Time: 38 minutes

There are times when we all need some motivation and inspiration, one of my favourite ways of replenishing motivational supplies is to watch commencement speeches by various folks. Below are three of my favourites which I’ve watched on countless occasions. I’ve written some thoughts and commentary about what resonates most with me from these speeches at the end. I hope you enjoy these and let me know if you have any recommendations to share.

 
Neil Gaiman @ University of the Arts
Steve Jobs @ Stanford
(Jobs starts speaking at 7:40)

 
Winston Churchill @ Harrow

 
Neil Gaiman @ University of the Arts

This is one of the best motivational speeches I’ve ever listened to. The “You should enjoy it” piece @15:09 is a real hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment.

It’s such an entertaining speech and Gaiman’s use of humour to emphasise his points is excellent. My favourite part of his speech is @13:00 where he explains how he bluffed his way into a job by stating how he had worked for various media outlets. When he was established, he insisted on going back and actually writing an article for each of the magazines. He didn’t lie, he was just chronologically challenged!  This concept of “future truths” is something which you hear various successful people bring up often. It’s an alternative and really instructive way of looking at the world and then finding a path to realise your vision of the future.

@14:00 , the “two out of three will do” concept of doing great work, being easy to get along with and getting the work done on time definitely holds up in the real world!

There are also so many excellent quotes in this speech but here are two which I particularly like:
  • “The things I’ve done the best are the things I was least certain about.” This is a powerful statement. Too often, we come up with reasons why things will fail rather than reasons why they will succeed.
  • “Be wise, because the world needs more wisdom. And if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is and behave like they would.” Similar to the above “future truths” reference, sometimes you need to fake it until you make it.

Steve Jobs @ Stanford

Jobs describes how he dropped out of college, followed his curiosities  by dropping into various classes which he would otherwise not have been exposed to. He goes on to describe various parts of his life and offers many takeaways.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards… Trust in your gut believing that the dots will connect in the future giving you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path. That will make all the difference.”

When describing his departure from Apple, he explains how he turned a negative into a positive and how having something and someone he loved allowed him to get past this difficult event. “Do what you believe is great work. The only way to do that is to do what you love. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. And don’t settle.”

“If you live every day like it’s your last, then someone you’re going to be right”. Jobs explains how he looks in the mirror every morning and asks himself “If today was going to be my last day, would I want to do what I am going to do today?” When the answer is no for too many days in a row, he knows he must change something. “Remembering I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered in life.”

@19:30, he offers some brilliant life advice:
  • “Don’t waste your time living someone else’s life.”
  • “Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking”
  • “Don’t let the noise of other people’s opinions drown out your own inner voice”
  • “Have the courage to follow your heart and inituition , they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Finally he closes with what he considers his personal maxim:
  • “Stay hungary. Stay foolish.”

Winston Churchill @ Harrow

I really love the sound of Churchill’s voice. He could read the phonebook and I’d listen to it. While this is a relatively short audio clip, it clearly captures his mastery as a speaker and his use of various oratorical devices. I like his emphasis on the use of particular words and the meaning they convey. Where the song he refers to uses “dark”, he prefers “stern”. This is a subtle but significant change of emphasis. Dark sounds like there is no way out of it. Stern sounds like “It’s shit but we’ll get through it. This speech was made in 1941 when World War II was not halfway to completion. This alternate choice of word gives an insight into his mindset and is testament to his unerring belief.

@2:02, this clip contains one of his most famous quotes: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never. In nothing, great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” A powerful statement of belief which captures the essence of the man.

Show Me The Money

Reading Time: 4 mins

“Losers have goals. Winners have systems.”

– Scott Adams

 The inspiration for this post came from having a conversation about personal finance and savings with one of my close friends. I outlined what I was doing for the last few years and how I had increased my savings amount in step with my income. He said he left the money he hasn’t spent at the end of the month in his current account. I asked him how much he had saved? He answered that he hadn’t saved a whole pile. I asked him how much he expected to save in the next 12 months. He didn’t know.

I then described the simple steps that I thought he should follow and the rationale behind them. While I know at the time he thought I was being a bit over the top, he thanked me for my advice and said he’d think about what I’d said.

I didn’t think any more of it and I was taken aback when some months later, he brought up the conversation we had again. He had fully implemented what I had outlined and he reaffirmed my belief in what I had said. This is what I told him:

Assumption:
The basic premise of the below process is that there is some amount of your net income which you can set aside. I believe that nearly everyone should be at least be able to put something away, no matter how small. Obviously for various reasons including but not limited to: education, debt, dependents and unemployment; the below steps are not applicable.

Decide
I would recommend targeting 25% – 30% of your net income but start with whatever works for you. The fundamental point here is to establish a habit. The amplitude of your savings amount can be altered as a secondary activity. Even if you are only saving 5% – 10%, that is enough to start with.

To be precise, net income here is gross income less taxes, I’m estimating that 75% of net income is sufficient for food, rent/mortgage, bills and other discretionary expenditure. The only callout I would make is that if you have some debt then paying it off should be your priority. Short term debt such as car finance, credit cards, overdrafts and personal loans are typically offered at juicy interest rates so fully paying this kind of debt off first is prudent.

Prioritise
Enjoy life but be disciplined and realistic. Achieving a savings target should not be at the cost to your lifestyle, is missing that gig or not going on that random session with friends worth hitting 30% every month? No it’s not. Like everything, it’s about achieving a balance between short term pleasure and long term satisfaction.

Automate
If you have to physically transfer money to a different account every month, you will find an excuse not to. Set up a standing order or direct debit. You might think, I’ll do it next month. You won’t. Do it now. In three months time, you will be grateful.

Scale
If you have ticked the box on the above steps, congratulations! This is the primary and probably the most challenging step. Now that you have established a savings habit, you should try and scale it up. So maybe you are saving 15% of your net income, can you try and get this to 20%?  The trick here is build a system which you can scale as your income grows.

Let’s say you get a raise, what’s the most likely thing you do? Spend it. Or maybe you have got that new job you have been working towards and have a few more shekels making their way to your account at the end of the month? Do you really need to spend that money? Can you divert it straight to your savings account?

In summary, the baseline target here should be that if you receive an increment of 10% then you should be aiming to increase your monthly savings amount by at least 10%. Otherwise you are effectively reducing your monthly savings percentage.

Reward
At the end of the day, it’s fine to splurge some of your hard earned savings. It’s your money! The point of this post is to help you build a war chest not dictate what that “war” should be.

In closing, frugality is the best defense against uncertainty and this system encourages you to adopt frugality.

In a worst case scenario, if you lose your  job or have your income reduced, it provides a platform which you can pivot from.  The variables in the equation are how much you can put in and how soon you can start. Time is a constant. It will not wait. Get it done.

SMTM

We Go Where We Look Or Why Self Talk Matters

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I regularly go cycling and when cornering at speed I feel as though I don’t even need to move my hands or body, essentially I just have to focus my vision on where I want to go and the rest just happens.

Of course what’s happening is that my eyes are identifying where I need to go and my brain is sending signals to my arms to make a slight movement to adjust my direction. But it still feels like I am making no deliberate attempt to move my arms.

Extrapolating further, I think this concept can be applied mentally as well as physically.

We go where we look. We are what we seek to be. Our self perception and belief become our reality. The things we tell ourselves have a profound impact on our behaviours and the perception of our abilities.

In this day and age, there is a consistent and important emphasis on looking after one’s mental health. One of the easiest ways to do this is to assess your self talk and then correct it if required. Most of us don’t pay attention to the little almost imperceptible thoughts we have but over a period of time, these thoughts aggregate and have a significant effect.

A number of years ago, I read The Magic of Thinking Big, the main takeaway I took from it was the importance of self talk. When a message is consistently repeated, it will begin to be believed. That message can be positive: “I am a confident public speaker and I am comfortable speaking to a large group of people” or negative “I hate public speaking and I am useless at it”. A really useful tactic to dealing with some setback or worry that you may have is to ask “What would the most successful person I know tell themselves in this situation?”

Regardless of whether it is positive or negative, a given message will be reinforced by repetition. There are varying schools of thought for how long it takes for a given practice to become a habit and there is cognitive effort to enshrining a practice until it becomes a habit, but once it sticks, it becomes automatic. The absence of negativity is not the same as positivity, there needs to be a direct emphasis on a particular positive aspect of whatever it is you want to affirm.

Forming a positive self talk habit is not a panacea to life’s challenges but with negative self talk, you will never get anywhere. When discussing topics like this, I am always reminded of the quote by Mahatma Gandhi:

Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
Your thoughts become your words, 
Your words become your actions, 
Your actions become your habits, 
Your habits become your values, 
Your values become your destiny.

Are the things that you tell yourself positive and helping you achieve your goals?