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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