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.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Why not join my mailing list and get my latest blog posts straight to your inbox?

Click here to sign up!

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.