For many of us, one of the easiest mistakes to make is to focus on trying to over-satisfy the tangible trappings of professional success in the mistaken belief that those things will make us happy. Better salaries. A more prestigious title. A nicer office. They are, after all, what our friends and family see as signs that we have “made it” professionally.
But as soon as you find yourself focusing on the tangible aspects of your job, you are at risk of chasing a mirage. The next pay raise, you think, will be the one that finally makes you happy. It’s a hopeless quest. There must be a better solution to measure our lives.
It can be tough to find the right career to do that for you. What we can learn from how companies develop strategy is that although it is hard to get it right at first, success doesn’t rely on this. Instead, it hinges on continuing to experiment until you do find an approach that works. Only a lucky few companies start off with the strategy that ultimately leads to success.
What does this have to do with your career? Once you understand the concept of emergent and deliberate strategy, you’ll know that if you’ve yet to find something that really works in your career, expecting to have a clear vision of where your life will take you is just wasting time. Even worse, it may actually close your mind to unexpected opportunities.
While you are still figuring out your career, you should keep the aperture of your life wide open. Depending on your particular circumstances, you should be prepared to experiment with different opportunities, ready to pivot, and continue to adjust your strategy until you find what it is that both satisfies the hygiene factors and gives you all the motivators. Only then does a deliberate strategy make sense. When you get it right, you’ll know.
As difficult as it may seem, you’ve got to be honest with yourself about this whole process. Change can often be difficult, and it will probably seem easier to just stick with what you are already doing. That thinking can be dangerous. You’re only kicking the can down the road, and you risk waking up one day, years later, looking into the mirror, asking yourself: “What am I doing with my life?”
A strategy—whether in companies or in life—is created through hundreds of everyday decisions about how you spend your time, energy, and money. With every moment of your time, every decision about how you spend your energy and your money, you are making a statement about what really matters to you. You can talk all you want about having a clear purpose and strategy for your life, but ultimately this means nothing if you are not investing the resources you have in a way that is consistent with your strategy. In the end, a strategy is nothing but good intentions unless it’s effectively implemented.
How do you make sure that you’re implementing the strategy you truly want to implement? Watch where your resources flow. If it is not supporting the strategy you’ve decided upon, you run the risk of a serious problem. You might think you are a charitable person, but how often do you really give your time or money to a cause or an organization that you care about? If your family matters most to you, when you think about all the choices you’ve made with your time in a week, does your family seem to come out on top? Because if the decisions you make about where you invest your blood, sweat, and tears are not consistent with the person you aspire to be, you’ll never become that person.
Relationships with family and close friends are one of the greatest sources of happiness in life. It sounds simple, but like any important investment, these relationships need consistent attention and care. But there are two forces that will be constantly working against this happening.
First, you’ll be routinely tempted to invest your resources elsewhere—in things that will provide you with a more immediate payoff. And second, your family and friends rarely shout the loudest to demand your attention. They love you and they want to support your career, too. That can add up to neglecting the people you care about most in the world. The theory of good money, bad money explains that the clock of building a fulfilling relationship is ticking from the start. If you don’t nurture and develop those relationships, they won’t be there to support you if you find yourself traversing some of the more challenging stretches of life, or as one of the most important sources of happiness in your life.
It’s natural to want the people you love to be happy. What can often be difficult is understanding what your role is in that. Thinking about your relationships from the perspective of the job to be done is the best way to understand what’s important to the people who mean the most to you. It allows you to develop true empathy. Asking yourself “What job does my spouse most need me to do?” gives you the ability to think about it in the right unit of analysis. When you approach your relationships from this perspective, the answers will become much more clear than they would by simply speculating about what might be the right thing to do.
But you have to go beyond understanding what job your spouse needs you to do. You have to do that job. You’ll have to devote your time and energy to the effort, be willing to suppress your own priorities and desires, and focus on doing what is required to make the other person happy. Nor should we be timid in giving our children and our spouses the same opportunities to give of themselves to others. You might think this approach would actually cause resentment in relationships because one person is so clearly giving up something for the other. But it has the opposite effect. In sacrificing for something worthwhile, you deeply strengthen your commitment to it.
You have your children’s best interests at heart when you provide them with resources. It’s what most parents think they’re supposed to do—provide for their child. You can compare with your neighbors and friends how many activities your child is involved in, what instruments he is learning, what sports she is playing. It’s easy to measure and it makes you feel good. But too much of this loving gesture can actually undermine their becoming the adults you want them to be.
Children need to do more than learn new skills. They need to solve hard problems. They need to develop values. When you find yourself providing more and more experiences that are not giving children an opportunity to be deeply engaged, you are not equipping them with the processes they need to succeed in the future. And if you find yourself handing your children over to other people to give them all these experiences—outsourcing—you are, in fact, losing valuable opportunities to help nurture and develop them into the kind of adults you respect and admire. Children will learn when they’re ready to learn, not when you’re ready to teach them; if you are not with them as they encounter challenges in their lives, then you are missing important opportunities to shape their priorities—and their lives.
The challenges your children face serve an important purpose: they will help them hone and develop the capabilities necessary to succeed throughout their lives. Coping with a difficult teacher, failing at a sport, learning to navigate the complex social structure of cliques in school—all those things become “courses” in the school of experience. We know that people who fail in their jobs often do so not because they are inherently incapable of succeeding, but because their experiences have not prepared them for the challenges of that job—in other words, they’ve taken the wrong “courses.”
The natural tendency of many parents is to focus entirely on building your child’s résumé: good grades, sports successes, and so on. It would be a mistake to neglect the courses your children need to equip them for the future. Once you have that figured out, work backward: find the right experiences to help them build the skills they’ll need to succeed. It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
When a company is faced with making an investment in future innovation, it usually crunches the numbers to decide what to do from the perspective of its existing operations. Based on how those numbers play out, it may decide to forgo the investment if the marginal upside is not worth the marginal cost of undertaking the investment. But there’s a big mistake buried in that thinking.
And that’s the trap of marginal thinking. You can see the immediate costs of investing, but it’s really hard to accurately see the costs of not investing. When you decide that the upside of investing in the new product isn’t substantial enough while you still have a perfectly acceptable existing product, you aren’t taking into account a future in which somebody else brings the new product to market. You’re assuming everything else—specifically, the money you make on the old product—will continue forever exactly as it has up until now. A company may not see any consequences of that decision for some time. It might not get “caught” in the short term if a competitor doesn’t get ahead. But the company that makes all its decisions through this marginal-costs lens will, eventually, pay the price. So often this is what causes successful companies to keep from investing in their future and, ultimately, to fail.
The same is true of people, too. The only way to avoid the consequences of uncomfortable moral concessions in your life is to never start making them in the first place. When the first step down that path presents itself, turn around and walk the other way.