The best way to make a rope strong is to make it by weaving many strands together. The best way to create a strong, satisfying pattern for your life and career is to weave together the six different strands that make up a complete career pattern.Strand 1 is formulating a vision for your life and career: a dream of what you could and should become. You need to look way beyond beyond your current life pattern and envision an overall sense of purpose and direction. That’s the trouble. It can seem so insubstantial and vague that many “practical” people dismiss it as nothing more than day-dreaming. Equally, many others enjoy the process so much that they never do anything else.
Success isn’t a matter of completing each strand come what may. It’s the balance between the strands that really counts, constantly shifting between them over time. Which is more important today? Which should come first and get most focus now?
Without an overall direction and a clear set of values, you’ll be reduced to making continual, ad hoc decisions. There will never be a clear pattern, leading to a desired life and career goal; everything will be decided on the spur of the moment. You can call it flexibility, spontaneity, or whatever you want, but the truth is that, if you haven’t decided on a long-term direction, just about any direction will do. And if that direction changes constantly, pushed this way and that by random events, why should it matter?Strand 2 needs to take that vision and turn it into a strategy: a set of long-term actions, goals, and personal choices. Your emphasis shifts from what you want from your life and career to deciding what you need to do to make those dreams come true—setting a medium to long-term pathway to deliver sustainable change and fulfill your hopes. Many people are so excited by their vision of the future that it seems almost sacrilegious to come down from the mountain and to apply commonsense and reality to what it’s going to take to turn that vision in real events. They fondly imagine that the power of the vision alone—some magical power of intention and longing—is going to make it all happen without the humdrum business of creating plans, making choices, finding ways around obstacles, and generally doing what needs to be done until the goal is reached.
Every few years, some variant on the power of positive thinking hits the bookshelves: some fresh take on the mystical notion that intention alone can change your life. It’s snapped up by dreamers hungry for an escape from the boring realities of continual effort and setbacks. Does it work? Only to the extent that it provides some initial enthusiasm and stimulus. After a while, reality steps back in and the fuss dies down . . . ready to make a millionaire of another guru with the same idea in fix years or so.Strand 3 is having the courage to make the actual changes needed to turn your strategy (which is, after all, just a set of broad ideas and goals) into actions. When people get stuck with Stand 2 and don’t move on to Strand 3, they spend their lives creating strategy after strategy. Maybe many of them—perhaps even all of them—are great; full of exciting thoughts and limitless possibilities. Yet none will ever become reality, since their creator is stuck inside his or her head, polishing ideas and doing very little else. In the end, all the strategizing becomes a substitute for action.
That’s often the fate of people who buy piles of self-help books and programs. They listen and read—and listen and read some more—attend seminars and talk excitedly about the latest ideas for getting your life together. But it never gets beyond talk and reading. It’s more fun to consider possibilities than risk disappointment by trying any of them in an organized way.Strand 4 therefore points to the need for establishing good habits. Habit allows you to do things again and again, making some parts of your life and work predictable and sustainable. It isn’t glamorous. It won’t feel creative or spontaneous, but there’s not much profit in behaving erratically. Many important aspects of life take time to deliver the goods. Education is one. Building credibility is another. If you act like many people do, starting off in a heady state of euphoric enthusiasm only to run out of steam after a fairly short time, your career will be made up of nothing more than a series of great possibilities that didn’t work out. Strand 4 demands building good life habits and making sure that you stick with them for as long as may be needed.Strand 5 is accepting day-to-day responsibility for what happens in your life. It’s part of the basics of managing any career. If it’s neglected, the end will come very quickly. If it’s easy to skip over Strand 5 in favor of more exciting, visionary activities, it’s even easier to try to hand off that responsibility to someone else—usually by following the herd and opting for whatever is fashionable instead of choosing your own, unique path.
Doing what everyone else does—or expects—easily becomes a way of avoiding responsibility. There are many risks in creating your own way through life. Not the least is that you have to give up blaming others for any setbacks or failures. No whining. No trying to slide out of being accountable for your choices. You need to stand up and accept that it’s your life and you have to be the one who makes it go where you want. No more excuses.Strand 6 is focusing on the present. It’s too easy to fix your mental gaze somewhere in the future and miss what is happening now. Yet now is, ultimately, all there is to enjoy and experience. Now is the only time that you can do anything. You need to pay attention to doing what needs to be done now, when it’s needed. If this strand is weak, you’ll likely spend more time thinking about what you ought to do than doing anything. You’ll keep putting things off to some future date—when it may well be too late. No matter how innovative or determined you are, if Strand 1 is neglected, you probably won’t achieve much. There is only now. The past is gone and cannot be changed. The future has yet to arrive. Now is when your life is happening.
Just as the strongest rope is woven from the greatest number of strands, so the strongest and most effective choices for your life and career include all the strands given here. Any that you miss out will weaken your decisions and lower your possibility of success. Don’t be a dreamer, stuck with only Strands 1 and 2. Don’t be a lemming, rushing after everyone else. Don’t be a groupie, constantly looking for the next bandwagon to jump on. Work steadily, weaving all the strands together, and whatever you create will have real strength and staying power.
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.