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Six strands for success

Six strands for success

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.

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?

  • 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.

    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.

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    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.
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      Last Updated on July 17, 2019

      The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

      The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

      What happens in our heads when we set goals?

      Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

      Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

      According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

      Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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      Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

      Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

      The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

      Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

      So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

      Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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      One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

      Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

      Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

      The Neurology of Ownership

      Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

      In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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      But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

      This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

      Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

      The Upshot for Goal-Setters

      So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

      On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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      It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

      On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

      But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

      More About Goals Setting

      Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

      Reference

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