As anyone who has read this blog or met me already knows, I’m a big believer in having detailed resolutions / yearly plans. Complete with monitoring throughout the year. I have to confess though that this past year was a bit of a write-off. I started strong, but things were starting to get crazy around work in the Spring and then my Mom got sick, and she passed away in November. Goals went out the window, and I pretty much hunkered down in survival mode. At the end of the year, there were a bunch of cartoons / comics I saw that showed people basically beating up on the year 2012 and hoping for a better 2013. Those comics fully resonated with me. I feel like I’ve been drifting for far too long, and I really feel like I need to kickstart some aspects of my life again. Hence, it’s planning time.
For any planning, I think one should start with their personal value system. While I did some work on my “Tier 1” beliefs this past year — my spiritual journey, so to speak — the trip is far from over. As such, what I’m really talking about here are elements of my overall “personal philosophy”. Perhaps “Tier 2” in many ways. For 2013, I don’t see many great “truths” emanating from 2012 that would cause me to change them greatly, but I decided I would more fully articulate what I mean by each of them.
- An unexamined life isn’t worth living. My first element is not that original, I confess. But it is the basis for who I am and even this approach to setting and monitoring my goals. To be aware of my actions or inactions, to take charge of my destiny, to review and assess my behaviour. To accept responsibility for who I am. To reflect that free will comes with the need to be aware of how that will is exercised.
- Dare to dream, but live in the real world. I love that so many people out there take a carefree, live positive, think positive, be positive approach to the world. The view that if you just think good thoughts, good results will come. But I am not one of those people. Separate from the problems I have with the way they misconstrue the concept of karma, it also encourages people to think if something bad happens, they were at fault, that somehow they weren’t “deserving” of a better outcome (a dangerous line of thinking, me thinks). Instead I like the idea of daring to dream, but also taking responsibility both for planning and actions to make that happen along with being realistic about the outcomes. Some people interpret that as “settling” or “lowering the bar” before you start, and that is not what it means. Instead, it means perhaps aiming for the moon but being happy that you got off the ground at all, noticing the success you get just from committing to something even if the final goal isn’t achieved. Just as Machiavelli implied that one should always look to the end when measuring means, so too should someone look at the milestones along the way.
- Be unreasonable whenever possible. When I was at law school, we learned about the “reasonable man” doctrine that is so prevalent throughout the law. The idea is “what would a reasonable man do / say / think in a given circumstance” as a test for what is reasonable in a situation, somewhere between perfection and negligence. But to me it was also a failure — sometimes we need the bar higher than that, sometimes we want to tilt at windmills and say “Wait a minute, was that REALLY the best we could accomplish? Couldn’t / shouldn’t / wouldn’t we want to aim higher?”. To some, that may even seem “unreasonable”. But having high standards isn’t a bad thing sometimes unless it means you can’t accept anything less or you’re just setting people up to fail (including yourself). Instead, high standards help you remember what really matters to you and keeps you focused on what you’d really like to achieve.
- They are only principles if you’re willing to fight for them. This one is heavily related to #2 and #3. There have been times, particularly in my work life, where I have let stuff go unchallenged that I thought was wrong. People who were being run roughshod over, policies that had weird externalities, behaviour that was just unacceptable. I’m not talking about illegal activities, or even necessarily morally wrong. But not honourable, if it isn’t too old-fashioned to use such a word. Actions that offended me. And yet, under the guise of “picking one’s battles”, I let them go. There are only so many windmills you can tilt at without starting to just look like a crackpot. But I regret a couple of windmills that I let go by me, leaving it to others to address, only to see no one else pick up the mantle of windmill tilting. Yet while I claim they offended my principles, I did nothing either. Not unlike the classic quote that the only thing needed for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing. There are ways to oppose without being curmudgeonly, but if no one draws lines in sand, there are no lines to avoid crossing.
- Never presuppose a “no”. Back when I was in my undergrad, one of our group projects involved interviewing people in a factory dealing with nuclear materials. Out of all the control issues we looked at, and all the management challenges and solutions studied, one thing I remember was the lead interviewee talking about how people decide not to pursue something because they expect a “no”. They assume it can’t be done, and so they don’t push for a change, etc. When I was at CIDA, I watched a DG whose ethics I detested almost single-handedly achieve something most people didn’t think was possible. While I wouldn’t emulate his business style, I liked the fact that all the naysayers didn’t stop him from trying and succeeding. Again, at another job, I watched a set of international discussions start sliding into a morass of problems. In three other negotiations, it had gone nowhere, and one delegate was pushing in the same direction. While I disagreed with him on substance and the advisability of the approach, I also didn’t think it could happen — three other failures in the same vein, despite weeks of negotiations, yet he wanted to attempt to accomplish something similar in two short days. I would have bet my life, if pushed, that not only would it not happen, that it couldn’t. Two days later, we signed with his approach agreed upon and included. I still disagreed with him on substance, but I was amazed at and impressed by his outcome.
- The saddest words are “unrealized potential”. This is one that scares me to my core. It is hard to describe, but I guess the closest I can come is that I fail to accomplish something not because I “can’t” but rather because I never try. My father, when he was just married, was offered a new job in drafting at the factory where he worked. But it was unsecured, no guarantees for the future, and there was a wife and little ones to worry about. As a result, he passed on the drafting career, instead opting for a factory floor position. I hesitate to say he “regretted” the decision, more that he regretted having to choose. There are some things — like writing — where I wonder if it doesn’t happen a certain way, will I feel like I missed out on something? That I didn’t fully realize my potential? And, to be honest, I’m more concerned where it ends up being something I don’t even realize I’m not pursuing, more of a latent itch that I might regret later somehow.
- Who begins too much, accomplishes little; who begins too little, wastes a life. One of my ongoing battles is to keep a balance — having too large a to do list and accomplishing little, or not pushing hard enough and wasting time. A constant struggle. I’m not sure if this is just a subset of #6, but it seems a bit different.
- 20% of effort gives you 80% of results; the remaining 80% delivers the next 20%. When I was just starting my career, it was the first performance feedback that I ever received. I am a bit of a perfectionist in certain areas, and it really is both a weakness as well as a strength. In my case, my boss noted that I was spending a lot of time to get that last little bit perfect when 80% might have been “good enough” and I could have been getting a lot more productivity out of myself if I just moved on to the next item. Over time, I’ve watched for it when managing others too — trying for perfection, when “really good” is more than good enough. It is one of the hardest things for me to let go of in my personal life though.
- You can only truly count on yourself; trust and rely on others anyway. Okay, I stole the first part of this from a stupid source — Ashley Judd’s character Robin Lefler on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Unlike Wesley’s stupid response (“Sounds lonely”), the reality is that while the first part is true, it is the act of faith in the second part that is really the heart of the human condition. With every trust comes the risk of betrayal, but we risk and risk and risk anyway.
- Be there. If you can’t be there, support those who can. This is a tough one in many ways. When there is personal trauma in your life, your family, at work, wherever, the big gurus advise that it is all about “showing up”. Just showing up is enough. Well, that’s great. But what happens when you can’t? Physical or even emotional distance, for example, often prevent you from “being there”. In that case, I think it is important to avoid berating yourself for not being there and doing nothing else; in some cases, you can support others who are able to “be there”.
- Trauma and emotional distress have a long half-life. This one is easy to see on a regular basis…people who went through something — personal loss, heartbreak, physical trauma, whatever — still feel the effects long after other people might think they should have “gotten over it by now”. And it affects their reactions to things, just as if it happened last week.
- Take responsibility for pushing buttons, not for installing them. This was a hard-learned lesson. Up until I was about 30, I was the “facilitator”. If there was conflict, I tried to ease it. To build bridges amongst family members for example. To rush in and try to “solve things”. Even more so if I was a catalyst. But with one personal relationship in particular, I realized that I was taking responsibility for their over-reaction to something that had been innocuous on my part. They had over-reacted because I had pushed a button, yet I hadn’t been the one in their past who “installed” the button. So, while I was “sorry” for pushing it, I eventually refused to accept that I was responsible for their overblown reaction. I can be sensitive to their “issues”, when I know in advance what they are, but if you don’t, that’s the other person’s responsibility.
- There’s no such thing as a casual conversation. This is a bit of an odd way of listing something that others might simply say is “be mindful of others”. Except, for me, what it is really about is recognizing that conversation is very intimate, intensely personal. It is a form of sharing that should be respected — and sometimes people tell you something or hear what you say, and react badly because you didn’t really think about what you were saying or how you were saying it. Which isn’t to say “watch everything you say”, just to be mindful that every conversation is both a risk and an opportunity.
- Communication is 20% what you know and 80% how you feel about what you know. The past two and the next one are all related — they are all about communication in various forms, and how to deal with the reactions. In this one, this is a lot more about the internal process. In an obvious example, people often talk about being confident and understanding something before speaking out on an issue. Equally, they talk about letting passion guide your way of communicating. Others too talk about how “negative words convey negative messages”, that if you are being cynical then that is a poor way to communicate, to inspire, etc. In short, you become Debbie Downer. I agree with some aspects of each of those cautions, but I’m also mindful of the idea that it isn’t just “what you know”, but how you use it internally, how you connect various dots, and what you can do with that knowledge.
- Learn to express, not impress. Lastly for the comms side of things, this goes past the two reactions or internal process above, and focuses back on the reason for communicating. I really hate the idea of networking as it is traditionally done for extroverts, and this sums it up perfectly. Too many people are trying to “connect”, to “impress” the other person, when the best way to impress is through self-expression. Tell them about yourself, tell them something you know, share with them a skill you have — not to “impress them”, but to simply communicate. When I was at CIDA, I had a strange set of conversations one week. A friend was commenting how he thought I was an “expert networker” because I knew everyone. And I was offended, really, because I don’t “network”. Sure, I knew lots of people, because my job required a lot of interaction with different people. Another friend noted that I did something that nobody else really did — I shared good information with people. Sure, lots of people shared info, but I only shared useful stuff that I came across, curating it before curating was even a pop term, and sharing items of true interest and utility. While others were basically spamming, I only sent them useful items. Another colleague chimed in noting that whatever I sent her, she always found useful and she always read it, often passing it on to her team. Meanwhile, she routinely deleted messages from some other people unread. I started thinking of it as “substantive networking”. I wasn’t networking to impress, I was networking to express something, to share something I found useful, even going so far in most cases to say “Here’s an article on X that you might find interesting for reason A, B, C and D based on our conversation last week” — doing a bit of the mental thinking for them to explain why I was bothering to share it. If they aren’t interested in X, A, B, C or D, they can delete it easy enough, but at least there’s a mental hook for them to see why it might be relevant at all.
- Hindsight is not always 20/20, and not all interpretations are true interpretations — even though sometimes hindsight can give hind-insights. This is a really confusing one for me. I am a firm believer that hindsight is not 20/20, despite the cliche. I think we actually look back and end up reinterpreting things. A friend of mine went through a relatively upsetting breakup, and their tendency was then to go back and say, “Well if they did X now, it must mean that it was all part of this long pattern, blah blah blah.” It is the same argument when people say, “But you said you loved me, you must have lied if now you don’t”. No, you express yourself, make choices, live your life in a forward direction. Separate from physics theory, cause precedes effect in the real world. It doesn’t mean that if you see an effect now, you should push the “cause” back to the beginning of the relationship. Life changes, and you shouldn’t second guess decisions you made three years ago. People made decisions with the best available info at the time. But, what I think is useful sometimes, which belies the same argument somewhat, is to think about your own motives sometimes or even behaviours. Not in the most negative light possible which is popular during emotional periods, but just simple motives. Other people don’t make decisions based on how it affects you, they’re not that complicated…in short, it’s not about you. I was thinking about a breakup the one time and I suddenly had an epiphany…I had kind of kidded myself that although I knew it should happen, I tricked my brain into thinking it was more related to the triggers that week. Then I realized suddenly that in the larger picture, that week was planned entirely and in fact I knew it was going to happen that week (I was actively avoiding her). A simple realization, not about motives or second-guessing anyone, just the realization that at the time, I was deliberately blinding myself to avoid a bigger truth. I was seeing part of the picture but not the whole picture. I don’t regret the decision or even the behaviour because later growth is what made that realization even possible, just as the whole cliche exists about how a young man often thinks their parents are idiots, and yet a few years later is amazed at how much they apparently learned in the interim. I think hindsight can help us see larger, longer trends, but I don’t think they help us much with second-guessing other people’s motives very often.
- Better I be a dolphin swimming with sharks than a shark. I don’t want to be a predator, don’t want to do political work, don’t want to be a “mover and shaker”, making deals, shaking hands, etc. That is not who I am and it is not how I relate to people. While I am not always a consensus-builder, and I’m known to tilt at my share of windmills, even rant from time to time, I don’t want to be a nameless suit making money and moving on. It was one of the things that scared me about law school, the number of fellow students who went from being interested in saving the world on Day 1 and by Day 180 were all about the money, power and prestige. It isn’t me, and I don’t want it to be me. I don’t want to be chum, but I don’t want to be a predator either. Even if I work with some, I can still be me. That’s never more true than when I’m managing people. I have very different values then most of my fellow managers or even most executives in the building. I could shed some of those beliefs and move up, but if that’s the price, I’m good right where I am.
- I don’t have to work any particular place, I get to do it. I like my job, I like working for government. I see lots of people drifting in their careers, and I count myself lucky that I at least know the industry (government) and organization (federal) that interests me the most. I have skills, I can move around if I need to, but I’m comfortable where I am right now, and still contributing. I might move on in the next year or so, but for now, I’m still hunkered down in career survival mode after a brutal last couple of years managing some not so pleasant files.
With those personal rules in mind, on to the actual planning!