Eric Barker shares his non-intuitive, scientifically-backed insights on what does and doesn’t lead to success.
Last week, I wrote about starting the year with a strategic plan that looks both outward and inward. And this year, behind the scenes, my strategy has had some big changes.
How have you chosen your direction for this phase of your career? The best place to put your professional energies can be found at the intersection of:
- What you’re good at
- What you enjoy
- What people need
For years, executive coaching brought these together for me. But there’s been a shift. There’s a fourth element in the mix:
- What can scale
If you’ve got it, grow it!
Sometimes what you’ve got is enough. For years, one-on-one coaching was completely rewarding. But as my audience has grown, I believe that there’s a chance to be a bigger force for good in the world. So why not go for it?
In 2017, you’ll find my emphasis shifting from one-on-one coaching to online and offline courses, workshops, and experiences. The curriculum I helped develop for Harvard Business School touched tens of thousands of people. My goal by 2018 is to be developing and delivering online and offline courses, workshops, and experiences that help tens of thousands of people harness the tools of business in service of creating their extraordinary lives.
I need your help
Are you a helpful person? The missing puzzle piece is knowing what people need. That means you! So we can collaborate on meeting your needs. Would you mind giving me some quick advice, by answering three quick questions to help shape the courses being developed?
It will take about a minute or so. Answering the questions will be fun and exciting! And maybe, just maybe, answering will give you the body of a 20-year-old supermodel, make you win the lottery, and turn every piece of cardboard in your entire recycling bin into solid gold!!
(Truly, I said “maybe,” but do you really want to chance missing out?)
Thanks very much!!
Have a great 2017!
It’s January, and we all know what that means: time to set New Years resolutions that we’re going to break! The main things resolutions are good for is causing the gym to get way too crowded for the first six weeks of the year. You have a tool at your finger tips that will do far more for you than simply setting resolutions.
Skip your resolutions and set strategy, instead.
A strategy is a 50,000-foot view of your life or business. A good strategic plan gives you a roadmap for where to put your time and effort this year. It tells you what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to.
As you know from my article on how vision and mission relate to strategy, your strategy for a year answers the question, “How can we further the company vision, given the realities of the markets, customers, and resources under our control right now?” Strategy is how vision plays out in today’s real world context.
But when you’re setting your strategy, make sure to approach it from both the outside and the inside.
Look Outside to Set Strategy
Your strategy depends on what’s going on outside your company walls. You need to develop a plan that makes you more desirable to customers than any of your competitors. That means knowing:
- How do your customers think of you? What product category do they put you in? (Don’t assume you know. A yacht isn’t necessarily a vehicle. Rather, it may be a status symbol.)
- Who else is in that product category? If you’re a yacht, are you competing against Toyota and JetBlue (transportation) or are you competing against Jetstream and Sotheby’s (status symbols)?
- What advantage do you have over your competitors?
- How can you best communicate that advantage to the market?
- Who has the power in your ecosystem, and how can you increase your power?
One of my favorite books on external strategy is Co-opetition by Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff. If you’ve ever heard of Michael Porter’s “Five Forces,” Co-opetition goes one step further and deepens the model. Just the way Brandenburger and Nalebuff define competitive and complementary relationships is worth the cost of the book.
Strategy Looks Inside
Looking outside is only half of the equation. You also need to look inside when you formulate your strategy. If strategy is vision made real now, part of “now” is the resources you have under your control. You need to take stock of your resources and decide which resources will form the foundation of your strategy.
When you make ultra-yachts, two of your assets are your customer list (oodles and oodles of rich people), and your yacht design capabilities. If you base your strategy off your customer list, you will expand into other products and services that your current customers might want. Like platinum dinner place settings. If, however, you base your strategy off your design capabilities, you might instead expand into other kinds of yachts, or other sea-faring vessels.
My favorite book on internal strategy is Top Management Strategy by Tregoe et al. The book is 30 years old, but is pretty much just as relevant today as when it was written.
Treat yourself to a 3-martini lunch
If you don’t have a formal strategy session planned, then at least take a long lunch. And over lunch, review the vision/mission for your venture. Why are you in the game in the first place? Then ask yourself how that gets expressed in the world of 2017. Review your external factors—competitors, customers, suppliers, and so on. Review your internal resources, and decide which you plan to base your strategy on.
Then go for it. Give shape to your plans for the next year. Make sure to build in time to review and course correct, and get your year off to a good start. A New Years resolution might only last a couple of weeks, but a good strategy will support you for a year.
There are two ways to live your life: you can drive it, or be driven. Today, I’m not talking about driving your life in a grand, spiritual sense, but in a micro-sense.
You can never replace time. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can never get it back. You have a limited supply (though with no fuel gauge, you don’t know how much you have left. And in every waking second, you get to choose your actions in that moment.
Friday was a passion day! Someone was wrong on the internet, and it was my Higher Purpose to make sure they knew it. Six hundred words into commenting on their status update, it hit me: I waste an unbelievable amount of time on Facebook. I log in 3-5 times a day, sometimes for as much as 20 minutes at time. Let’s be very optimistic and assume that it’s only 5 times a day, 6 minutes each time. That’s 30 minutes a day, or using the 3/30 rule, three weeks a year. On Facebook. And that’s being very optimistic.
Technology is making us reactive, rather than deliberative
Now make no mistake: Facebook is engineered quite deliberately to be addictive. If someone were to engineer a physical substance to be that addictive, we would outlaw the substance and throw them in jail. As it is, Facebook being a Silicon Valley success story, we celebrate it instead. But Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, iPhones, notifications—these have trained us to react rather than deliberate. And then, rather than living our own lives, we just become random Dopamine-driven reaction machines.
Where is life getting sacrificed
Many years ago, I wrote a lot! My article ideas file has about 300 ideas waiting to be turned into articles. It hasn’t been touched since Facebook came along. My free writing time has vanished into status updates, cat picture comments, and pointless political arguments that aren’t going to convince anyone of anything.
The toxic 2016 election discussions finally got to me this evening. My friend Tim has changed my Facebook password for me, and I’m going without until after the election is over. But I’m not abandoning writing. The time that would have gone into the Book of Face is now going to go into writing articles longer than 140 characters.
I’m very curious to experience the result. It may well be that my ideas begin to become articles. Perhaps I’ll try rock climbing. Or pursuing inventing. Or take a class. Or binge-watch Black Mirror. Whatever the decision, it will be deliberate, not reactive.
It’s your turn
Choose what to stop. Where are you spending your time out of habit or addiction, yet getting little joy from it? Does your time on social media give you enough joy to warrant the time? Are there hobbies that you’ve outgrown? Friends who have diverged? TV shows that just fill time?
Eliminate one. Just for a few weeks.
Start something better. Replace it with something that brings you joy, that moves your life forward. Maybe something old that would bring you joy to revisit. Or something new you’ve wanted to do but never gotten around to.
You do your experiment. I’ll do mine. And in a couple of weeks, let’s compare notes. We only have a limited amount of time on this planet, and it’s up to us to use it in ways that make our life somewhere we want to be.
I’ve been doing a series of coaching calls with a wide range of successful people, to learn what’s holding them back in life. One of the most common fears: the fear of making mistakes. And it’s no wonder…
It’s election time. And political discussions tell us that anyone who makes a mistake should be shunned for life, barred from public office, and labeled a “flip-flopper” (especially if they change their mind as a result of learning from their mistake). Success literature, however, tells us that we should learn to be comfortable with failure and make mistakes! One of my most accomplished business school professors once said: if you’re not making enough mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks. How about you? Do you know how to make the most of your mistakes?
If you’re not making enough mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.
Bad Outcomes Don’t Necessarily Mean Mistakes
Our school system trains us for decades that not getting the right answer means we were wrongand somehow didn’t work hard enough. Once we get into the real world, we bring that mindset along with us. If we don’t get the results we want, we assume we made a mistake.
This isn’t necessarily so. Here’s a thought experiment to understand why. Imagine you have two quarters. One is perfectly fair. It has 50%/50% odds of flipping heads or tails. The other is weighted. It has a 60% chance of flipping heads.
We have two Coin Operators, whose job is to flip heads. They’re allowed to choose either coin to flip.
Peyton, Coin Operator #1, chooses to flip the 50/50 coin and gets HEADS.
Harley, Coin Operator #2 chooses to flip the 60/40 coin and gets TAILS.
Who made the mistake? If we look at the outcomes, it appears that Harley made the mistake. But before we know the outcome, we would favor Haley’s decision to choose the coin that is weighted towards heads. Haley pursued the outcome using the right process, even though it was the wrong outcome.
I hear you cry, “But Harley made the right choice! The outcome should have been heads!” I agree! We really want to believe that our actions will give us the results we want. The real world, however, is sadistic: sometimes things work, and sometimes they don’t. We have a name for this. We call this luck.
We can do the right thing, have bad luck, and get the wrong outcome. We can do the wrong thing, have good luck, and get the outcome we want.
This gives us a critical insight into the nature of mistakes: it isn’t the outcome that lets us know we’ve made a mistake; it’s what we did to get the outcome, our process, that lets us know if we made a mistake.
We’re not taught to think this way. We’re not given societal support to think this way. We don’t evaluate our political candidates this way. We don’t evaluate our employees this way.
But if you want to train yourself to get what you want in life, don’t measure mistakes by outcomes. Burn these definitions into your brain:
- Success is using a high-quality process, regardless of outcome.
- Mistakes are using a low-quality process, regardless of outcome.
Other People May Not Suck as Much as We Think
Deep down inside, we all love judging other people, especially politicians. But this new definition of mistakes means we need to be careful. If we judge them based on outcomes, we might end up deciding that the Peytons of the world are amazing and awesome and worthy of backrubs, while the Harleys of the world should eat rocks.
Unfortunately, however, unless we’re paying attention during the entire effort, we rarely know what process someone used to reach their outcome. That makes it harder to judge them accurately.
I took a mediation class, where I had the joy of mediating a 10-party negotiation between the heads of several organizations. Each organization cared about different things, with different priorities. The real estate developers wanted more land. The conservationists wanted land made off-limits to developers. The Mayor cared about economic development and tourist trade. The historical society cared about limiting changes to any part of the city.
The final agreement satisfied no one, but at least everyone was equally dissatisfied. To each organization, the outcome surely looked like a failure. But the representatives reached the best agreement they could, given the conflicting interests, the time available, and the fledgling abilities of the mediator.
It’s easy to say “my [politician, boss, representative] failed by not getting outcome I wanted.” If we really want competent leaders, however, we do better to judge the process they use. Do they take steps to understand the issues? Do they understand whose support is needed and build the necessary coalitions? Do they compromise where needed, and hold firm where needed?
When evaluating others, don’t judge their success and failure from their outcomes. Look as closely as possible at their process.
Getting the Most Out of Your Mistakes
Although mistakes are a sign that you’re really moving, stretching, and growing yourself, that doesn’t mean you want to make the same ones over and over. You want to learn as much as you possibly can each time things don’t work out.
When a mistake happens, hold an After Action Review. Take time to reflect explicitly on what worked, what didn’t, and why. Consider what happened on the ground—what worked out the way you expected, and what didn’t. What happened that you didn’t plan for, and what didn’t happen that you did plan for? Also consider what happened in your head. How did your a priori beliefs factor into what happened? Were your interpretations of what was going on correct? Where did you waste time paying too much attention to trivialities, and where did you miss opportunity by not paying enough attention?
Making mistakes, combined with a good after action review, helps you refine several important aspects of your future thinking.
Mistakes Refine Cause/Effect Thinking
We all have theories about what causes what. Some of our theories are pretty good. We believe that watering a plant will help it grow. We water the plant. It grows. Our cause/effect works, we’re happy, and the plant is happy (maybe even ecstatic, depending on how long it’s been since you last watered it).
Some of our theories really don’t work at all. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back” isn’t orthopedically sound advice. If you want to protect mom’s back, teaching her proper posture and good form when lifting heavy boxes is a far better plan.
And some of our theories about cause and effect are sort of true. “Work hard and you’ll get ahead” certainly works great while we’re in school. But once we’re in the work world, the link between hard work and advancement is much more tenuous. In many cases, it doesn’t hold at all.
Avoidable mistakes often help us refine our notions of cause and effect. Many people believed that putting money into the stock market would result in a consistent, positive return on their money. In 2008, an entire generation discovered that cause/effect in stock investing is more subtle, and less dependable, than they thought. Next time a financial advisor happily informs them “invest in fund X and you’ll make 11% interest for 43 years,” they’ll (hopefully) know to refine their notion that giving money to a financial advisor automatically leads to a comfortable retirement.
Mistakes Refine Discrimination Abilities
We don’t just learn rules about cause and effect. We also learn how to discriminate between different situations. For example, with the label side down, a tube of toothpaste and a tube of athlete’s foot creme might look identical. One might simply look in the drawer, see a tube, squeeze it onto a toothbrush, and pop that brush right into their mouth and start brushing.
One might then discover one’s mistake. This will lead quickly to the learning that although tubes look the same face down, there are subtle clues as to which tube belongs in the mouth, and which tube belongs in the foot. For example, fine print on the back of the tube that says “for treatment of athlete’s foot and other topical fungal infections. Don’t eat it, you moron.”
That particular mistake is the one that got me to start paying close attention to the difference between tubes of cream.
Then there are my singing lessons, where my voice teacher forced me to listen to recordings of our lesson. When I was able to stop gritting my teeth, I began to develop the ability to distinguish between a tritone and a major fifth. It turns out that when you’re singing harmony, that distinction matters.
Mistakes help us refine the distinctions we make in the world.
Mistakes Refine Luck
And finally, mistakes help us understand the role of luck in what we’re trying to do. To return to our coin toss example, if we know Harley chose the 60/40 coin to flip, and it still came up tails, that tells us that luck played a factor in the outcome. While we would have prefered that Harley flip heads, we can be confident that the outcome of tails reflects luck, and not Harley’s abilities.
We might think mistakes are bad, but nothing could be further from the truth. Mistakes help us learn if we respond correctly. We should understand the roles luck and skill played in our outcome. Analyzing our process will tell us if we our good process gave a poor outcome, or whether we had a genuinely poor process. And we should refine our understanding of cause/effect, our discrimination abilities, and the role of luck. Our greatest advancement happens when we learn when things go wrong. To do anything else would be a mistake.
- If you’re a physicist, you call it a wave function. Or quantum mechanics. Or alternate universes, or something. But you’re not a physicist, so let’s stick with luck. ↩
If you want to change your life, how do you do it? I used to think it was hard. Then I realized that most of the opportunities in life have come through one simple activity: talking to people…about stuff. Who you talk to, and what you talk about, ends up building your reputation, and gets people thinking of you in ways that lead to new opportunities.
You don’t always have the power to talk to the right people, but you always have the power to talk about the stuff you think is important. Once you start talking about what you care about, you quickly find the other people who care, too.
People Will Self-Select
Start by changing the conversation with your current group of friends and colleagues. They’ll make it clear really quickly if they’re the wrong audience.
A mid-50s postal clerk called for career coaching. She’s close to retirement. In her spare time, she’s designed a low-cost, easy-to-assemble housing unit she believes could revolutionize third world housing. Her co-workers all pooh-pooh her idea: “You should realize you’re just a postal clerk with delusions of grandeur. At your age, you should just be thinking about retirement.”
Those weren’t the people to talk to. Talking to me was a good next step. I don’t have third-world housing connections, but I know people who do and can refer her. She changed her conversation and is already getting closer to people who can help realize her dream.
Jump on Opportunities
Be on the looking during the conversation, and pounce on opportunities as they arise. Last year, I was going through career angst. The only things that seemed exciting: theater and saving the world. Sadly, theater is tough to make pay, and there weren’t any save-the-world job openings on Craigslist.
I was talking with my friend Jason about my desire to save the world. Lo and behold, he had just been tasked with the job of … creating a conference to save the world! Hosted by MIT, the SOLVE conference would convene movers and shakers, technologists and policy makers, and be about initiating real action to solve world problems.
I immediately asked to get involved. I presented my ideas to the SOLVE team, and was given an invitation as an attendee to SOLVE 1.0. Will SOLVE be the right vehicle for me? Who knows. But one way or another, it introduces me to a new community to talk to, who share my concerns and aspirations. And therein lies opportunity.
Change Your Life
Now it’s your turn to change your life by talking to people … about stuff:
- What change do you want to make in your life?
- When you’ve made the change, who will you be talking to? About what?
- If you can reach those people directly, pick up the phone.
- Otherwise, start having the right conversations, and let people guide you to the right audience.
- If you run out of people and still haven’t found your tribe, try Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, etc.