Life planning

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What makes a good driving question for life?

If you were only allowed to ask one question of yourself to move you into action each morning, what one question would have the greatest chance of creating the best life for you?

In a recent Get-it-Done Guy episode, I explored the nature of using driving questions to shape your life. My episodes are often created from events in my own life. As many of you know, several years ago I did a three year experiment in Living an Extraordinary Life which later turned into a TEDx talk, a webinar, and a series of talks. You can even download an MP3 of the Living an Extraordinary Life webinar.

The driving questions episode came from my decision (largely made unconsciously and revealed to me by my unconscious mind in the late afternoon of June 17, 2014) to re-start the Experiment discussed in the presentation. In short, what driving questions drive an extraordinary life?

Here are some candidate questions so far:

  • What am I grateful for?
  • Who do I want to hang out with?
  • Who do I want to serve?
  • What do I want to do?
  • Who do I want to be?
  • What do I want to build?
  • What would I do if I were on vacation?
  • Who are the people I want to become?

These are all good questions to ask as part of a periodic life review. That’s very different from the way I’m proposing to use them, however. The proposal on the table is that one of these questions–or some other question entirely–can act as a daily launching pad for life. Which question is the one that will serve best as a daily launching pad? They propel you in a very different direction, depending on which is answered.

Want to change yourself? Change the system.

While reading “The Lucifer Effect,” it’s becoming increasingly clear how much of behavior is a product of situations and systems. I think that coaches and psychological change agents are missing this piece, big-time.

I have many people tell me that “if a person just gets clear on their big passion, they’ll make the change they need to make.” Or if they “just have an inspiring vision,” that’s enough. And yet that simply hasn’t been my experience. People go to a change agent, come back all pumped up, and six weeks later are back where they started.

(Besides, do you want a surgeon who has passion, or a surgeon who has training? There really is more to life than just having passion. Indeed, there’s research that says passion often comes from doing something you don’t like and growing to like it.)

Yes, not having an internal change will often keep you stuck. If you sabotage yourself at every turn, you’ll be stuck wherever you are. But my new opinion is internal change only works if it gets you into action. But not just any action; action needs to help create a new situation or new system that will support the new identity or new vision, or the change will eventually die out.

You don’t hear that side of the story, though. When a change agent fails with a client, they don’t trumpet the failure from the mountaintops and examine what happened in detail, to find out if their (the change agents’) models of change are insufficient. And the clients who don’t change don’t trumpet the story for obvious reasons.

My new formula:
change = change in mindset (identity, role) + change in actions + change in systems

In my NLP training and my coach training, identity has been considered a powerful shaper of behavior change. And it is, it just turns out that Situation and System can be even more powerful than identity. It also turns out that identity is shaped by behavior, even if the behavior is undertaken for neutral reasons1.

The Power to Change



  • Changing a system or a situation is the most powerful creator of change, because it forces behavior to change.
  • Changing behavior is the next most powerful, when done in a way that reshapes identity.
  • Changing identity is the least most powerful of the three, but still very powerful, because it can provide intrinsic motivation which can lead someone to change their action and their systems.

  1. see the Social Psychology literature on “commitment and consistency,” in which small behavioral changes produce identity changes. 

Is the very concept of work doomed?

I just read an excellent article on XConomy by Wade Roush in which he asks the question: is technology destroying the very basis of our economy to offer employment? And assuming it is (as a thought experiment), what might we do to stop it?

First, read the article. Otherwise, my commentary won’t make much sense.

First of all, I found it fascinating that Finland and Sweden have lower taxes than the US, despite having much better social benefits. “What!?!?!?” you cry, “lower taxes? But they’re inefficient, evil socialists! It destroys the prevailing Capitalism is Best Ever narrative to say such a thing!!!”

Well, let’s take a look. My state tax is 6.25%, my Federal taxes are 33%, and my FICA taxes are 14%. Add those together and we discover that I’m paying 53% in taxes, which is about 18% MORE1 than the 45% tax rate Wade quotes for Finland and Sweden.” The big difference is that my tax dollars go mainly to private defense contractors, private insurance companies, and other private providers of services hired by the government.

What about motivation?

Wade correctly points out that such welfare states have a problem motivating people to work. But is this a problem? If the promise of industrialization is coming true—to wit, that technology will free us to pursue things that are personally meaningful rather than productive—then decreased motivation to work doesn’t seem like a huge problem.

Perhaps what we need to do is make work either voluntary, or a phase of life (say, ages 25-40), after which you can continue to work if you enjoy it and are challenged by it, otherwise you must go out and create artwork.

Warren Buffett hasn’t needed to work in any economic sense during my entire lifetime (and then some!). But he has done so, and even took on the stressful job of running Solomon Brothers. Why? Not because the money was the big incentive, but because challenge and meaning, and rescuing an institution was important to him.

This implied theory that people’s only motivation is money continues to mystify me in an age where the #1 complaint people have about their jobs is that their jobs are meaningless, paper-pushing wastes of time that are nothing more than an excuse for a paycheck.

Do any of Wade’s solutions work?

I think Wade’s option #8 is really the only viable one. Solutions like “grow our way out of it” don’t solve the underlying systemic problem. First of all, you can’t grow everything fast enough forever, so you end up in the same situation somewhere down the line. Secondly, those solutions still cling to the notion that the only legitimate way to get paid is by doing valuable work. But if the fundamental premise we’re up against is that machines are devaluing the work rapidly, then any solution that starts with the assumption that there’s enough valuable work for everyone is doomed to fail.

As for retraining, I just have to laugh. People already accumulate a lifetime’s worth of debt for their first education that will let them spend a decade to advance to a solid, mid-level, middle-class job. While I hear this meme tossed around a lot, I challenge anyone who claims it’s possible to quit their job and retrain in another unrelated job that gives them the equivalent income. (Must be unrelated because again, the premise is that the first job has been rendered economically less vaulable by technology. Thus, the replacement job must be substantially different.)

What do you think? If technology really has made a great many humans redundant for the first time in history, we’re in uncharted waters. Where do we go from here? Anywhere we want to. Where do we want to go from here?

  1. The math is a bit weird here. What I mean is that if I make $100 in the US, I pay 53% tax, leaving $47. Someone from Finland pays 45% tax, leaving $55. That’s 17.78% more than the Fins. Actually, to do this correctly would require looking at the different tax brackets and drawing a big graph of income ranges, etc. At the end of the day, however, it’s hard to argue that most middle class people pay much lower taxes in the U.S. If you factor in their need to pay for the services that Finland and Sweden provide nationally (e.g. health insurance, mortgage insurance, maternity leave, etc.), Americans definitely have lower take home pay to spend on non-essentials. 

Efficiency Might Be Bad

I’m a huge fan of system dynamics and the understanding of complex systems that has come from the field that Jay Forrester invented.

This is a superb article by the late Donella Meadows about the leverage points in complex systems, in ascending order of effectiveness.

Alas, most of the things we do to try to change our social and economic systems use only the least effective levers.

Tonight I’m especially struck by #9, delays in systems. Delays of information and material movement can throw a system into or out of sync in ways that utterly change the system’s characteristics.

For many years, we’ve been operating as a society under the implicit assumption that speed = efficiency. The faster things are, the fewer delays, the better off we are.

But this isn’t necessarily true. Increasing the efficiency of communication decreases the time between communication we have to understand and respond. We end up in reactive mode, rather than thoughtful mode. That’s one of the pernicious effects of email. Many people take action on email as it comes in, rather than taking action only on what’s important. That can make the difference between overload and achievement.

Removing communication delays also seems to reduce our tendency to prepare. When you can make changes to your presentation all the way until the night before it’s due, then you will. In prior years, when you had no choice but to finish early enough to send your slides to be duplicated, you actually had time you could then use to rehearse and concentrate on delivery, rather than on making last-minute changes.

Read the article. Let me know your thoughts, if you still have enough attention span to make it through, after all the years we’ve spent training ourselves to operate in a purely reactive—but oh, so efficient–mode.


Success Principles are Often Bull&%$# !

I ran across an article purporting to give principles necessary for success. I don’t buy it. Popular culture is full of “how to be successful” advice that’s pure bunk. It’s mostly made up by salespeople, based on disproven sports mythology. “Work harder” is great advice if you’re trying to win an Olympic medal, but not if you’re trying to earn a lot of money.

I know many phenomenally successful people who violate the vast majority of these rules. I know many people who follow all these rules and have for decades, and aren’t much more successful than they were when they started.

But these rules make us feel good. We want to feel in control. So this list comforts us. When we succeed, it gives us a list of reasons why we deserve success. When we fail, it gives us an explanation. Better to believe “Bill Gates is successful and I’m not because he got up earlier” than it is to believe “I’m not successful because I just was born into the wrong circumstances and nothing I could do would have made a difference.”

What Really Makes (Financial) Success

Conspicuously missing from the list is what Andrew Carnegie called the most powerful business force in the world: compound interest.

To abstract that a bit, in my own experience, rent-seeking activities are vastly superior to hard work in getting ahead. It’s bizarre that we reward this so highly, since it’s the hard work that creates the value for which rent is being extracted. Indeed, Adam Smith considered rent-seeking to be the morally lowest form of economic activity.

And yet, most of my retirement savings comes from owning stock and letting it compound. The money I’ve made from actually doing work is only a small share of my IRA. It’s the investing income over time (the rent-seeking activities) that have been the most important.

Warren Buffett, the 3rd richest man in the world, made money solely through owning assets, not through doing work.

Bill Gates, the richest man, actually made his money through rent-seeking. We just never tell that side of the story. The reason Steve Jobs—who arguably put three entire industries on the map—didn’t die with a net worth of 10x Bill Gates is because Gates kept his stock and Jobs sold his. It was the rent-seeking decision to keep stock that made Bill rich, not the hard work he and his 20,000 employees did to make that stock valuable.

Living an Extraordinary Life

Want an intriguing program to listen to this weekend?

I do what I do is because I’m deeply committed to helping people live their full potential, especially when they have world-changing dreams. My background in business, entrepreneurship, and cognitive psychology gives me a unique set of skills for helping people whose personal and organizational lives are deeply entertwined.

One of my favorite clients started our work together saying, “my life is quite good. I have a well-paying job that I enjoy, colleauges who support me, and a great circle of friends.”

“Then why are you here?” I asked him. 

He responded, “Because, I don’t want a good life. I want an extraordinary life.”

I was floored. That led to shiftng my emphasis from clients’ businesses to addressing their businesses and their lives.

Many years later, in 2012, I gave a TEDx presentation called Living an Extraordinary Life, documenting a 3-year experiment in living outside my bounds. Technical glitches made the video unusable, but I presented an expanded version of the same presentation with slides for the Harvard Business School Association webinar series a few months ago.

Living an Extraordinary Life

I’ve made the audio, the slides, and a synchronized version of the two available and want to offer it to my community. I’d love your thoughts and reactions.

Note that the MP3 file is tagged as an audiobook and can thus be listened to at 1.5x or 2x on an iPhone/iPod.

Do The Experiment With Me

I’ll be starting my Experiment again, and am offering it as a year-long coaching program to build a supportive community for others who want to join me. If you would like an invitation to the program, here’s how it works:

  1. Listen to the program and make sure it resonates with you.
  2. Contact me via the form on the web page to arrange a discussion.
  3. We’ll meet to explore your needs, what you have to offer, and find out whether you’re right for the program.
  4. If so, I’ll send along an invitation once the program and details have been finalized.


Your Framing Changes the World

The way we frame things mentally determines how powerfully we’ll be able to handle them.

I auditioned for Spamalot at a local theater last night. After checking in, they informed me that I was in the very last audition slot. That gave me the “opportunity” to listen to my competition as they sang their audition songs. One by one. While I waited with growing trepidation on the cold, unforgiving wooden bench outside. Trying very hard to smile. (It was an acting audition, after all.)

Each person came out complaining apologetically. “When I performed that aria at Madison Square Garden, I hit the high C with so much more resonance.” Or, “gosh, I forgot all the words, so I just improvised new, rhyming lyrics riffing off of a 13th century Olde English translation of the Song of Solomon.” By the time it was my turn, I was a nervous wreck.

But then, some part of my brain found The Answer. As I stepped through the curtains into the auditorium, the thought came to me: “Forget auditioning. Perform. You have two awesome minutes on stage. Give the audience your absolute best!”

One Thought Changes Everything

Suddenly my attitude changed completely. When it’s time to step on stage, there’s no time for practice or judgment. It’s commitment time. By framing this as a performance, rather than an audition, my nerves vanished. I was suddenly alert and happy (I love performing, after all).

I walked confidently to the pianist, gave him my sheet music, and proceeded to sing my song confidently, dramatically, and with full attention on the small audience that just happened to be the directoral staff for the show.

Nothing about the situation changed except my thinking. An “audition” was scary. A “performance” was exhilarating. The right thinking led to a mental and physical state that let me give my all. Last time, I “auditioned,” was a nervous wreck, and didn’t get the part. This time, I “performed,” gave it my all, and had a great time. My all still may not be good enough to get the part, but at least I had fun performing, which I love.

I tried this again during the dance audition. We got to dance twice. The first time, I was a total wreck. You’ve heard of two left feet? I have seven left feet. And they’re all superglued together. It isn’t pretty. But right before the second dance, I thought to myself, “this is performance, not audition! You may suck, but give the audience the best you have to give.” With that change of attitude, I remembered the entire routine and made it through with all the grace and artistry I could bring to the combination.

We Can Choose Our Frames

How you think about situations before you deal with them will affect the options you find, the actions you’ll take, and how resourceful your mental state will be when you start to deal with them.

Next time you find yourself nervous, sad, angry, apprehensive, or anxious, try a new framing.

If you’re going in to a “critical negotiation,” try a “new, mutually profitable relationship” instead. You’ll stop concentrating on the risk and instead you’ll start finding ways you can both benefit from the relationship.

If you’re on a “failing project,” start thinking about “a chance to rescue something good.” You just may find a way to use what you’ve learned and built in a new way that makes the project successful.

If you’re dealing with an “obnoxious, unreasonable person,” try connecting with “a good-hearted person who has really poor social skills.” Seriously. You’ll find your attitude changes.

Try explicitly reframing stressful situations. Are you fooling yourself? Maybe. But maybe you’ll fool yourself right into finding better, more resourceful ways to handle your challenges.

An apology: 8 Secrets of Success

In my post about Richard St. John’s TED talk, I critiqued his research methodology and spent the entire post pointing out flaws. I was wrong. He has since contacted me and pointed out that my assumptions about his research were incorrect. Indeed, he did his research correctly. I did not do mine correctly.

If you check out the post on Eight Secrets of Success, my points still hold for a significant amount of the success literature out there in the world. But not Richard’s. His research was solid and I apologize sincerely for assuming otherwise.

Perhaps we’ve found a ninth law of success: research!

How do you find real community in a wired world?

I really enjoyed Marina Keegan’s article “The Opposite of Loneliness.” The word I’d use as the opposite of loneliness is “community.” Community has been shown to be an important part of a happy, fulfilling life. Of course, there’s no economic model attached to community, so not only do we not manage it, we disregard it in our calculations and decisions.

It’s something I’ve thought a lot about the last 5-10 years, as it’s become apparent to me that the grown-up world we’ve created doesn’t provide much opportunity for it. Any sense of “we’re in this together” that may have existed in America seems to be long gone. The prevailing question seems to have become “How can I get mine and avoid giving any of it to anyone else?” Of course, if you feel like you’re in a community, getting yours becomes much less important, since you feel like someone’s there to help if you really need it.

The very things that we call “progress” are, I believe, a big part of the problem. Easy transportation and telecomm have made it easier ad easier for us to isolate ourselves in suburbs, with our work lives being played out far away, with people who don’t share our interests, who don’t like us, and who don’t live near us. Seeing someone once a month at a planned dinner out for two hours becomes the new definition of “friendship” (second only to the definition of friendship that involves reading someone’s status updates on social media).

If you have hobbies or interests that naturally lend themselves to seeing others (e.g. team sports), that can be a source of connection. But even there, it’s not clear to me that it’s the kind of connection Keegan is talking about in her article. I recall the feeling she’s discussing, and indeed, college is the last time I felt it.

For all you post-college folk out there, please share! How do YOU find community in your life?

Have a Great Life. How?

I’m pondering once again my sign off: “Work Less, Do More, and Have a Great Life.” I have a great many thoughts on how to have a great life, but I’d love to hear yours. What do *you* think goes into making a great life?