If you have been around for a while, you might recall the Hertz commercials from the 70s where the ex-football star and criminal, O.J. Simpson, is running through airports hurdling over rows of departure lounge seats and luggage. I know of other road warriors who also run through airports, priding themselves in being able to arrive at the gate just as the doors are closing.
Not me. In fact, I tend to get to most places early. And there is a good reason.
My background is in process design where there is a concept called “the theory of constraints.” The general idea is that success is limited by at least one constraining process—a bottleneck. In the business world, this means if you want to improve capacity, the most effective way is to increase the throughput at the bottleneck so that overall throughput is increased. You can think of this as strengthening the weakest link in the chain. Or to provide a more visual representation, by expanding the neck of an hourglass, throughput will be significantly improved allowing the sand to move more rapidly to its destination.
These bottlenecks aren’t too difficult to spot. As an example, XYZ company launches a huge marketing campaign for a new product, but the call center is inadequately staffed to handle the volume of incoming requests. This bottleneck will cost them potential customers. By improving the throughput of the call center, overall throughput for the company will be improved.
While it is common for companies to employ the theory of constraints to improve business results, I also use aspects of this model to increase success in my own personal life. Take flying—with over 1 million miles of flying under my belt, I have never missed a flight. How is this possible? I identified the places where bottlenecks typically occur, and I put those behind me first.
There are many potential logjams we can face when trying to catch a flight: traffic on the way to the airport and long lines at the check-in counter, baggage drop-off, or security. Any one of these could prevent me from getting to my plane on time. I can’t predict when it will happen nor do I have the capability to minimize any of these potential bottlenecks (although I do try to fly during slower times when traffic to and in the airport will be less)…
P.S. I’m curious. Which do you think is a stronger title for this article – “How to Always Be On Time” or “How to Never Be Late”? Please leave a comment with your thoughts.
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This article was published on the American Express OPEN Forum. The title you see here on this blog was rejected by them and replaced with “The Art of Decision Making.” I decided to retain the original.
A couple months back, Accenture released the results of a survey of more than 3,400 professionals in 29 countries showing that fewer than half of all respondents are satisfied with their current jobs. I suspect these less than glowing findings are far from surprising.
Reading the results reminded of a conversation that surfaced during a Q&A section of a workshop of mine a while back. One of the attendees asked, “I work in a cubicle in a well-known technology firm and I am unhappy. How do I know if it is me or if it is my job? Do I need to change myself or change my job?”
I queried the audience to get their responses and the answers ranged from, “Stay at your job while you explore other options,” to “If you are really miserable, find another job quickly and quit this job,” to the most outspoken (and comedic) within the group, “Quit your job now! How could you work another day for the evil empire?”
After collecting the various responses, people looked anxiously to me for the “correct” answer.
My perspective was a bit different than the masses. My response was four words: “It doesn’t really matter.”
Very simply put, with the right mindset, any decision is the right decision. If you sincerely believe that the path you are on is the right one, then it is. Quitting your job doesn’t change things. You can switch jobs all you would like, but without the right attitude, it won’t make a bit of difference. Conversely you can alter your attitude and find new opportunities in staying where you are today, without ever changing jobs.
We often fail to make progress in life and in business because we postpone action until we feel as though we have the “right answer.” We painstakingly research all the facts, consider every angle and study each relevant detail. However, this quest for the “right answer” has us sitting on the fence in limbo, often without end.
Instead of answers, perhaps what we need are decisions.
Sadly, many of us suffer from a mild form of “decidophobia“—the fear of making decisions. No, I didn’t make up that work. It was coined by Princeton University philosopher Walter Kaufmann in his 1973 book, Without Guilt and Justice.
It is human nature to avoid putting ourselves into circumstances that we see as being risky, uncomfortable or scary. Therefore, we often decide to not decide. Many relate to decisions as having a “right or wrong” with an associated set of risks and rewards. By postponing decision-making, we mistakenly believe we are avoiding or minimizing the pain and risks of a wrong decision. However, indecision is a no man’s land with no direction, no progress and often more angst.
Without decision, there is no commitment. If you stay in a job yet do not commit to it, there is no way you can be satisfied. You will always be looking elsewhere. If you stay in a relationship but have one foot out the door all of the time, there is no hope for the future.
Should I change my job? Should I stay in my relationship? Should I buy a new house? What should I do with my life? These all seem like pretty big decisions. And for most people, they are.
We think “Oh, it’s so hard to make these big decisions,” when what’s really hard is the indecision.
In life there are no right or wrong decisions. There are only decisions. When we come to a fork in the road, we tend to overanalyze it. We might say, “I have an opportunity to create this new business venture BUT…” These are the considerations that have us stay upon the same path. Or how often do we choose a different path and then rethink our decision.
One of the reasons we worry so much and wonder whether we are on the right track is that we often see decisions as long term, semi-permanent decisions.
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I travel the world extensively. And during these jaunts I am always interested to hear of the differing points of view held by others about American culture. One commonly-held perception is that Americans are self-centered, believing that they are the center of the universe.
There is some truth to this perspective. On the whole, American culture is individualistic.
Studies have been conducted illustrating the differing impact of independent versus interdependent cultures; Americans being independent and Asians, for example, being interdependent.
An article in New Scientist Magazine titled “Self-Centered Cultures Narrow Your Viewpoint” reported that cultures emphasizing individualism fail at being able to infer another person’s perspective. Cultures that emphasize interdependence, on the other hand, are easily able to put themselves in the shoes of others and be more empathetic. A lack of empathy can certainly give the perspective that an individualistic society is self-centered.
To illustrate the difference between individualistic and interdependent culture, the study used the example of a U.S.-based company that attempted to improve productivity by telling its employees to “look in the mirror and say ‘I am beautiful’ 100 times before coming to work.” In contrast, a Japanese supermarket instructed its employees to “begin their day by telling each other ‘you are beautiful’.”
But is being self-centered really all that bad?
Perhaps I can offer up a slightly different definition for self-centered. It depicts a way of being self-centered that might actually be beneficial.
To start off, I am not suggesting that people should be selfish. I think of selfish as being “exclusively concerned with oneself.” And while selfish and self-centered are found to be synonymous in the dictionary, being self-centered—in my opinion—is entirely different.
Centering is what you base your life on—what you focus your attention on.
My parents are children-centered. For them, my sister and I are the most important part of their lives. They live vicariously through us, listening intently as we share our day’s events or track our whereabouts via Facebook.
I have friends who are spouse-centered in that they do everything to please their partner.
Many of my friends are work-centered. Their job is the most important aspect in their life. They get meaning from their career. It is no surprise that men are twice as likely to die during their first five years of retirement, than they are prior to retirement. [NOTE: Being work-centered is different than “marrying your work.”]
Others are service-centered. They give their lives to charity and others. They sacrifice their own well-being for their cause of choice.
In fact, in an apparent attempt to shed the self-centered label, I have seen the pendulum swing so far over in some areas that there has become a complete disregard for one’s own self.
As a simple illustration, several years back, I had conducted a survey for a book that I was writing covering individual’s relationships to goals. The study uncovered that 53 percent of people agreed with the statement: “I sometimes get the feeling that I am living my life in a way that satisfies others (friends, family, co-workers) more than it satisfies me.”
Is this healthy?
This leads me to the benefits of self-centering…
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It is that time of year when everyone sets their New Year’s Resolutions.
Here is an article a wrote a while ago, but is indeed timeless:
I was going to post the entire article again, but I just received news that this will be published nationwide in a major newspaper in a couple of weeks. So instead I am only including the link.
And if you like statistics and want to dig even deeper into them, be sure to check out this article:
Enjoy and Happy New Year!
As many of you may know, my second book was called “Goal-Free Living.” Although it was originally going to be a book on how to be more creative, it morphed into a manifesto for a counter-cultural way of living.
In fact, the “goal-free” philosophy will be featured in a major newspaper early next year. Stay tuned for that.
Someone once asked me why people crave goals. It is a hard question to answer. But an interesting point of view was sent to me by Antony Woods from Australia, and I wanted to share it with you…
He quotes a renowned 20th Century Burmese Meditation Master:
“The fourth protection for your psychological benefit is to reflect on the phenomenon of ever-approaching death. Buddhist teachings stress that life is uncertain, but death is certain; life is precarious but death is sure. Life has death as its goal. There is birth, disease, suffering, old age, and eventually, death. These are all aspects of the process of existence.”
From: Practical Vipassana Meditation Exercises by Mahasi Sayadaw
Antony then suggested that “people often set goals for their lives assuming that they won’t die in the foreseeable future. They assume that the New Year will come, tomorrow will come etc. The only thing one knows that is coming is death, but one doesn’t know when. Rather than thinking “death, death, death,” reflection helps one to appreciate the duration of each breath and have a playful, tentative and pragmatic attitude about the future. I reckon this is what Goal-Free Living is all about.”
Interesting thing to consider as we get ready for New Year’s Eve and the goal-setting ritual known as “resolutions.”
This post marks the 500th entry on this blog.
Today I want to discuss how to have goals that are not goals. How do you do this?
For most people the present is designed to give them a future they want. For me, the future gives me the present I want.
Here’s what I mean in English…
Most people relate to their goals as something to achieve. They will do things in the present in order to get to their desired future.
As a result, most people feel as though they are making sacrifices now (i.e., it is hard work) in order to fulfill on their goal and achieve happiness in the future. In fact, according to a survey I conducted, 58 percent of Americans are consciously and willingly “sacrificing today for the future.” Unfortunately, 41 percent say that “achieving their goals has not made them happier and has only left them disillusioned.” And that is for the people who achieved their goals. Those who do not achieve their goals are typically even more unhappy. And, as we know, most people don’t always get what they want (there’s a reason why the Rolling Stones wrote a song by a similar name). In fact, according to my surveys, 92% of people say that they fail to fulfill on their New Year’s Resolutions, the most common goal-setting ritual.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t have goals. The issue is with how we relate to those goals.
For me, the future “goal” gives me the present. That is, it provides a powerful “context” for the work I do now. Here is an excerpt from the Goal-Free Living book that explains it with a simple example.
Context is not a place to get to; it is something that changes your attitude and perception today. It is a mindset. To experience the power of context, imagine that as you read this, your phone rings. You answer the phone and the person on the other end notifies you that you won the raffle you entered last month. You and your family are going on an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii sometime next year. You jump for joy and become energized—now. Although this vacation is many months in the future, it changes your attitude today. This vacation hasn’t happened. It isn’t even real yet.
Imagine your future as a big and bold vacation. A vacation that is so exciting that you can hardly contain yourself now. A vacation that has you in action and playing hard every day. This is a vacation that you will never take. This is a vacation whose day will never come. Its sole purpose is to generate passion in your life today. A context. Something that calls you forward.
For me, my goals are not about actually achieving the result (although that would be nice). Rather they are about playing full out each and every day. I wake up every morning excited about what is going to take place that day. Every day is a new learning experience with new insights and obstacles. My “work” is never work and it is certainly not a sacrifice. It is a joy. It is exciting. When the future gives you a powerful present, the result is less important than the process. There is no sacrifice. Each day is a new adventure.
New Year’s Eve is just around the corner. Many of you know that I have a tradition of setting a “theme” for each year rather than a resolution.
My theme for 2009 was “cool things.” And it definitely was a year of cool things.
I signed a 2 book deal with Penguin’s Portfolio imprint. I became InnoCentive’s Chief Innovation Evangelist. I had many wonderful trips to cool places, including several to London and Copenhagen. And I got to speak at some very cool events like the Global Creative Leadership Summit and the FT Innovate conference. Most important of all, my family remains happy and healthy.
I’m not sure what my 2010 theme will be yet, but I know great things are in store.
If you have not done so, please read my article on setting New Year’s Resolutions.The article explains the 6 steps for setting a theme, including “Choose a broad theme rather than specific measurable goal.” Excerpts of this article have appeared in over 300 newspapers around the world, including Costco’s Magazine.
You may also be interested in some statistics about New Year’s Resolutions. Here is a highlight of some of the statistics:
Only 8% of people are always successful in achieving their resolutions.19% achieve their resolutions every other year. 49% have infrequent success. 24% (one in four people) NEVER succeed and have failed on every resolution every year. That means that 3 out of 4 people almost never succeed. Regardless, there is no correlation between happiness and resolution setting/success. People who achieve their resolutions every year are NO happier than those who do not set resolutions or who are unsuccessful in achieving them.
Happy New Year!
I recently sent a copy of my Goal-Free Living book to someone I worked with 20 years ago. I hadn’t seen or heard from him since the late 80′s. The wonders of social networks reconnected us after all of this time. After reading the book, he wrote the following…
The time is right for your message. A lot of people have to reflect on where they are, and where they are going. It helps to know the difference between a goal and an aspiration. In an earlier message to you I said that I consider myself goal-oriented. Thinking about your points, however, I guess I am more like a river person. I have aspirations, and they lead me to some really unexpected but very satisfying destinations. Like you say: it is important to seek out adventure.
Since becoming unemployed in December, I have had a number of chance meetings and interesting ideas. One led to a volunteer project resulting in a very successful fund-raising event. Another is an invention that I am working to patent. Two other ideas are being developed into business plans, with prospective backers for one of them already. That might lead to something else entirely. I don’t know where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing in six months. That’s kind of scary, but I am optimistic that it will be good, so I am also very excited.
Today’s crisis is causing people a lot of pain and concern. Financial security is eroding. Job security is vanishing. As a result, “happiness” seems to be at an all time low.
My book, “Goal-Free Living,” provides counter-cultural perspectives on goal-setting. I suggest that we are a nation of goalaholics, and that this is reducing creativity, productivity, and happiness. Harvard Business School recently published an interesting paper, “Goals Gone Wild,” that supports my perspective.
The authors say…
In this article, we argue that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.
Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision. We offer a warning label to accompany the practice of setting goals.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
This may seem like an odd blog entry, but it has been the topic of conversation over many dinners recently.
Although we are taught from a young age that being self-centered is a bad thing, I think that more people would benefit from being this way. Let me explain.
To start off, I am not suggesting that people should be selfish. I think of selfish as being “exclusively concerned with oneself.”
Being self-centered – in my opinion – is entirely different.
Centering is what you base your life on.
My parents are children-centered. For them, my sister and I are the most important part of their life. They live vicariously through us.
I have friends who are spouse-centered. They do everything in their power to please their partner.
Too many of my friends are work-centered. Their job is the most important aspect in their life. They get meaning from their career. It is no surprise that men are twice as likely to die during their first five years of retirement, than they are prior to retirement.
Others are service-centered. They give their lives to charity and others. They sacrifice their own well-being in the name of contribution. Oprah may fall into this category. One of the reasons she claims she put on all of her weight is that she did not spend enough time taking care of herself.
Which leads us to the benefits of self-centering.
Throughout your life, there is only one constant. You. Your children may pass away before you do. Your spouse may, in spite of all of your loving, leave you. Your job (as many people are finding out) is only temporary. Even service to others can be fraught with challenges. If you center on someone or something else, you may be giving up control of your life.
Only YOU will be around for as long as you live.
Therefore, instead of centering your life on someone or something that may not be around as long as you, maybe you should try being self-centered. This gives you some level of stability in an unpredictable world. Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition – “independent of outside force or influence” – supports this notion.
Anyone who has flown on a plane has heard the flight attendant say, “If the plane loses oxygen pressure for any reason, the oxygen masks will drop down out of the small overhead compartment. If you are seated next to someone who might need some assistance, you should put your own mask on first, and then breathe normally as you assist the other person.”
Take care of yourself first. Be centered. Be grounded. Take control of your life and don’t get derailed by circumstances around you.
Being self-centered is NOT the same as being selfish. Those who are self-centered are NOT narcissistic, hedonistic, or self-absorbed. Because self-centered individuals are more grounded, they are able to give even more to others. They have the potential to be even more generous and to make even greater contributions.
In some respects, this is in line with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (pictured above). Self-actualization (which is where I put self-centering) is the highest level, higher than esteem, love/belonging, safety and physiological needs. Interestingly, creativity is listed under self-actualization.
What do you think?
P.S. Some may argue a more theological perspective. For example, Stephen Covey (of the 7 Habits fame) authored, “The Divine Center: Why We Need a Life Centered on God and Christ and How We Attain It.” As I try to avoid religion and politics in this blog, I’ll leave this discussion for another time.