Episode 252: January 28, 2013
by Stever Robbins
How do you pursue awesome, world-changing goals? Many of my coaching clients have been entrepreneurs, or aspiring C-level executives pursuing new products and markets. They write 60-page business plans, but why? Goal setting when something hasn’t been done before isn’t useful; those goals aren’t plannable.
Some goals have a predictable, known path. Want to build a building? Everything you need to do is well-understood. You can make plans that are accurate enough to predict the cost in advance, gather the resources you’ll need, and so on. It’s a project with a well-established path.
But one-off goals have no set path. The goal itself may change over time. In those cases, a plan is just a fantasy our brain uses to have the delusion of control where, in fact, there is none.
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Life is a Dress Rehearsal
I got into theater in 2009 after seeing a performance of BARE: A Pop Opera, which is now playing Off-Broadway as BARE: The Musical. I met producers and actors like Missi Pyle, who plays Sister Joan in the Off-Broadway BARE. It opened up a new world. These passionate, driven people live in a world so ambiguous it makes my head hurt, just thinking about it. They are crazy, insane, stark-raving mad.
We have a lot to learn from them about goal-setting.
Trade Goals for Aspirations
Actors have aspirations, but not goals. In their industry, success can’t be planned. My friend Steph’s aspiration is to be the most amazing singer, dancer, and actor Broadway has ever seen. His plan looks like this:
Step 1. Learn to sing, dance, act.?
Step 2. Audition.
Step 3. Get a part as the lead in a Broadway musical.?
Step 4. Become the most awesome performer, ever.
Inspiring on paper. Transferable to real life? Not likely. Thank goodness, business careers are more stable. Goal-setting is possible, right? Wrong! A recent Harvard MBA’s plan was:
Step 1. Accept job offer at SuperBig Bank.
Step 2. Make $200,000 starting salary.?
Step 3. Become richer than Midas.
The plan seems more reasonable. But, of course, it isn’t. Three weeks into the job, SuperBig Bank got bought by SuperBigBailedOut Bank and he got laid off. Wah ha! Joke’s on him!
At least Steph knows deep down that acting success doesn’t come that predictably.
When you have unplannable aspirations, don’t waste time making up arbitrary yearly, monthly, or weekly goals. You’re trying to create a roadmap where none exists. Steph has no roadmap to fame and fortune, but he aspires to work as an actor. That aspiration becomes a compass. In any given moment, he can use it as a touchstone to know if he’s getting closer or further from his dream.
Obsess on where you want to go. You don’t know what path you’ll take, but use your aspiration as a compass to know direction to go from where you happen to be today.
Series of Experiments
You need movement to go in a direction. In an unplannable world, you move by experimenting. Decide what you think will get you closer to your aspiration. Then do that, but treat it as an experiment. Set a time limit, then find out if it brought you closer or further from your goal. Over time, you’ll learn what works for you.
For example, to grow your small business, you could pursue partnerships, try direct sales, or use distributors. Try each as an experiment. Learn where the opportunity lies and shape your company accordingly. A chain of doctors’ offices could become a provider of Internet software services. In an experimental world, you never know.
Each experiment should teach you where opportunity does and doesn’t lie. Put yourself where opportunity is bound to pass by: around people. People who are moving, shaking, making things happen, and bathing regularly. Missi Pyle is an experienced actress. She knows people from all over the performing industry. The more relationships she has, the more opportunities will pass her way.
Even if you’re in a job, make opportunity by meeting people. Attend conferences, get business cards, and stay in touch. Choose projects where you meet people inside and outside your company, so they get to know you and the quality of your work.
Seizing Opportunity When It Arrives
Once you’re in the middle of the flow, moving, shaking, and getting to know people, opportunity will knock. ANSWER! Missi found her current Off-Broadway role because the playwright was a friend of hers. She was heading to New York on an unrelated trip. He heard about it and asked her to stop by audition. She said “yes.”
Develop Useful Skills
Finally, continuously develop your skills, so you can be a good fit for more opportunities. If Missi can sing, dance, act, and do a convincing imitation of a Bronx homicide detective who’s male and 3’7” (I’m not joking), she can get roles that other, less-talented folk, can’t. Plus, you meet other students, who are people, and, where there are people, there are opportunities.
Measure Progress by Process
With traditional goals, it’s obvious when you’re making progress. “I plan to have 10 clients by June.” If you have 10 clients, you’re meeting your goal. But how do you measure progress when the path is uncertain?
Actors are making progress when they audition. Lots. Like, 15 times a week. They can’t measure progress by any one part they get, but they can measure progress by how often they audition and how often they get asked for parts without auditioning.
Measure your effort and learning, not just the outcomes. Getting 10 clients by June isn’t under your control. “Make 5 prospecting calls a day” is, however. Remember, you’re experimenting, not planning. Your experiment is the process of making 5 calls a day. After a few weeks or months, you use your aspiration compass to decide whether it’s worth continuing that process. Has it led to opportunities? If not, it’s time for a new experiment. If so, however, maybe it’s time to up it to 10 calls a day.
All the World’s a Stage, so take lessons from an actor.
Now put this into practice. Next time you want something that isn’t plannable, let go of plans! Don’t set goals. Set experiments and use your aspiration as a compass. Cultivate opportunity by meeting people, make yourself attractive by learning more, and measure your progress through effort. You may or may not reach your original aspiration, but you’ll have a far more intriguing, fascinating journey than you ever dreamed.
I’m Stever Robbins. I help businesspeople pursue unplannable goals through repeated experiments that limit their risk. If you want to know more, visit http://www.SteverRobbins.com.
Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!