Friday, August 24, 2012


In regard to Focus, Concentrate, Pay Attention (Start, Continue, Take Delight), Sree asked:
In addition to the how-to of seeing projects through to completion, do you have any tips on how to choose the projects in the first place, or just how you decide to spend your time every day?
I thought, "Wow, that's a good question. It's also one that's rather top-of-mind for me. I ought to write about it so I can figure it out for myself."

As I mulled over the question, I ventured down various thematic paths.

"Hmm... how did I end up doing what I'm doing now?"

"What opportunities am I considering at this moment?"

"With what priorities have I struggled? With what ones do I struggle now?"

"How do other people decide what to do and what not to do?"

The Iris Bounce Test
Last night after dinner at Bizen, Will, Iris and I take a talk-and-cigar walk around Great Barrington (Iris, sans cigar).

We pass several houses that Iris and I visited when looking to purchase a house in the area.

Will asks, "So, how long did it take for you to settle on the house you bought? How many houses did you see?"

Iris says, "Hmm... I think we saw about fifteen, going out with the realtor on two different days. I remember the house we just passed. We liked it, but it didn't pass my Iris bounce test."

Will says, "Iris bounce test?"

Iris says, "Yeah. At every house, I would go into a large room on the second floor and jump up and down to see how stable the house felt. In that house, when I landed, everything on the second floor bounced with me."

I say, "As soon as we walked into our house. We knew it was ours."

Iris says, "All we had to do was confirm that we could get Internet access."

I say, "Yeah, we've never take long to buy house."

Will says, "That's the same for us. We see something and know."

I think, "Hmm... that's part of the answer to Sree's question. You see something. You know it's right. You trust yourself. You go with it."

Just Knowing
I realize that "just knowing" may not seem like much of an answer, but there's something to it that I'd like to explore.

I've never taken much time to buy a house, days at the most. I walk into a place and it feels right or it doesn't. On the other hand, there are people who take a long time to purchase a house. They're methodical and calculating. Some take years to decide.

To the calculating and methodical person, "just knowing" may seem haphazard or random. "How do you know that the layout will work for you? How do you do know the structure is sound? How do you know that the neighborhood is safe? What happens if you pick the wrong place?"

These are all good questions. However, they're not ones that you ignore by "just knowing". Indeed, you answer them. However, you answer them in a more intuitive manner, one that employs logic so quickly that you barely notice it.

Always Looking
"Just knowing" comes down to awareness and being in a mode of always looking as if to decide.

For example, I pretty much always pay attention to where I am as I travel, getting to know the neighborhoods, their names, their juxtaposition to other neighborhoods and the various routes to and through them. I catalog them in my mind. I link to them things that I hear or read about them. I associate them with people who mention that they live there. As I do so, I think, "Hmm... wonder what it would be like to live there."

Similarly, when visiting homes, I take in the architecture and the layout. I look at the construction and take in how it feels. I breathe in the rooms and get a sense for the air flow. I think, "Hmm... wonder what it would be like to live here."

From cars and houses to musical performances and software, I'm always asking myself, "Hmm... I wonder what it would be like to have that or to do that?"

The result is a well-informed understanding of what I want and what I don't want, that serves as a template that I can overlay on any opportunity to see if it's a match or not.

Whereas many people develop decision-criteria only when they know a decision needs to be made, I believe in making that development an ongoing process that never ceases. Basically, you continually refine your understanding of what's available and of what you want.

Trusting Yourself
A lot of people talk about developing their self-trust or confidence.  However, as I think about what I just wrote, it occurs to me that many people would do better not to trust themselves. If in fact, they only work on their awareness of what's available and what they want at times of decision, then they're probably not very trustworthy.

Nonetheless, even the least aware person has some awareness of what she wants and doesn't want, of what's available and what's not. The critical part is not letting the "should-want" override the "do-want." Iris and I have got to the point where we go with "just knowing" on pretty much every decision. It's not a big deal. It's not traumatic. We just go.

For some, even minor decisions can create a moment of crisis.

I think the most important thing is to be aware of anything inside you that's saying, "Hey, what about..."  and giving it a listen. Even if all the "shoulds" in your head are dominating the discussion, the first step to "just knowing" is giving the floor to the small voice that speaks for the "wants".

Of course going with what you know becomes a lot easier when you realize that there are very few decisions that can't be undone or modified. I've seen people struggle with a dinner menu as if they were making a decision on whom to marry. I've also seen people decide to get married faster than they would get through the menu at the MacDonald's drive-through.

There are very few decisions in life that you can't change or even undo completely. Fact is, there are very few decisions that we get right the first time. We just tend to forget about the times we got them wrong once we get them right. Sure, in many instances, there are lasting side-effects of change or undoing, but they can be managed.

Figure It Out
An important aspect of self-trust has nothing to do with getting it right; it's all about knowing that you'll figure it out when you get it wrong. That's "when", not "if".  If you actively act on "just-knowing", then you're going to get it wrong from time to time.

That's okay! You'll figure it out.

This approach does pose a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. You won't "know" you can figure it out until you have figured it out (at least a couple of times). Even then, having figured out one situation provides no guarantee that you'll figure out the next one.  However, it sure increases the likelihood that you will.

I believe that, if you:

  1. adopt the "always-looking" MO,
  2. learn to trust yourself, and
  3. accept changing, undoing or figuring out decisions that aren't working for you, 

you open yourself to serendipity. Iris and I are both big believers in serendipity. When opportunities reveal themselves and we sense that they're right for us, we take them without question or delay.

Over the years, I've know many people who have remained "stuck" in situations they've claimed not to want all-the-while missing out on serendipitous-opportunity after serendipitous-opportunity to change everything.

Some will act on those opportunities, but only after long consideration. Problem with serendipity is that it typically doesn't wait.

Conflicting Wants
If you adopt everything that we've talked about so far, you'll end up where pretty much everything you do, every day is something you really love to do. At some point, your opportunities to do what you love will overrun your capacity to pursue them all.

As hard as it is to decide to pursue activities you'd love to do, it can be even harder to decide between or among activities you already do and love. Yet, if you're any good at following serendipity, you'll eventually find yourself in a place where your desires conflict.

This has been a theme for me as long I can remember. Although the specifics vary, the most difficult tension has always been between my love for the people I'm with and my desire to push the envelope on the activity we're jointly pursuing.

Whether working, or playing music, or mountain biking, I'd always rather be in the company of friends who are doing their best than experts who are not friends. I love the fellowship of working and playing together. However, I also love developing my skills and pushing myself to become better. When something is new, there's plenty of opportunity for both. However, as a project or program matures, the challenges afforded by the novelty of it diminish and people often settle into a kind of maintenance mode that I find stifling.

That's when what-to-do-next becomes really difficult for me. I feel like a man with one foot planted on each of two logs that are slowly drifting apart as they float down a river. My first reaction is to try to pull together the two logs. I'll push on everyone to continue to develop. I want to run fast and I want everyone to run fast with me.

Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes people just get annoyed.

When it doesn't work, I try to recast what we're doing into something new, something that will provide me the challenge and opportunity I'm looking for while satisfying everyone else. However, this rarely works. It typically yields a leuk-warm compromise that's not satisfying to anyone.

Letting Go
When you have desires that conflict and you can't reconcile them, you may have to let go of something that you really love. I'm particularly terrible at this. It takes me a long time to recognize unreconcilable: a really, really, really long time.

However, there are times when you need to close one chapter to move on to the next. This can be really challenging since the next chapter won't become clear until you close the current one. So, there's a lot of unknown in the mix.

Rather than clear and deliberate closure, it can be enticing to simply fade out. Lots of people do it. However, I've found that fading out doesn't lead to great results, specially when it comes to relationships.

In the end, it's easier to be clear and direct (no matter how hard it feels). In fact, it's best to do it in the beginning, as soon as you get a sense that what you're wanting is no longer being provided by what you're doing. A neat side-effect of early and clear communication is that it provides an opportunity for others to decide what they want as well.

I always hesitate to do this, because I don't like ultimatums and I don't trust decisions made as the result of an ultimatum. Yet, as I write this, I realize that there are times when what's going on inside your head is indeed an ultimatum and that to not communicate it is a bit unfair. So I guess that ultimatums are okay as long as they're a) authentic, and b) used sparingly. Hmm...

Sree, I'm not sure how directly or not I've answered your question with all that just flew through my keyboard, but these are the thoughts that come to mind when considering what to do and what opportunities to pursue.  I would love to hear what you think.

Happy Friday,

1 comment:

  1. Tef: I just read through your post once, and my first thought is - your thought processes (& MO) are so different from mine in many areas, and it's super cool to see them explained in a way that makes sense. For instance, I'm usually a spreadsheet/analysis guy when it comes to houses & cars, considering each pro & con and assigning weighting factors and the whole bit, but it makes complete sense that if you're in an 'always-looking' mode, you would have that analysis ready to go (at its current level) at decision time.

    Also, on reading your three tips under Serendipity, it seems to me to be akin to a nomadic approach to life, in that there isn't a particular home or profession or activity that you're picking and settling into for life. If something catches your eye, you pitch a tent and start working on it. If it doesn't work out after a while, you just pick up and move on to something else, no big deal. As opposed to building a huge structure there and getting basically chained to it.

    Also, I found it amusing (but predictable for you & Iris) that your problem would be deciding which projects to turn down, when most folks have trouble deciding what to work on.

    Thanks for the lucid explanations! Like most of your posts, this one merits multiple readings.


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