Friday, January 29, 2010

Trading Big Dreams for Smaller Dreams?

We don't want to be just another X - we've always wanted to do something noteworthy or important with our lives.

This desire to do something big is often accompanied by frustration, as we deal with day-to-day bureaucracy, office politics, corporate ladders, academic rigors, or having to jump through hoops in our professional lives. Or maybe we've just chosen a career/job that is far from what we enjoy. We often have big dreams, but feel especially stifled in our early careers.

As we progress in our lives and careers, something happens... maybe our priorities shift, or we realize it's a lot harder (or not worth the martyrdom?) to have the kind of impact we originally thought. Perhaps it was our youthful naivete that created such grandiose dreams in the first place.

A friend of mine once made the comment, "As we get older, we trade our big dreams for smaller dreams." He pointed to smaller dreams like getting another degree, making partner at a firm, owning a house, raising a family, etc. This annoyed me. I don't mean to knock these in any way (they take hard work and are ambitious goals), but it suggests that we are sacrificing our true, high-impact, dreams for the garden variety.

I recognize that priorities change, especially in our late 20s and early 30s, and would never suggest that someone foolishly follow an unrealistic dream. It's important to assess the scale and scope of our dreams with a clear perspective of ourselves and our place in this world, but accepting these smaller "prepackaged" dreams seem like a covert way of justifying "settling" (the nemesis of overachievers).

I say follow your dream, or more correctly, go in the direction of your dream.

Maybe for a 40 year-old IT guy, with a fear of public speaking, the big dream of becoming President of the US is unrealistic (although stranger things have happened!); but instead of giving up on politics altogether, he can still have a profound impact on politics.

Or perhaps a mother of 3 has always wanted to run an orphanage in Latin America. Certainly this is more difficult to do with a family of her own, but she can still affect change in meaningful ways (fundraising domestically for a few orphanages, working at a non-profit with a similar mission, volunteering her business consulting expertise to cut costs at a particular orphanage).

We must remember to hold on to our dreams because they point to our passion and sense of purpose. At this point in our careers, we may be far removed from our dream. My suggestion is to get involved and start small - begin to do it on the side, figure out how to use existing strengths to have a meaningful impact, develop a niche/competency/expertise in appropriate circles, and expand from there.

Live large and shoot for the moon (and then, according to the saying, even if we miss, we'll land among the stars, right?). Happy dreaming (and doing)!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Uncaring Overachiever?

Only out for #1,
Quick to action,
Not available,
Only interested in results,
Obsessed with productivity,

Do these characteristics make us less caring as individuals?

Seems a bit harsh, but it's probably not the first (or last) time it's been suggested. These characteristics don't necessarily mean we're uncaring, but they do impact our relationships because:
  1. We are driven to work hard (which often means less free time to spend with others), and
  2. The time we do spend with them might be colored by the other thoughts running around in our minds (lack of true quality time/being present when we're with them because we're preoccupied with other thoughts).
The combination of both (and repeated infringements) lead to the perception that we're low on the "caring" scale. Since these overachiever traits create tension in our personal lives (competition for time, mind-space), we can work to alleviate this misconception of "not-caring" in a few ways:

  • Be conscientious about safeguarding the time we set aside for our friends and family - don't break plans, be on-time, turn off our blackberry/iPhone, etc. Time and attention show they are a priority.
  • Understand the most important element/display of friendship for the people in our lives - a phone call, Sunday dinner, email, meeting for coffee, date night, watching the game together, working out, visiting once a month, etc. and commit to doing that.
  • Allow ourselves to be open in our interactions with friends, family, significant others, and strangers. Actively work to cultivate empathy, generosity, patience, and sensitivity. Even if it's a smile to the cashier, a note to a friend in need, a good deed, a compliment, or going out of our way to help someone. Those things are remembered and appreciated (and also make us feel good, too).

Of course, part of me feels like we shouldn't have to to defend or hide our overachiever characteristics, but it's good to consider how we can improve to be the best we can be in all aspects of life.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Zen in 2010

My brother likes to come up with rhymes each New Year (It's 2009 - Drink More Wine, Feelin' Fine in '09), and one of the few good ones for this year was "Zen in 2010."

We were on the way to the bagel store in NYC on New Year's Day, and I didn't think much of it, but as I began thinking of January as setting the tone for the rest of the year, his passing comment had merit.
2009 was a tumultuous year (for me, and many others from what I've heard), so January 2010 is an opportunity for greater clarity, peace of mind, focused action, levity, and inner strength. In many ways, this is Zen. So, nothing short of complete enlightenment in the coming 12 months - easy!

But in seriousness (but not too much seriousness), Zen means finding the balance between striving for improvement, enjoying the moments during the journey, and recognizing/accepting what we can't change.

Elusive, fraught with contradiction, impossible to measure - seems like the right challenge.
In the Zen trifecta above, if you're like me, it's easy to get caught up in "striving for improvement" (especially with so many things to work on in our personal lives, professional development, and hobbies). This is where we frequently operate, so achieving that Zen balance is about keeping our drive, ambition, and intensity in check.

"Enjoying the moments" reminds us to be present, look for meaning, beauty, and joy in the little things, and cultivate gratitude. This is especially hard for overachievers because we live fast-paced lives, juggling many projects or priorities, and barely have time to eat. It's tempting to say "Slow Down" but I know it won't work. I have to trick myself into relaxing and taking time off by acknowledging the fact that taking time off to "smell the roses" allows me to be more productive, creative, and motivated to work when I get back to it.

"Recognizing/accepting what we can't change" - this is in direct contradiction to our perfectionist tendencies and desire for everything to be optimal (and the way we like it). Whether it's the layout of the coffee station (Au Bon Pain, ugh!), office politics, or traffic - whether you know it or not, your mental energy is being usurped and diffused. By worrying unnecessarily or getting frustrated by it, we have less clarity in what we need to do and this background noise keeps us from being present or focused on what really matters. Of course, in matters that are truly important to you, take the time to encourage and inspire change. Just be ready to accept it the way it is or decide if it's a deal-breaker.

What tone are you looking to set for 2010? Are you already a modern-day Zen master?

I suspect this challenge isn't going to be a one-time achievement, but will require even greater attention to create the right balance every day. 352 days of Zen, starting today.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Am I being productive or just busy?

Are you taking care of business or doing busyness?

For the new year, I bought a tiny day planner to help me be sure I hit my biggest priority each day (it's intentionally small so I resist the temptation of creating a long list of tasks).

The trick is to list only 1 or 2 things down for each day (this is NOT a to-do list of all the stuff you need to get done). This is the #1 thing that you will focus on today. If you do nothing else but this, you will still be happy. The way to think about it is,
"If I can only do ONE thing today, what would it be?"


"What's the ONE thing I want to do today to feel like it's been a success?"

And, of course, not all tasks are considered equal. Stephen Covey's quadrants of Urgent/Important shows how tasks can fall into certain categories and prevent us from making progress on the things that really matter.

I'm using my small day planner to do the "Important, Not Urgent" tasks that often get pushed aside by the firedrills, emails, and immediate requests that fall into the "Important, Urgent" category. Those will get done because they have to, and should be "quarantined" to 1-2 hours if possible or relegated to certain periods of the day (and not your most productive hours!).

It's the Important, Not Urgent category that gets the short-end of the stick (and since you don't get around to them, you feel unproductive). This includes things like new projects, writing, revamping your website, administrative tasks you've been avoiding, strategic planning/goal-setting, marketing for your business, staying in touch with people, exercise, organizing, etc.

If you're like me, you often get to the end of a working day and feel like you don't have much to show for it, despite having done a lot. You've had a "busy" day, but not necessarily "productive" in the areas that you want to make progress in.

Are you being productive or just busy?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Too Fast or Too Perfect?

I've been doing CrossFit for a while now, and before a recent Workout of the Day (WOD) our instructor (Jeff Tincher) drew 3 Christmas trees on the white board:

If you go Too Fast, you lose precision or range of motion in your exercises, and if you go Too Slow (being fastidious about technique), you'll sacrifice intensity, fitness, and not be competitive. The idea isn't new, but I thought it was interesting to discuss both in the area of fitness and personal productivity.

As an ambitious person and athlete, I want to do it with perfect form AND quickly (and in my mind, as an overachiever, I believe I can excel on both fronts). However, in discussing the concept of "Too Fast, Too Slow" with a fellow rugby coach, my thinking changed.

He drew the parallel to players running through drills - if players are doing the drill “perfectly” then they’re not being sufficiently challenged - either they’re not working hard enough or not learning enough. If players are dropping balls and executing sloppily, it means the drill might be too hard. Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot where players/students/people are sufficiently challenged that they won't get everything right. I had never thought of it like that.

So, looking back at my I-can-do-it-fast-AND-perfectly attitude, I realize that maybe I should be pushing myself to a higher threshold until I'm not doing it perfectly (whether it's in fitness, professional development, intellectual pursuits, hobbies, etc.). While it might be a little clumsy at first, the body and mind are quick to adapt, so we can begin to feel comfortable at this even-higher level.

It's through challenges that we learn most effectively. Are we too comfortable? What are we doing "too perfectly"?