When Good Goals Go Bad

Richard Wiseman’s self-help debunking 59 seconds methodically reviews some of the biggest shams in the industry before laying out what actually works for improvement.  I have written on Wiseman before and even committed myself to his luck school, which produced some amazing results. (Wiseman argues that we bring our own luck into being by cognitively priming ourselves to look for opportunity). As with Luck Factor, 59 seconds packs a lot of step-by-step, how-to exercises into an incredibly informed book and also like Luck Factor – it works!

One of the things I was surprised to see evidence against was visualization. I have had success visualizing in the past, but his argument was sound. Research demonstrates that visualization can actually prevent you from realizing your goals because it undermines the likelihood of taking the actions necessary to accomplish them.

In other words, picturing where on the bookshelf your bestseller might appear, really seeing it there—the binding, the byline, the cover art—doesn’t get a lot of writing done.

His solution: a step-by-step plan to bring your goals to fruition.

Overcomplification Series (5 of 5): Play, Experiment & F**k up well

Goals are not a cure all for everything that ails you. They are not mana from heaven. They will not remove blemishes or clean red wine stains from white upholstery (unless your goals are to remove blemishes or clean red wine stains from white upholstery). As hard a sell as I have given goal setting, there are two points that should be made.

First, effort is required. The best-laid plans just lay there without work. It seems self-evident, but I still feel it need be said.

Second, you are going to screw up. Yep. Even if your goal is to be perfect, you aren’t going to make it. The original title of this series was how to NOT write & produce your play in five easy steps. In the past four years, instead of writing my play, I helped establish a theatre group, orchestrated fundraisers, found co-producers, directed a show and so on, with very little writing. I have also overextended myself on freelance writing projects, took on assignments that didn’t actually advance me professionally, and ended up unemployed twice.

In short, in spite of goal setting I have messed up a lot, but more importantly, I have learned from those failings. This entry is about learning through Play, Experimenting & F**king up well to manage and learn from mistakes (even big ones, like accidentally starting another Chicago theatre group).

Play: While I was working on this entry, I attended an event Embracing the Physical | Digital Divide at IDEO: A Design & Innovation Consulting Firm. Speakers & audience alike were very geeked by the possibilities inherent in design (admittedly, I was there because I’d been geeked by the possibilities inherent in design after having read Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind). I was impressed by the presentations, demonstrating a creative convergence between art, engineering, marketing, and invention— (seriously, what is not to be excited about?)—but, what really impressed me is how much fun these folks seemed to have. Even scrambling under the pressure of a virtually impossible two-week deadline pulling virtually impossible hours to make it happen, they seemed to be having a blast.

They embody the spirit of play. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell writes in his book CrazyBusy about how technology invokes that in many of us:

Watch people on their cell phones or Blackberrys as they walk down Fifth Avenue or wait in airport lounges; there’s still a little bit of a kid at play in there. Talk on the phone as you walk down the street? Awesome, dude! Way cool. I can’t believe I can really do this! Look at those people walking by me looking at me as I talk on my phone….

Watch the stock trader multitasking, shifting from his phone to his email to the streaming stock quotes on his Bloomberg to typing on his PC to talking to someone who pops his head in the door. This orchestration of activities in nothing if not thrilling, at least for most people who do it (& call it work)… Watch the journalist putting together an article, finding in milliseconds on a Google search what used to take hours or days to research, cutting and pasting in seconds what used to take many minutes and painstaking attention to accomplish.

When I was out-of-work awhile back, I got sick of interviewers asking: “So, you’re a writer, what else do you do?” If it had happened once, I’d have written it off, but that it happened repeatedly— something was going on here.

They were talking, of course, about new media. I didn’t catch on right a way that the fangled interweb stuff that I was doing for fun was what they were asking about in interviews. When it finally clicked (after a rather painful interview experience), I subscribed to Wired and got busy… playing. I learned all the toys, tools, gadgets, and wa-hoo-ees that I could get my apps on. Now that my job actually involves Facebook-ing this is even truer than it was during my bout of unemployment, but maintaining a spirit of play is critical to keeping a level head about it. In fact, I am writing this entry right now because one of my close friend’s, John and I have been playfully “competing” (mostly against ourselves) for who is the most consistent blogger.

Don’t take my word for it though, here is IDEO founder Tim Brown talking about the link between creativity & play at the last TED conference:

Experiment: Goal setting itself, for me, was an experiment. The subsequent yearlong replication & even this ambitious five-year plan, both are experiments. I conduct random experiments with my life all the time, which end up helping improve it or getting abandoned quickly. I started applying David Allen’s Getting Things Done, as an experiment two-years ago (I am still applying many of the techniques), but if I hadn’t been able to apply them, they’d quickly be forgotten. I am applying Richard Wiseman’s Luck Factor (download a .pdf copy here) to my life right now as an experiment. This blog is an experiment.

The beauty of experimentation is that you can be uncommitted to a lifestyle change. It takes the pressure off of personal transformation. You introduce small tools, techniques or skills into your life, like the trial order on a TV shopping program, but return it with a lot less hassle if it doesn’t pan. That is how I was able to ply so many therapeutic techniques to my daily living as a counselor (see PART 1 for details). Experiment allowed me to try a technique for a little bit, choosing which to commit too, adopt and teach with no loss when the rest were abandoned.

F**k up well: Seth Godin’s rapid-read The Dip is slim enough to devour in half a sitting. The theme encourages readers to make it through the drudge, take risks and learn from mistakes. That, Godin contends is a recipe for success.

My takeaway from starting a theatre group, instead of writing a play, was simply that there are no shortcuts. In some convoluted way, trying to launch a Chicago-theatre group seemed like a quicker, easier route to getting my play on stage than writing, submitting, participating in fests and actually working the scene. It should seem self-evident, but it took 6-months of traipsing in the wrong direction to catch on. It makes sense, it seems easier to land a producer and do-it yourself than to pay your dues. The drudge, the work, the slogging through, the getting-there—that is Godin’s Dip!— and it pays off far more in the long run than a quick fix would.

The term overcomplification, to which this series owes its title, comes from author Stephen Graham Jones, http://www.stephengrahamjones.net. Also, Wired just ran a fantastic story with “Jack Donaghy” on the cover that is all about failing well. It is a great read and well worth checking out. The themes surveyed in this series will be visited again in this blog.

Overcomplification Series (2 of 5): Accessing the Inner Guinea Pig

Part one in this series can be found here

When I was a counselor, I played guinea pig. I was in my early-twenties— only a little older than the teens I was working with— and I hadn’t even finished my degree yet. I was still very green and it wasn’t easy… being green. I got challenged a lot by desperate parents in difficult situations, because I did not have enough life experience to understand them. I got challenged by the kids I was serving because my life experience, culture, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status was different than theirs. My clinical supervisor broke me out of my frustration with a
too-the-point observation:

You don’t need to have been a drug addict to help someone recover, you just need to know what works. If you are successful, the results will speak for themselves.

To get up-to-speed in a short amount of time (between carrying a caseload, a course load, and a bit too much of a personal life) I immersed myself in every technique I could. I read everything I could, applied the techniques to myself, and evaluated the outcomes and results before applying them to my clients.

Deep relaxation, I practiced it.

Self-hypnosis, I practiced it.

Cognitive restructuring, I practiced it.

Meditation, biofeedback, time management, motivational interviewing techniques, (check, check, check, check) I practiced it. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy— from the classroom to my life to my clients— I practiced it. It was probably one of the single most explosive periods of personal growth second only to when my voice started cracking. And my clinical supervisor was right, it worked, I got results.

Flash forward a few years (& back a single entry). I am holding my first professional job as a writer. Overwhelmed, under deadline, up against the wall my mind automatically defaults to this approach. It sounds like a rather complicated strategy to be endorsing in a series about overcomplification, but it worked.

As the clock ticked rapidly toward a submission date for a workforce development project that needed funding, I had begun to assess, evaluate, and adjust my own work habits. The three of us tasked with the tall order of re-vamping the entire program and writing the proposal accordingly had to choose between several possible 8-week curriculums written for a very different population. The group we were writing for lacked basic life skills, they were young with no professional experience and in some cases, they had a serious record against them. We had less than a month to choose the curriculum, recreate it for this population, design a program and submit the proposal.

The workforce development director and I divided the curriculums and applied them to our own lives on an accelerated one-week timeline. We chose the best of each curriculum based off the exercises that were the most user-friendly, accessible, and relevant. We built our program around that framework, wrote the proposal, and made the deadline. It was guinea pig style to the rescue.

In Part 3,  the guinea pig style exercise is all but forgotten, until some unanticipated results occur. And, keep coming back for the rest of the series to find out how guinea pig style actually simplifies life. The term overcomplification comes from author Stephen Graham Jones, http://www.stephengrahamjones.net

Overcomplication Series (1 of 5): In writing & In life

I am a chronic researcher. The hours I have lost reading articles, tutorials, essays, studies, and so forth before I write word one on a project – staggering. Even to the point of reading an entire 200 + page book for what ends up being a single paragraph. I get a kind of geek rush when some story or article leads to another leads to another leads to where I want to go. It’s true! That is totally the kind of thing I live for.

Four years ago, I took a wrong turn in the multiverse and ended up in a dead end. I was working in my first professional writing gig—a sink-or-swim kind of job. Slammed with crushing deadlines, complicated medical, social & economic issues (I was writing on) and limited resources, I was sinking fast.

Something had to give. The workload wasn’t going to let up. The volume wasn’t going to slow. The deadlines weren’t going to go away.  As a grant writer, livelihoods were on the line (besides just my own); a blown deadline could mean out-of-work colleagues, it could also mean neglected clients. I started paying attention to the only thing that was in my control, my work habits.

Knowing my pattern of over researching, I built in measures to keep this in check. First, I write and research as I go. Sometimes this means leaving ______, _____, ______ where I know I will need more information. Sometimes that _____, _____, ______ is paragraph length, but at the very least a product is emerging as I embark on my circuitous journeys. This balance makes meeting a deadline far easier and often primes me to locate the exact information I need.

Second, I specifically define what I am looking for online and limit the amount of time there. Since the Interweb is designed to chase one topic into another without end, NOT setting parameters on my search often means following one topic after another after another (where does this hyperlink go?)/ Oh, so that is how they built the pyramids/ so on & so forth/ (what was I looking for again?) Now, if I do get sucked into a search (& really, what is the fun of going online if you don’t occasionally make new discoveries), I know that I have to pull myself out of it by a certain time.

Adopting these new work habits allowed me to keep my job (& other folks as well), but more importantly they had a profound impact on me. In part 2, I elaborate on how those easy steps transformed my life completely.

The term overcomplification comes from author Stephen Graham Jones, http://www.stephengrahamjones.net

What are we going to do today, Brain?

I just finished Chris Guillebeau’s manifesto, a brief guide to world domination, which is a perfect way to start the year.

Finally, someone who makes goal setting cool! For four years, I have been a closeted goal setter. In secret I have scribbled the goals, projected outcomes, & objective of my personal action plan. I kept my ambition incognito, feeling twinges of embarrassment every time I set my plan to paper, for fear I’d be discovered. I had to wade through hundreds and hundreds of pages & pages—professional development curriculum(s), business journals and psych studies—choke full of jargon and corporate-ese.

I can honestly say that the only thing that has kept me going through that awkwardness is the fact that goals work! I just wish this had been written years ago.

Check it out here:

3 Additional notes:

1) Twenty-ten marks year two of my Five-Year Plan.
2) After five years, I finally managed to persuade my girlfriend to set goals for herself. (I wasn’t joking bout the “closeted” stuff, but the results speak for themselves).
3) Best thing I ever heard about goal planning (but can’t remember the source) was this:

“A year, five years, ten years are going to pass with or without your input, you might has well have a say in what happens.”

A New Year: Change is Now!

Twenty-ten is here.

A New Year, A New Decade.

Seth Godin has dubbed it the year of change (or frustration)— depending on how full your glass, I suppose. This hadn’t been the entry I’d intended on writing, but it is something of a synchronicity. After reading the following from Making It All Work by David Allen:

Change always produces some form of stress, for our entire world is designed to maintain stasis. When something new happens that must be integrated into the existing system and set of data, something else has to give way to make room for it. It’s ironic that even the most positive changes often create significant pressures and pains. They require the recalibration of relationships and self-images, and force the upheaval of familiar structures and patterns.

While change is constant, Allen points out, constant change has accelerated. He goes on to state that communication, technology, and information has sped up with greater frequency. In response, we are tasked with figuring how to manage and respond to this change. Godin aptly puts it:

I think the coolest thing is that just about everyone gets to pick which one of these two alternatives they want to spend their time on. And being frustrated about change doesn’t count as doing both.