Purpose and Vision Beats Opportunism

Two Approaches to Life

My friends live their lives in one of two contrasting ways:

  1. Guided by a Long term Vision for their Lives
  2. Take Opportunities as they come

In the short term, the opportunists made great early progress.  I have one friend who changed job every 1-2 years in the investment banking industry.  Each job change achieved an increase of 30-50% in salary.  Problem: he is now stuck and has no serious chances of moving up to the really senior ranks.

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Another friend in investment banking has stuck it out in the same bank for 14 years.  He didn’t take each opportunistic head-hunter call looking to get him to switch jobs.  His salary languished behind our opportunistic friend.  Today he is moving into the senior ranks of the bank and has enormous political support to take job choices that improve his work-life balance.

It was a hard choice when I was young.  I worked for Accenture for 9 years.  Every year I watched peers leave to join competitors for 30-50% increases in salary.  I had offers and I thought about leaving.  In the end, I valued flexibility over salary and used my network in Accenture to live in London, Chicago and Sydney.

Case: Henry Kissinger and US Foreign Policy

I finished reading Kissinger’s biography by Niall Ferguson before the summer. The central debate in the book: Was Kissinger:

  1. an idealist hit by impossible problems? or
  2. a realist who responded as best he could to opportunities?

Remember the 1960s?  I don’t…  only through my history courses and books.  I highly recommend a Coursera course with Professor Philip Zelikow: The Modern World, Part 2: Global History since 1910.  It is one of my 3 favourite MOOC courses that I have studied over the last 5 years.  Prof Zelikow is passionate and engaging.

Kissinger’s Major Criticism of US Foreign Policy: 100% Opportunist

Kissinger’s criticisms of the Kennedy and LBJ presidencies was that they were pragmatic opportunists, but there was no overall vision of what they stood for. The Soviet Union (at the time) stood for fairness, and the US argument was that its economic policies would make citizens wealthier.

It was a lost argument.

People were not inspired to fight in order to improve their economic situation. This was not a psychologically motivating appeal.

Kissinger identified freedom as the value that the US most espoused. He felt that the foreign policy decisions should be taken in the framework of whether the individual decisions improved individual freedom – not on a case by case basis.

Opportunism leads to a Dead End

Those who know why they are fighting will win over those who don’t.

The Vietnam war was militarily un-winnable, and Ho Chi Minh was always a step ahead of what the US were interested in negotiating.   He understood that the US would always be short term and opportunistic. He was fighting for a cause, the US had got themselves into Vietnam bit by bit by bit and then found themselves stuck fighting for a cause that didn’t exist.

I’m no history or politics expert, but I would suggest that the US role in the world from the end of the Vietnam war up until 2000 was largely positive.  The recent decade has seen the US fall back into an Opportunistic foreign policy – George Bush’s photo opportunity driven foreign policy was the start of a collapse in Visionary and values driven US foreign policy.  Trump is here because the political consensus had gradually become what is politically easy, not what is right.  The increasing polarization of the US political system makes it hard to establish a long term vision.

Only a life led towards a vision based on your own set of values can lead to work you love in the second half of your career.  A life led entirely on the basis of opportunism will inevitably take you towards a dead end (or Trump).

How do you Establish a Framework for your Life?

Kissinger began by identifying the most important value that he believed represented the US culture: Freedom.

What is your single most important value?  

Is your life showing this?  Is the majority of your time going to your most important value?  Are you spending your money on your most important value?  Are you building friendships and mentors that support your most important value?

You need a coach or a mentor to help you work out your vision, framework and how to take the tough decisions to orient your life around this vision.  I have never seen someone do it alone.

One of my favourite examples of a powerful personal Vision comes from Cameron Herold. He calls it his Vivid Vision. You can read his updated 2016 Vivid Vision Statement here.

“Leadership is about communicating with people, uniting them behind a shared mission and values, and mobilizing energies toward accomplishing the mission or purpose of an Organization.” Peter Drucker

Leadership is a means to an end–the mission it serves is the end.

People who accomplish great things have a combined passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take.

In “Leading Change”, John Kotter outlines 6 aspects of a good vision
statement:

  1. Imaginable. It needs to paint a visual picture of the desired future in the minds of those who read it.
  2. Desirable. It should appeal to the people that are striving to reach it and the customers they are serving.
  3. Feasible. While aspirational in nature, it needs to articulate a realistic and achievable future purpose.
  4. Focused. It should provide concentrated direction to those following it.
  5. Flexible. By being broad in scope, it allows for modifications due to the dynamic nature of the business environment.
  6. Communicable. The vision statement should be easy to articulate to others.

We need to be careful about taking the easy path and not the right path.  We need people that practice it in their own lives, and we need to reward leaders who practice it in the public arena.

If you liked this post, you will also like Freedom is not Fun and Meaningful Contribution.

 

One comment

  1. To follow a consistent life path, to establish personal well-being and to enjoy a fulfilling life people should challenge themselves more in clarifying their inner state (of undefined visions, thoughts and potentials) which always exists in a non-verbal and non operational atmosphere.
    This clarifying challenge does not run automatically. Visions and potentials don’t grow like apples on a tree which you just simply harvest after awhile. No, operationalizing your inner state happens only after posing the hand switched question “How can I see it better, how can I do it better”, applied on a concrete situation. This is necessary because it needs a projection screen.
    Important to realize is that “the answer” is submitted on the slowness of the time and, even more important, on your level of wisdom (which also can grow unlimited). Therefore, every time you repeat the question day after day, the answer wil evolve. There will be never a day when it will be ‘complete’. But it does not have to be complete as it can only further evolve if you adapt and explore it through daily practice. It’s walking on the path of accepted failure and imperfection.
    In my case for example, every time I open my laptop I read in the middle of my screen : “How can I see it”. It’s a continuous reminder to manually activate and operationalize my inner potential, applied on the events of the coming week.
    In time I discovered I might have a stable growing vision on the dynamics of life (which is the core of my job, namely development of potential), but even more I feel it could be more refined and cultivated everlasting. But as I stand close to my own imperfection, I undergo some sense of satisfaction every time I can get it translated a bit more in our complex and fluid reality.
    In this sense I’m not reluctant to be “opportunistic” as it serves my path, driven by the conviction that anything can come to a new balance on it’s own timing…that is as long as I “consciously” decide to keep advancing outside the box of secured approval and recognition.

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