Perhaps unsurprisingly, our directions, ambitions and personal strategies all come down to choice. We need to decide to do something. Then we need to take action on that choice. Knowing where we are going requires making decisions about where we focus our attention, and how we choose to proceed. It also means making choices about what we are not going to do.
While simply getting to the point where we have set and committed to a direction is challenging enough, it doesn’t stop there. Knowing what we want to accomplish and our definition of success is just the beginning. Actually realizing our personal strategic priorities is an on-going process of active choice and decision making. From idea to accomplishment, it’s decisions all the way down. There are options to explore, obstacles to consider and active steps to plan and think through.
Considering options is a good point of entry into this discussion. For any given goal, there are going to be any number of ways by which it can be realized. Some of those are going to be easier and more immediately available, while others will require work to attain. While the effort associated with these paths is part of the consideration, so is the degree to which any one avenue gets you closer to your definition of success. There are going to be approaches that are a better fit with your skills, pathways that you find more engaging and ways of tackling the problem that you will find more of an interesting challenge.
Thinking through those options requires creativity and imagination. You are going to draw on both modes of thinking: divergent and convergent. You need to go broad, thinking of the various ways that you might realize your goal. Exploring beyond what you know and immediately have available to you. Finding inspiration and possibility and option that might require a bit more effort, but with the possibility of different pay-offs. Then you need to narrow in and commit to a choice.
The challenge is that—for all that you have made a choice—temptation is likely going to rear its head. The universe has a curious way of working; no sooner will you have declared your intention to move in a particular direction, and an opportunity will present itself. A door will open that you didn’t know existed, offering you another choice: whether or not to walk through the doorway.
Depending upon how you navigate it, life can be an endless journey through open doors of opportunity. This can be fortuitous. It can also feel like your progress is simply an endless series of side quests. The difference is a product of whether the opportunities you choose move you towards your goal, away from it or represent an unexpected tangent taking you laterally somewhere else entirely.
These opportunities are critical decision points in our path through life. Depending upon the choice we make in the moment, the path we follow afterwards can be very different. While these decisions may not feel momentous at the time—we might frame the choice as an interesting project or exciting career prospect—the consequences of how the decision plays out can be enormous.
When I left university, for example, my intention was to pursue a career in my chosen field: professional theatre. I had trained as a stage manager and production manager, and my focussed and purposeful intent was to find work in that field. At the time, I was working at a corporate office downtown, and had been for a couple of years while I completed my studies.
At several points in that corporate journey, I was approached by various managers to explore the possibility of pursuing a career with the firm. Every time, I resisted. This was a gig to pay the bills and keep the credit card balances down until I finished my degree and went into theatre. I was not to be swayed. Until one fateful occasion when the question got asked once again, and for a variety of reasons my answer was “yes.” My corporate career got launched that day, and my theatre career tanked. Everything I have realized as a consultant since has its origins in that single decision, made late on a December afternoon, to go in a different direction.
There have been several moments like that since. Not dozens, particularly. But in the ensuing years there are probably eight or ten significant decision points where my future direction hung in the balance, and I chose a particular path. I would like to say that each doorway that opened was the product of careful devising and seeking of the right opportunity, and every choice was the result well considered deliberation. That would be revisionist history in the extreme.
If I am honest about many of the doors that opened, my reason for walk thing through them was that they were shiny, new and interesting. I was being offered work and challenge that intrigued me and would allow me to grow and stretch my abilities. There was—with one notable exception—a general trend to more advanced positions with greater scope of responsibility. What there was not, however, was a grand design that was leading inexorably to the attainment of a chosen and defined goal. I simply followed my nose into what was mostly engaging work.
While it’s possible to have a satisfying career simply by lurching from opportunity to opportunity, that outcome isn’t guaranteed. Some of my choices were more fruitful than others. They were all learning experiences, but not all learning experiences are positive or pain-free. Some of the learning that I took on board was that having more direction would have helped me avoid the more painful experiences. The value of knowing where you are trying to go is that it provides clarity. It gives you a standard against which you can measure opportunities, and a filter by which you can assess choices.
Clarity of direction doesn’t mean that opportunities won’t persist in presenting themselves to you. They will, without question, and many will still appear tempting, at least at first glance. The important question to be explored is whether they move you further towards your intended outcome or not. Where they do, availing yourself of the opportunity may be the best of all possible futures. That’s still not a slam dunk, necessarily, but it is certainly a positive sign of a potential avenue to pursue.
Where a tempting opportunity doesn’t move you in your defined and intended direction, there is some different analysis required. An essential first question is understanding the source of the temptation. What is appealing about the choice being presented? Is it simply a shiny, new novelty dangling in front of you? Are you enjoying the tummy rub associated with being sought after? Is there genuine appeal in what is being offered, despite it being along a different path than the one you are theoretically pursuing?
If you can be honest about the fact that it is a shiny distraction, then you can revert to your previous focus with a reasonable amount of confidence. Enjoy the compliment of being wanted, and carry on following your own path. Where there is genuine appeal, though, then there is more work that you need to undertake. Where is the benefit in the opportunity? What attracts you? What are the specific aspects that excite and intrigue you, and make you consider the possibility?
Unpack the opportunity and consider its merits and implications. Assess how far further down the path of life it might take you. Also realistically evaluate the obstacles and risks. Consider whether it is a short-term prospect, or one that you could follow for the long haul. Is it worth altering the plan you’re on now? Are the potential pay-offs greater, and does it set you up in a position to be far better off down the road as a result? Does pursuing the opportunity undermine your current pursuits, or is there the possibility to put them on hold and come back to them later?
These are the choices that we will periodically be confronted with. While they are potentially consequential and material, they don’t necessarily announce themselves with the sort of trumpeted flourish that says, “Warning. Impending decision of significant importance ahead.” Nonetheless, the implications of choosing one path over the other can be profound. Rather than simply reacting and responding, the opportunity of being clear about your current direction is that you can give sufficient consideration to the choice. You can weigh the implications and be comfortable in the decision you arrive at, whichever fork you ultimately take.
What is most important to remember in all of this is that you have choice and agency. Having a direction is valuable and useful, in that it provides focus. Just because you have chosen a direction, however, doesn’t mean you are irrevocably forced to follow that path. The intent of having clarified your personal strategic goals are about establishing motivation and commitment. You are selecting what matters most to you, in the moment, and resolving to proactively proceed forward. You are defining where you want to productively invest your efforts.
New opportunities and paths can offer alternatives to get to where you are going, or open up different destinations you didn’t know were possible. Being clear about what you want puts you in the best position to evaluate new choices as they emerge. If they may move you even further ahead, then more power to you. If they are a shiny new distraction, recognizing them for what they are is equally valuable. Strategy is ultimately about intention. It is finding the path that tends towards where you want to go. The realization of strategy is a cascade of choices—to do and not to do—that allow us to follow through on our intention in the most productive and meaningful way possible.
Michael Hilbert says
Mark, As I read this, I was thinking that in a project context, what you are describing in performing a SWOT analysis on our life decisions as they are presented. The choices you make have consequences and making those choices are going to be based on your level of risk taking. As I think back on the career decisions I have made over the years, they were mostly to advance to the next level with new challenges and as you stated, each offered new opportunities for further choice. Would appear to be an iterative cycle through life! Great Read…. Thank you! Mike
Mark Mullaly says
Thanks for the feedback. Yes, on some level, this focuses on taking into consideration what we might refer to as a SWOT. A big part of is that each choice leads to other oneself many of which can derail us or make us question our intentions. And the big opportunities that occasionally present themselves can be useful, distractions, or both. Recognizing that, and overlaying choice with a conscious “how does this serve what I am trying to accomplish?” Can be hugely helpful in getting perspective and making choices we ultimately value having made.
Season’s best, and thanks for the continued feedback,