What is life all about?
What’s your five-year plan? Your ten-year plan?
If you’re anything like me, your answer is probably something along the lines of “I have no idea.”
And just being asked that question makes you feel inadequate. Like you’re always supposed to know what the future will hold.
In his powerful book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, Clayton Christensen reflects that so many of his students at Harvard Business School feel they should always be able to answer “What is life all about?”
They expect to have their whole lives mapped out — and if they don’t, something is wrong with them.
Starting as early as high school, they think that to be successful they need to have a concrete vision of exactly what it is they want to do with their lives. Underlying this belief is the implicit assumption that they should risk deviating from their vision only if things go horribly wrong.
Christensen points out a fundamental irony: these business students don’t realize that most businesses, well-planned as they may be, don’t really know what they want to be either.
A full 93% of all companies start out doing one thing and abandon that strategy because it wasn’t viable.
Professor Amar Bhide showed in his Origin and Evolution of New Business that 93 percent of all companies that ultimately become successful had to abandon their original strategy— because the original plan proved not to be viable. In other words, successful companies don’t succeed because they have the right strategy at the beginning; but rather, because they have money left over after the original strategy fails, so that they can pivot and try another approach.
Most companies have two forms of strategy: deliberate and emergent.
- Deliberate is what’s in the business plan, the PowerPoint Deck, the list of goals. And that’s what ends up changing 93% of the time.
- Emergent is what you find along the way. It’s when your baby nephew ignores the gift you bought him… but LOVES the shiny wrapping paper. The heart medication research… that ends up becoming Viagra. It’s unintended.
Your life is always a balance of deliberate and emergent — what you plan, and what pops up through serendipity.
So how do you know when to stick to the plan and when to change course with what comes along?
If your deliberate plan is paying your bills and you find it fulfilling, stay on the path. Pay less attention to the little things that pop up and double down on present course.
If you have found an outlet in your career that provides both the requisite hygiene factors and motivators, then a deliberate approach makes sense. Your aspirations should be clear, and you know from your present experience that they are worth striving for. Rather than worrying about adjusting to unexpected opportunities, your frame of mind should be focused on how best to achieve the goals you have deliberately set.
But what about when you’re not feeling fulfilled? Or when you have a dream but it’s not paying the bills and offering a lifestyle? When you really have no clue to “What is life all about?”
Christensen says this is like those 93% of companies — they need to experiment, to look around to see how to pivot.
You need to be trying to new things, to iterate. To realize that maybe the shiny wrapping paper is better than that gift.
But if you haven’t reached the point of finding a career that does this for you, then, like a new company finding its way, you need to be emergent. This is another way of saying that if you are in these circumstances, experiment in life. As you learn from each experience, adjust. Then iterate quickly. Keep going through this process until your strategy begins to click.
But what you can’t do either way is sit on your butt.
What’s rarely required is just more thinking. It’s testing and experimenting that leads to real opportunities.
But it’s rarely a case of sitting in an ivory tower and thinking through the problem until the answer pops into your head. Strategy almost always emerges from a combination of deliberate and unanticipated opportunities. What’s important is to get out there and try stuff until you learn where your talents, interests, and priorities begin to pay off. When you find out what really works for you, then it’s time to flip from an emergent strategy to a deliberate one.
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.