Category Archives: Proactivity

How will this help you win?

As I’ve mentioned previously, my fiance plays a lot of Magic: The Gathering, which is possibly the most complex card game in the world. And with that complexity come a lot of play mistakes, from people who are new to the game and can’t keep track of all the possibilities available.

One of the most common mistakes is that people play cards that are generally good (reduce their opponent’s life total, or counter what their opponent does), but aren’t helpful in this situation. If you can’t completely counter your opponent’s actions, for example, then you’re often better off saving your resources for repairing the damage done. Many people lose games because they spend resources on things that won’t help, and then don’t have the resources necessary to do what would help.

In a complex situation like MTG, you can’t just stick to a general rule of thumb and expect it to work in all situations. You have to ask yourself at all times, before playing each card, “How will this help me win?”

It works in life, too

Most of us go through life without ever thinking about why we do what we do. Fortunately, many of the paths that are selected for us really are good choices: the mandatory schooling in the US, for example, or the decision to eat three meals a day.

But many of our problems are caused by pre-made decisions that are not good. In many cases, the default education at the default public school (although better than no education at all) is not better than available alternatives. The decision to eat a ton of sugar, salt and saturated fat (literally: the average American will actually eat 4 tons of sugar in their lifetime) is part of the reason that the average American’s lifetime is shorter than lifespans in 36 other countries. And it’s not because we sat down and thought “I think I’ll eat 4 tons of sugar”. It’s because we are given traditions like Halloween, Christmas cookies, sugared spaghetti sauce, soda with meals and bread with high-fructose corn syrup, and we follow those traditions without ever thinking “Will this help me win?”

The way you eat. The amount of exercise you get. What you do in the evenings. Where you work. What you learned. Where you spend your XP. Most of us never made those decisions. The things we chose just kind of happened, and we never changed them.

Make a habit of asking yourself, when you start to do something, “How will this help me win?

From small beginnings

A few years ago, at an otherwise hideously-bombastic, we’re-Christians-and-everyone-else-sucks Christmas Eve service, there was, nonetheless, a wonderful Christmas sermon which I’m going to share with you now.

From small beginnings come great things

From a baby boy in a tiny stable came one of the most important messages humanity has ever had.

Every great person is the result of a zygote smaller than the tip of your little finger.

The US civil rights movement started with dozens of tiny events: a decision by a single person to sit at a lunch counter, or at the front of the bus.

Google started as a class project for a couple of geeks at Stanford. Facebook started as a way for college alums to contact each other. The entire world wide web and everything that relies on it started as a way for scientists to get files to each others’ computers.

From small beginnings come great things

Your results may be small right now. Your efforts may seem pathetic compared to the volume of work yet to be done. But that doesn’t mean they will stay small. Every building was once a single stone on bare ground; every success was once a lone individual saying “I wonder if I could…”

Whatever your spiritual beliefs and practices, I wish you a merry Christmas, and hope that your small beginnings become great things in the year to come.

Bureau of Idea Approval

Seth Godin describes our culture’s attitude towards implementing ideas:

    I’ve encountered thousands (it might be tens of thousands) of people walking around with great ideas. Some of the ideas really are great; some are merely pretty good. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of ideas. Ordinary folks can dream up remarkable stuff fairly easily.
    What’s missing is the will to make it happen.

    A lot of us would like to believe that there’s a Bureau of Idea Approval, or the BIA if you like acronyms. The BIA sits in judgement of ideas and blesses the best ones. Go ahead and hone your remarkable concept, submit it to the BIA, and let them do the rest.
    Alas, it’s not going to happen like that any time soon.

Naomi of Itty Biz puts it like this:

    “Do you really think this is a good idea? I told my husband and he seemed really lukewarm.”

    I hate to get all cliché on your ass but if I had a dollar for every time I heard something like this I sure as shit wouldn’t be living in Canada’s Snow Belt when there are perfectly good beaches in Bali I could inhabit.

    In the time I’ve been hanging out in the aforementioned Snow Belt doing home business marketing consulting, I have heard one bad idea. (If you’re reading this, it wasn’t yours. I’ll tell you right now that the creator of the idea in question does not read this blog.) Sure, there are lots of bad ideas in the world, but intelligent people reject them before they hit the discuss-it-with-your-loved-ones phase and the lame idea never sees the light of day.

    Why Your Loved Ones Want You To Fail

And yet, the idea persists. We feel like there’s some process we have to go through, some certificate we have to get, before we start work on our ideas.

By the power vested in me by me…

It’s really OK to try. I mean, you should engage in some serious thought before you, ya know, quit your job and move across the country to open a store selling organic notepaper. But there are lots of options that are less drastic… that are, in fact, very low-risk. Join some online forums about your topic, and figure out what hashtags are used on twitter to identify those discussions. Start a blog and talk about your ideas. Start a meetup where people can get together and talk about your ideas. Write a manifesto. Make an online store. Start a 30-day Trial.

I hereby give you permission. Thanks to David Seah, visual designer of inspirational awesomeness, you can even have a certificate.

I also hereby deputize you into the Bureau of Idea Approval. Whenever you hear an idea that’s worth spreading, present its creator with a certificate. Whenever someone approaches you to ask your opinion of an idea, give them a certificate when you tell them to give it a shot. Whenever a loved one is ready to surrender to the threat of an invisible mallet, give them a certificate saying that their idea is a good one.

Let’s make this world a more idea-friendly place.


Download: Bureau of Idea Approval Certificate

Note 1: I have typed out Bureau of Idea Approval each time, because the US already has a BIA, which stands for Bureau of Indian Affairs, and I don’t want anyone to get the two mixed up.

Note 2: The above product links are affiliate links. If you enjoyed and appreciated this information, you can give me monetary reward by buying products through those links. Learn More.

Annual Planning Addendum: Notes from year two

Last week I had my second annual planning retreat — it marked the first time I’d done my annual planning process when I’d already done it the year before. So I can now speak to the benefits of the process from actual experience, and I thought it would be worthwhile to do so.


Last year I set 25 objectives. I intended to achieve them by working on 7 projects (things you can work on with a definite endpoint, like “Make a website”), and 9 policies (things you do all the time, like “Run 3 times/week”).

Of those, I achieved 9 objectives, or 36%; I completed 4.75 projects, or 67%, and I stuck to 4 policies, or 44%.

Interpretations and Inferences

The first thing we did after our review was to celebrate. Despite the low percentages – a clear failing grade in any educational institution, which is another way that life differs from middle school – we were both proud of what we had accomplished, and we both agreed that it had been one of our most productive years ever. Goal-setting is useful even when you don’t accomplish your goals, because it give you focus.

The low percentages indicate that we still need to “dial in” how much can be accomplished in a year. I actually suspect that my 2014 self would be able to accomplish everything I’d set out to do, but my 2009 self wasn’t that disciplined or organized yet. This caused something of a depression as we compared our “most productive year” to the things we’d hoped to do in a year, and how big that discrepancy was. And yet I don’t want to scale my goals down, because I think I can learn to do that much.

What we did instead was to set goals that are more process-oriented. My boyfriend proposed to me while we were up there – we both agreed that our top priority was to keep our relationship strong and to improve it further. We both want to have more peace in our lives and to become the best possible version of ourselves — that was the second priority. I want to help people learn how to monetize themselves; he has his own vocation. What all of these goals have in common is that they set a clear direction, without specifying how far in that direction we must travel. If I don’t make it as far as I thought I could, that’s OK. If I make it much farther than I thought I could, that’s OK, too. I don’t have to make arbitrary guesses about how far I can go

I could do that this year, because I’d had a year to shake out which goals were vocations, and which were just projects. Last year’s objective list was a jumble of

  • vague goals,
  • of projects that would be nice to complete someday,
  • of projects that would clearly take multiple years (maybe a lifetime),
  • and of projects that were vocation-worthy, but aren’t my vocation.

This year I have it pared down to several overarching lifetime-projects, and have selected less-than-one-year projects to support those objectives.

But I don’t think I could have done that last year, because I didn’t have the data I needed. My first year of annual planning was kind of a data dump, that gave me a chance to list every daydream and career-like notion and impractical fancy that I’d ever had. I wrote it all down, and tried it all out. And over the course of the year, I was able to learn what really mattered to me. It was obvious in the list of projects that I’d worked on (because they’d excited me enough to receive sustained energy) and the ones that had died out from lack of interest. When compared to other, new items on the list this year, it became obvious that several of last year’s objectives were really sub-projects of another lifetime-project – a connection I couldn’t see until I’d spent a year experimenting. I think this kind of focused, pared-down planning can only be done in the second year of this process.

Recommendations for Future Work

The original Annual Planning post was written during my first year of planning, and was written for people who have never set out to do this kind of thing before. And I think that’s a fair assumption in most cases – I’d never done that kind of thing before, and people look at me funny when I explain it. But obviously some things need to change for the second time around: we added in a review of the previous year, and modified the goal-setting process to accommodate 2nd-year planners. I’ll discuss those changes in the next few posts.

The Most Useful Question

We are often faced with situations that are not ideal — situations that (given the option) we would change something about.

In those situations, many people ask the following questions (or answer them, which is equivalent):

  • What should have happened (be happening)?
  • Who’s to blame for it not happening?
  • Whose job is it to fix it?
  • What should “they” do about this?

Whenever you find yourself saying “This shouldn’t have happened!” or “Why did you…?!” or “Someone should…”, stop for a moment and say this instead:

“What am I going to do about this?”

The first set of questions give you nothing actionable. It might be true that it wasn’t supposed to happen… but that doesn’t help you fix the situation. It might be true that it’s Bob’s job to fix it… but since you can’t control Bob’s actions, that doesn’t actually help you any. Even in situations where you really can’t do anything about it (the weather screwed up your plans), you can whether to get really pissed off or to shrug and do whatever you can to enjoy the day anyway.

You have the option to whine, moan, complain… that is a valid answer to the question. Or you have the option to do something useful.