Perceiving and Planning

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This blog is an excerpt from my book, Lead The Future: Strategies and Systems for Emerging Leaders (the e-book is cheaper here).

Throughout my education, I always felt a bit jealous of my peers who were sure about their career paths. While many of these people changed their plans as they got more experience or did not get a high enough MCAT score, clearly having a vision for their future was incredibly valuable.

I have personally struggled to find a purpose I could organize my life around. However, I have gained some clarity as I have gotten more work and life experience. While I still do not have a specific cause or project I wish to dedicate my entire self to, I now know that I want to leverage my interpersonal, communication, and leadership skills to help lead and empower teams to solve problems big and small. My hope is that the publication of this book will connect me with other definite optimists who will want to collaborate on challenging problems.

For those of you with a clear plan, this section may only help you to bolster your confidence in the benefits of having one. For those of you who cannot focus on one topic, problem, or purpose, we can use this part as an opportunity to introspect and come up with a bad plan.

We see only a sliver of the world. Our bodies cannot process all the stimuli around us and still function at a high level. Human beings evolved over generations and generations by natural selection. Our survival has required humans to be able to intensely focus and prioritize awareness of some aspects of our environment while ignoring others.

A few months ago, I woke up at 6 a.m. to go exercise before work. While half-asleep, I wandered out my door and began my morning commute. As I walked to the gym, I hardly noticed any of my environment. I did not see the stop sign at the end of my street. I did not see my neighbor’s grey Toyota Camry in their driveway. I did not see the cigarette butts strewn along the sidewalk. Suddenly, I jumped a foot in the air and was fully alert. My attention was focused intensely on the sidewalk right where I was about to step. What had startled me? A black cable that vaguely looked like a snake.

Current research shows that humans are actually more attuned to stimuli that share characteristics with snakes(Öhman and Mineka 2003). Furthermore, we are generally more engaged and affected by negative than positive stimuli (Romin and Royzman 2001). While seeing something beautiful might make us happy for a moment, being bitten by a poisonous snake could mean death.

This negativity bias is exploited by the media we consume. Often, news stories are chosen to amplify alarm and headlines to provoke outrage. Politicians speak to people’s fears and concerns. The best marketing and content pull at our emotions to keep us paying attention and watching. An understanding of this phenomena is insufficient to reduce its effect. It is hardwired into our biology and what it means to be human. It’s the snake on the sidewalk.

However, we can harness our body’s ability to prioritize stimuli by intentionally priming ourselves to view the world through a desired lens. If you have ever learned a new word or fact and then seen something relevant soon after, you have experienced the power of this phenomenon.

Religions, such as sects of both Christianity and Buddhism, have daily prayers or rituals that have a similar effect. You may start and end your day by focusing on what you’re most grateful for in your life: your family, your health, the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, your best friends, your neighbors, and the basic necessities of life. Concentrating your focus on these positive aspects of your life primes you to experience the world in a way that emphasizes these priorities.

So, how does this relate to goal-setting?

During my four years of cross-country running, I was fortunate to have a world-class coach, Bernie Gardner. I did not appreciate it at the time because I had no discipline but, although he was a strict coach, he was dedicated to his craft and incorporated the best practices of Olympic coaches. Every year, he would tell us the story of an Olympian who spent at least an hour every day simply visualizing the contest he was preparing for. This Olympian does train hard, but his edge comes from his visualization, which enables him to secure a gold medal and a new world record.

Lyndon Rush, one of Canada’s bronze medalists in bobsledding, described the importance of visualization to his training in an interview with the New York Times:

I’ve tried to keep the track in my mind throughout the year. I’ll be in the shower or brushing my teeth. It just takes a minute, so I do the whole thing or sometimes just the corners that are more technical. You try to keep it fresh in your head, so when you do get there, you are not just starting at square one. It’s amazing how much you can do in your mind.

At one extreme, you have people who have a clear purpose. They are successful in organizing their lives around a central goal. That might be raising your children to be happy and healthy, attending medical school and becoming a doctor, qualifying for the Olympics, or anything else. On the other extreme, you have people who are nihilistic and aimless—people who have no guiding focus or feeling of purpose.

Humans feel positive emotion because of the direction in which they are heading relative to their goals and ideals (Ramnerö and Törneke 2014). To overcome the bad in your life, it is critical that you generate positive emotion by progressing toward self-defined goals.

He who has a why can bear any how.

Friedrich Nietzsche

When your life is totally focused on one goal, your relationship to the entire world changes. If you are committed to winning the national championship in a sport, you begin to experience life through that lens: An invitation to a party transforms from a great opportunity to socialize with strangers and friends into an obstacle, a temptation that must be overcome. An advertisement for an organic, no-whey protein shake might go from irrelevant to engaging and attractive. Conversation with a close friend might be more likely to venture toward their college roommate whose best friend was the national champion from Poland.

Viewing the world through a lens focused on your goals and values will enable you to make better decisions and see opportunities that you might otherwise have ignored. If you are not conscious of the relationship between your goals and the information you’re exposed to, you’re less likely to identify and take concrete steps toward reaching those goals.

Later in this book, in chapter nine, we will discuss tactics and ideas for orienting yourself around habits and systems that will enable you to progress toward your desired ideal. Regardless of whether you already have orienting goals, let’s take some time to reflect on our values through writing.

WRITE: Reflecting on your values and motivations is critical for success in any goal-setting process. Please consider exploring the following prompts:

  • Write about a time when you felt highly motivated. What did that feel like? What drove you to be motivated? Is there anything about that experience that you could replicate toward a future goal?
  • Write about a time when you felt most alive.
  • During which activities does time seem to fly by? Are there any commonalities between these activities?
  • If you won $10 million (after taxes) in the lottery, what would you do with it?
  • What if you had to use the money to help others but could not simply give it away?

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