A Personal Failure of Vision

You should know about the time I failed miserably. Well there are many of those times. But for this week, we’ll focus on one—my New Year’s resolution.

We’re less than a month away from 2019. That means we’re less than a month away from creating a fresh set of New Year’s resolutions. Those elusive goals we create with determination only to forget by the time the snow’s melted and spring flowers bloomed.

If you caught last week’s post, we talked about what vision is, why it matters, and three rules to guide your vision for yourself or your team. But it’s one thing to talk about it … it’s another to think about it in real life. How the three rules apply and where we fall short in real life—that’s where we headed this week.

We often start the new year motivated. This is the year … the year we’ll chase that new job, or spend more time with our spouse and children … live a better life. Yet research suggests we fail to see through 80% of the resolutions we make. Exercise and weight loss are the most popular resolutions made annually, yet the spike in gym memberships in January always precedes a fall through the spring. The effect is so predictable, fitness companies construct their business models around it. Think about it next time you’re at the gym—does it have the capacity for the large January crowd? Or is it so full after the holidays, you’re waiting until things ‘return to normal’? As I think through why so many of our well-intentioned goals are left to die each year (my own included), I can only ask why.

You made your resolutions for a reason, didn’t you? Did losing weight, getting a new job, or spending more time with your family suddenly become less important, less worthwhile? Of course the answer is no! Yet when push came to shove, those resolutions—and many more like them—fell by the wayside as winter gave way to spring and our lives overtook us. Why did we allow distractions to derail our effort? Was it because we didn’t see the value in those ideals? Or was it because we didn’t see an early result, or even the potential for an early result, so we ran out of gas and cut our losses? Let me ask you this … did any of your friends or family know about your resolution? Did that affect the outcome?

So where did I fail? Every year I resolve to exercise more or in a different way, to seek a new fitness goal. I’m a distance runner and have enjoyed foot races since high school. So with a couple marathons under my belt, I resolved to check off a long-time bucket list item—to run an ultramarathon. An “ultra” is any race longer than the 26.2-mile marathon distance. I wasn’t looking at a 50 or 100-miler, ‘merely’ a race that exceeded the 26.2 milestone. I settled on the Dead Horse Ultra 50k. I ran their 30k with a friend in November 2017 and loved the experience, despite a tough course and sub-freezing conditions at the start. So it should’ve been easy—same course, same town, same time of year. Only this time, pay a bit more for the longer distance and get a few more miles in throughout the year. Well, I thought about it every couple weeks. I was running and felt alright through the summer. But every time someone asked about my goals for the year, I’d reply with, “my goal is to run my first ultra …” and the conversation would end. I wouldn’t elaborate—and more importantly—I’d never think about it afterward. On top of that, I never shared the idea or talked through it with anyone close to me—my wife had an inkling. Few friends, even fewer coworkers (okay, none). So what went wrong? Back to those three rules

My goal, like anyone else’s, amounted to a vision of the future I hoped to realize. Was the idea of running an ultramarathon aspirational? I’d argue yes—it’s beyond what I’ve accomplished before and certainly takes effort to accomplish. Was it developed? Now it starts to break down. I knew which race and knew I wanted to “run an ultra”, but what mental energy had I dedicated to the idea beyond that? I never visualized what it would take to train for it, and certainly didn’t put together in my mind the images of me running the race. Without that to start, what could I hold onto as the year progressed and I allowed the rest of life to consume me? Was it shared? My wife knew, like I said, that I wanted to run an ultra. But that’s all I said, nothing tangible to latch onto and with which to hold me accountable. As if I was afraid to think about it. Afraid it would actually happen.

Where’d that last bit come from? Of course I wanted it to happen! But did I? Was I prepared for the training, the travel, the preparation ahead of a 30-mile race that would no doubt tax me physically and mentally? Where I ran the risk of not finishing at all? I don’t think I was. I wasn’t ready for the effort it would take to support the goal, so I prevented myself from working through the idea in my mind and preparing for days on the road and trail, putting in miles and stretching and sleeping and getting ready. How many of your goals—your resolutions—do you drop because you’re afraid of the work you’ll have to put into them? This is why the three rules are vital to the success of any vision you have for yourself or your team’s future.

Aspirations and dreams are powerful, and provide a great foundation for where you want to be a month, year, or five years from now. But they’re nothing without the development needed to support them—what will it take to make that vision a reality? What’s the work involved, what level of effort will I have to expend, what sacrifices might I need to make to enable that vision? These are important questions to answer. Then once you have the answers, SHARE THEM! With your family, friends, coworkers—anyone close to you whom you trust to get behind you and hold you accountable. If it’s worthwhile—if it’s meaningful—then it won’t be easy. The visions we have that mean the most require the most thought and a village of support to achieve. That makes success all the more sweet. Because achieving a lasting vision isn’t about us as individuals. It’s about how much better we can be so we can do better for everyone around us.

 

Next week we focus on vision in the workplace, and what can happen if you charge hard toward your vision–at the expense of teammates.

Why Lasting Vision?

We’ve spent the last couple weeks talking about the power of vision, both as leaders in a professional environment and as individuals. It’s easy to look at someone like Elon Musk who harbors vivid images of cleanly-fueled cars and affordable space travel and see how such vision drives his daily actions. But what about you and me? For the rest of us trying to figure out where we are in life, and more importantly, where we want to go—how do you develop such a lasting picture in your mind that has the same staying power? Vision is as important at work as it is at home and you must devote real energy to its creation and maintenance. So that’s what we’re going to talk about all month—VISION.

What is “vision”? Does it sound more like something an HR focus group needs to worry about? I’d argue that if you’re making that assumption, it’s because you’ve only been exposed to corporate vision statements that often don’t have much weight behind them—assuming you even know what your company’s is. These statements have all the potential in the world, but without regular communication and much needed context, that potential is lost on you. Your organization probably has a vision statement; you may even know what it is … but could you articulate what role you play in its achievement? If the answer is no, who could blame you for believing such a thing irrelevant to your life? With everything else at home and at work to worry about, the last thing anyone needs is more time spent on a vision statement. But the reality is that these disconnects don’t prove a vision’s lack of utility, only a leader’s inability to translate that vision into meaning that drives team members forward. No matter where you are in the hierarchy, vision should be foremost in your mind—the end state you see for the impact you will have on the world around you. What should you look for in a vision? Here are three rules to consider when crafting a vision or trying to figure out if the one you’ve been provided is viable.

Rule #1: Visions are aspirational. Some would argue there’s no value in goals or objectives if they aren’t “realistic” or “relevant” (if you’ve never heard of the ‘SMART’ goal-setting model, read more here). When developing goals, you’re supposed to ask practical questions—is this the right time, am I qualified to achieve this, does this goal fit in with the others? While I am a believer in realism when we talk about day-to-day actions and incremental steps toward a vision of the future, I have also come to believe strongly that a lasting vision cannot merely be ‘realistic’. It must be aspirational … other-worldly … something that would be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve without effort. Your vision represents the best case in your mind’s eye, what the new project or the customer’s experience or your life would look like if everything went perfectly. What does the customer’s satisfaction, your team’s loyalty, or your happiness look like? “Receives the product on time”, “we make next quarter’s revenue target”, or “I get a job that pays for this house” … none of those can be enough. They will not be enough. All three might be worthy objectives that can, themselves, be ‘realistic’ to the moment, but none will sustain and motivate the kind of progressive effort necessary for continual improvement and, most critically, personal and professional growth.

Rule #2: Visions are shared. Visions of the future are meaningless … even the personal ones … if they are not shared. For the team at work, it doesn’t help anyone if only the person in charge knows the vision and can see it for themselves. In this case, managers drive their people toward ideals those same team members can’t internalize for themselves, which leads to those same, valuable employees staying with the job simply for the paycheck or benefits. Even if you retain some of them over the long-term, you’ll watch as their motivation drops and their engagement tempers.

Rule #3: Visions are developed. Why do corporate vision statements seem to lose momentum or fail to engage the workforce long-term? They’re not vivid, rich in detail, or easily embodied by the team that’s in place to achieve it. I’m not saying your vision should be page after page of exposition or analysis; one phrase or sentence should be enough to inspire your group. What is often missing is the leader’s description of what that vision looks like in real life. Beyond the vision statement, a lasting vision is an image—or series of images—that represents the ultimate ‘win’. But you can’t conjure it once and call it a day, confident that will be enough to move forward. The vision must be examined, turned over, and filled in. It must be rendered in full color, ready to feed an example for the team when they need a better idea of why they’re doing what they’re doing in the first place. Emphasizing such fidelity in a vision does two things: 1) it makes the aspirational, far-off ideal feel more attainable and therefore enables goal-setting in the near-term and builds motivation; and 2) it enables you as a leader to share the vision with your team—friends, family, coworkers. The more detail they can ‘see’ and ‘feel’, the more likely they can internalize the imagery and take ownership of their own role in its achievement.

So what does all this matter? Why spend the time and energy crafting an aspirational vision, rendered in full color, that you then have to share with the world around you? Because with everything that’s going on around you, distracting you, pulling you in multiple directions … a lasting vision provides a meaningful end for which to strive. An end that drives the daily effort necessary to always be improving, growing, and developing into individuals and organizations that can offer much more to the world around them.

 

Next week, this month’s series on vision continues with a look at New Year’s resolutions … why we fail at seeing them through and how applying the three rules of vision can enable you to achieve something great in the coming year …