A Hole in The Bucket List

Plug the purposeful hole in your bucket list.

On the weekend, I made english muffins. I have now made four of my big five baking goals. After sourdough bread, bagels, pretzels, crumpets and now english muffins, I only have croissants to go.

Hang on a minute. Big five baking goals? That sounds like a bucket list.

What’s wrong with a bucket list?

Even if I put aside the morbid nature of a death checklist, the problem with bucket lists is that they have become part of our consumer society. Bucket list moments are experiences that you are meant to have. They are not who you are.

Because bucket lists are consumption driven, they always grow and there is no pressure to have a consistent logic for inclusion. (For example, croissants is the 6th member of my big five baking goals). Your bucket list can never be complete. More unique experiences are always being created. Bucket lists creep into every aspect of life. Bucket lists run on ‘keeping up with the Jones’ logic. If everyone else is running with the Bulls at Pamplona, then we should too. (Why didn’t I include doughnuts?)

All these experiences are an effort to fill a life that lacks the satisfaction of purpose. Bucket lists leak through the lack of purpose.

Plug the Purposeful Hole in the Bucket

A life lived with purpose is not about what you have. A life lived with purpose is about who you are. Purpose defines the reason you do what you do. Purpose is our chosen effect on others and the world.

Don’t chase a random list of experiences. There’s no chance it will make your life complete. Start by doing one purposeful act instead. One purposeful act might be all it takes.

I’m not looking to bake my way up culinary peaks. I’m just aiming for one joyous family meal at a time. Now about those croissants…

From Bucket List to Purpose

I am beginning to have a problem with the bucket list. A bucket list is a list of experiences or achievements to have fulfilled by the time you die. My problem with bucket lists is that they are too often laundry lists of notable achievements, socially recognised moments and exotic travel destinations. It is rare to see a bucket list with an internal logic.

If a bucket list takes this form, then it is simply another manifestation of the overhang of expectations.  The image of the grim reaper cutting short bucket lists creates an unnatural urgency.  That urgency can be used to create consumer demand. Promoting experiences as ‘bucket list-worthy’ have become a way to market experiences from the mundane to the sublime. The bucket list is the latest manifestation of consumer marketing, the experience you have to have. There is no end to things that we just have to have on our bucket lists.

Life isn’t determined by what we have to have. There is precious little that we have to have. Once we move beyond meeting the needs of living standards, quality of life is determined by more than what we have. Quality of life is determined by the impact we choose to have on the world.  

Those choices arise as you make each decision on work, on relationships and on living. Many of these choices are the mundane, everyday living choices that are a far remove from the exotic one-off experiences of the bucket list.  However, over time what these choices will share in common is your personal sense of purpose.  Realising a personal inner purpose over the many obstacles is how each of us can help realise our potential. That is far more important than the fleeting experience of ticking off a random list.

A fully ticked bucket list will keep you busy but won’t necessarily let you die happy. A life of fulfilling purpose will.

I am and I do

Birthdays come around once a year. They are a repeating milestone. This year I have a small gift for myself – an absence of expectations. Instead I am focusing on what I am and what I do.

There is much discussion these days on the unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves. Every day’s to do list is a reminder to me that I fall easily for creating these expectations. Much of my life’s experience has taught me that most of the time we are neither quite as bad or as good as we think.

So this birthday, I am changing my expectations. I am.

On previous birthdays I have reflected on what I wanted to be. I set myself all kinds of milestones. I challenged myself to do more. Some I achieved but far too many became part of the overhang of what might have been. That overhang was mine alone, an unreal fiction and entirely unconstructive. Nothing more gets done because I once thought that I would have done more by now.

The last two years of working for myself has been a wonderful lesson in the importance of being & doing. I wondered what I might become when I began this process. I didn’t become anything. I am and I do. However, along the way I discovered:

  • I am helping people & organisations with collaboration, leadership, learning and the future of work, because it interests me and I work at improving my capabilities & connections every day
  • I am a baker because I bake whenever I can and I learn new techniques and approaches
  • I am a writer because I write whenever I have something important to say and I seek to get better with feedback.
  • I am enjoying a different life, because every day I am making new and better choices
  • I have a sense of purpose, because the purpose is in the work
  • I am happy. I just am. If I wasn’t, I would do something about it.

When other people want to hire your expertise, it is a solid reminder you are growing more every day.  When people admire your baking, or your writing or some other activity, it is a reminder that those skills are growing too. If nobody else notices, then you still know you are growing. When you ask yourself what made you happy today and there is always an answer, you are happy.

What you are now doesn’t matter. It just is. 

What you want to be doesn’t matter now. What matters is what you do today. 

Live and work your way forward day by day. I am.

Dream Big and Dream Fierce

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In life and in work, we need to aim high and we need to work hard to these goals. Even the best disappoint others occasionally. Failures and missteps are part of the process of learning. Others will forgive in time. However on any journey to a big goal, the toughest critic is most likely you. Don’t disappoint yourself. Be fierce in your own interests instead.

Dream Big and Dream Fierce

At the recent Logie awards, actress Miranda Tapsell spoke of her journey from a 17 year old Larrakia woman to winning awards in her chosen profession.  She called for more diversity in television because of its potential to inspire and unite us. Importantly, she also encouraged other young girls to “Dream big and dream fierce”. 

Dreaming big is important.  We have more potential than we know.  However, the latter part of that advice is well considered. Fierce pursuit of your goals is required for any form of success. Too many disappoint themselves by partial effort.

Stop Being Your Own Critic

Fierce pursuit of your dreams also demands that you stop the inner voices holding you back. Don’t let your own high expectations be a source of disappointment. You will be far more aware of your failings than others. Hold this in balance. Too many disappoint themselves by accepting the imposter syndrome that makes achievement feel unworthy.

Be Real

Success comes from being real in the world and improving every day. Big dreams aren’t achieved by dream boats. They are achieved by fierce agents of change.

Being real does not mean embracing others’ views of what are ‘realistic expectations’.  Fierce pursuit of your dreams means you must be real and engaged in the world. That means you need to have a real view of your status, your relationships and your capabilities. The need to understand these clearly is not because these are limits but because you must know what you need to change. Being real is the first step to learning, growing and getting where you want to go.

Being really also extends to accepting that there will be mistakes and challenges on your fierce journey to your goals.  Embrace these mistakes too as part of a real journey. Forgive yourself a lot and learn a little.

Stick to your values

The mistakes you will struggle to forgive are those where you don’t live up to your own expectations on how to behave. We all need a fierce focus on living to our values, especially when it is easy, attractive or convenient to take another path. Our influence comes from our actions and our integrity and we must fight to defend that against paths of convenience. 

Making the right decisions and saying the right things isn’t easy. Most of us aren’t perfect, but we need to have a fierce dedication to the values that make us who we are.  Big dreams are achieved through integrity.

Wherever your success journey is going, Miranda Tapsell’s advice is more succinctly and more elegantly than this explanation so as you go forward remember her words and share them with others:

“Dream big and dream fierce” 

Away or Towards

Success is not avoiding an outcome that you fear. Success is moving towards fulfilment of your purpose.

I caught myself this week defining success on a challenge as avoiding an outcome that I feared. I had tricked myself and hidden the fear in layers of other goals. I knew immediately that I needed to change the way I approached the challenge.  

Running away from a fear is no guide. If all you are doing is running away how will you get where you want to go?

This is a common enough approach to work. For many people, the measures of success have a strong avoidance flavour:

  • achieving their targets to avoid losing their job
  • making enough money to avoid financial difficulty
  • comfortable relationships to avoid loneliness and conflict
  • keeping up with peers to avoiding embarrassment
  • minimising risk to avoid failure

Avoidance is a poor guide to what to do. Targeting safety and security often creates the exact outcome that you feared. 

Avoidance is not particularly fulfilling. The absence of a risk having been realised still leaves the fear.

Having found the hidden fear, my challenge was to redefine success in terms of my purpose. When I know that I am moving towards my purpose I am more engaged. I know that I will have measurable progress somewhere that matters to me. All of a sudden the vicissitudes of the journey matter less.

Challenge your goals to ensure that they are really moving towards purpose. There are lots of places to escape fear, but you don’t want to be in most of them.

What do you demand?

The ladder makes demands. To rise the ladder, you must fulfil the demands of your rising positions. 

Prosperity makes demands. To grow your prosperity, you must fulfil the demands of growing resources. 

Endeavour makes demand. To succeed in your endeavours, you must fulfil the demands of expanding activity. 

Life makes one demand. Make the most of your limited time, precious relationships and scarce attention. 

Hierarchy, prosperity and endeavour are abundant. Human time is scarce

Demand a little time for yourself. 

Fragments of Human Stories

Even fragments of human stories engage us deeply. We don’t need to see the finished story. We only need to share enough to engage the imagination of others and draw the humanity out in our consideration of life.

A Fragment of a Richer Story

Browsing the poetry section of a second-hand bookstore in regional Victoria, I came across a volume of the poetry of Matthew Arnold, the 19th century poet, bound in dark green leather with gold leaf. The spine showed the volume had been well read.

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Opening the book I found a dedication which stopped me, brought a rush of emotions and made me reflect on the story of those who had handled the book before.

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Just over a century ago, as the world descended into the Great War, Ralph received this gift and the love of Doris. We don’t know their story or their relationship. The author of this dedication might well have been be a mother, a sister, a friend or a lover. What happened to Ralph and Doris is currently a mystery to us but the inscription and that date soon after the start of WWI engages our imagination, our emotions and our concern.

From the short fragment of Arnold’s poem Immortality we gain a brief insight into the mind of the author of the inscription. This fragment of a message 100 years later engages us in the rich challenges of human life.  It confronts us to reflect on a world torn with strife, obligations of honour and duty, the need for effort and for faith, the love between two people and the real fears of mortality that confronted them. This message transmitted through the inside cover of a book engages us in the turmoil of the Great War and asks us to reflect on the human fears and costs that surrounded it.

Create & Share Human Stories

Perhaps another hint to us lies in the line immediately before the text chosen for inscription in Arnold’s poem:

“…the energy of life may be
Kept on after the grave, but not begun;” 

We can start, we can take on challenges and we can share our rich human stories in our one life, but only then. We often forget to reflect on this human detail.

Abstractions like life, success, history, war and work are comprised of these individual human stories, can be aggregated to a level where the humanity is lost in numbers, events and outcomes. We must remember as we deal with the abstractions to make an effort to bring forward the fragments of human stories and consider them each in their unique light.

Our stories engage others deeply, even as uncompleted fragments. They speak to our time, our place, our relationships, our conflicts and our challenges.  As an experience that is real and tangible, stories like these help us to reflect and to learn. These are needed skills when we are learning what it is to be human struggling with the challenges of our unique moment in time.

We may never know more of the story. However encountering a fragment of a story like this makes it harder to forget the human efforts & sacrifice of others.

Lest we forget.

The Extraordinary is the Ordinary Consistently Applied

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Inconsistency is the norm. The extraordinary is the ordinary consistently applied.

I attribute all the success that I have had in my career comes down to one point.  My successes came about because I tried harder for longer at some simple thing.

  • I became a CEO because I tested myself with the little acts of change leadership every day for over a decade that built my skills and understanding of how to influence, to set a strategy and to lead a business
  • was invited to join Change Agents Worldwide because of my change advocacy and the thought leadership on this blog and I had been working on change every day for years and building my thoughts and writing daily for more than 4 years
  • my current consulting work in change leadership, collaboration and customer experience is not the outcome of any single insight. It is the consequence of learning more every day.

Whatever talents I might have were much less significant to my success than the willingness to put in the daily effort over a time span of years. After all, there are a mighty lot of talented people out there. It is far easier to outstay them than out perform them. If you put in the effort, you will discover, many extraordinarily talented people never start or give up at the first, second or tenth setback.

My actions aren’t extraordinary. I am a generalist, not a specialist. It is rare when I have the capabilities to make a unique difference. In our complex networked collaborative world, it is increasingly rare someone delivers on their unique capabilities alone. The generalist knows to leverage a network and is more likely to attend to all the disciplines needed for success.

When others are trying to achieve the extraordinary, often it is the small steps of change that are over looked. Consistently attending to these small efforts is much more likely to deliver the results. 

I have also discovered that luck is the outcome of effort, opportunity and preparation. Luck rewards those prepared and still trying. Working and learning consistently means when a new opportunity arises you have a better chance of success.

Just as talent rises from a community, extraordinary performance rises from consistency of effort. If you read biographies and history the theme recurs; Overnight success is an outcome of years of effort.

So don’t despair at the lack of an obvious way to be extraordinary.  Remember inconsistency is the norm. Your path to the extraordinary is the ordinary consistently applied.

Look back at the sand behind you

Yesterday I asked a room of managers of Yammer networks in a Masterclass to work out loud. I asked them to share their biggest challenge and their biggest success. The challenges came out quickly. Successes were slower.

This experience is very common. Everyone has some form of success to report. However many need help to focus on what they have achieved.

We work so hard on shifting the sand in front of us. We know exactly how hard moving that sand will be. We know we lack the resources and time. Knowing our challenges is easy.

When we look back at the sand we have already shifted, we realise it is always this way. Work is tough but we get the job done. The obstacles are the work worth doing. Small wins accumulate. However we spend less time appreciating our achievements. We always gave forwards to the new sand.

Working out loud makes the work we are doing visible. It enables other to help us to appreciate what we have done. Importantly it gives us a record to review to appreciate our own achievements.

Take time each day to note one thing going well. Share that work. You will compile a better picture of the sand piling up behind you as you work

The fine art of stress

Be stressed when it matters.

I’m late. Fog has closed in on my destination and the plane won’t take off for a few hours. I hate being late because I believe timeliness is a sign of respect. Timeliness contributes to better productivity of all.

I hate being late but now I am not stressed about the long delay.

Constructive stress

I feel stress about being late up until I begin my journey. That is constructive stress. Stress makes sure I am doing all I can to start on time. Good stress is a motivator to make change, to act and to get going.

Pointless stress

However, once I begin a journey I know it will take the time it takes, especially if it involves planes, trains or automobiles beyond my control. Sitting at an airport waiting for a flight, stress is not a constructive experience. Nothing I can do will change how soon I arrive. Once I mitigate the consequences of my lateness, I can rest in peace. For the next few hours I will get some work done instead of worrying about travel.

Take control

Bearing stress you can do nothing about is terrible for your health. It is deviating for motivation and performance too. If you experience this, change your circumstances, mindset or find a way to do something constructive.

Remember stress is a consequence of your own thoughts. You are anticipating future bad outcomes. Choose your stress wisely. Be stressed when it matters to your ability to act.