What Is Your Story – Chapter 12
Looking back at our shiny pearls of the past helps us understand the path we travelled to arrive at the present moment. They show us what we enjoyed and what kept us going. They show us what inspired us and what we value. Of everything we encountered on our journey, our shiny pearls are our best reminder that life was and is worth living. It is now, in this present moment, when we decide what steps to take next, that we can use their light to help us design a path that will bring us even more of what we cherish. We may not see the whole future ahead of us, but this very moment is a fork in the road. Which direction to take is our choice, and ours alone.
Step 5: Imagining and Testing Our Future Pearls
Now that we have collected and summarised the shining pearls from our past, it’s time to look to the future and ask ourselves what we imagine that future to look like. Our past pearls show us what kind of situations and actions are most conducive to getting us in that state of flow that indicates we are close to our core purpose and mission in life. Based on that insight, the question we must ask ourselves is: “How can we cause more of those moments to happen in the rest of our lives?” From how and when they happened in the past, can we see ways to increase their frequency and improve their quality? Does the past, next to revealing to us what we want to be doing more of in the future, also contain clues as to the things we must do, change, improve and focus on to increase our chances of living a more fulfilling life in the future?
Bear in mind that in most cases we are not simply looking at repeating what we did in the past. Sure, those moments may have been great, and the pearls shiny enough to fondly remember, but we are no longer the person we were then. We have experienced, learned and changed, most likely brought about by those very moments we so fondly remember, but also as a result of all the other things that happened in our lives. So much so that, should we try to merely recreate the same moments we so fondly remember from our past, they would most likely not give us the same satisfaction. Simple repetition seldom continues to delight, unless we are entirely on target, and do not change much at all. The shiny pearls of our future, then, should be imagined as developments from those of the past: variations that maintain their essence, but adjusted to the circumstances and details to suit who we have become and are growing into.
One way to find our next shiny pearls is to use the ‘innovation trifecta’ that is part of the Design Thinking approach pioneered by IDEO in the early 2000s. We are, after all, designing our future narrative, so why not use a much-praised design approach to do so?
The innovation trifecta (below) poses three questions designers must ask to determine whether their idea is worth pursuing:
- Desirability: do people really want or need this?
- Feasibility: do we have the capabilities required to build this?
- Viability: is this idea sustainable over an extended period of time?
We can use similar questions to get more clarity about the narrative we are designing for the future.
- Desirability: How much do we want the path we are imagining? How close to our sense of purpose and fulfilment is it?
- Feasibility: Do we have what it takes to make this happen? Do we have the skills, means and circumstances in place to see how to create those next pearls?
- Viability: Will this path contain repeatable moments that can be expanded and deepened in the longer-term future, or would it be a one-off moment only?
All three questions are essential, and we may need a few iterations around the triangle before we feel we are settling on a type of future path we are excited about, think we know how to manifest and is part of our growth curve for the future.
I love being on stage, talking to an interested and appreciative audience. I have enjoyed plenty of such pearls in the past, and I could be tempted to just look for more of the same. Instead, I quit my job. I decided to change my path so I could work on this book and see if I could make a living running my own business.
Why did I do that? My job would have guaranteed many more moments on stage. If I had just continued the path I was on, I would not have to worry about generating an income or attracting an audience. Why was I not content with just more of the good thing I had going?
The main reason is that I have changed since I started that job, almost ten years ago. I have learned many new things. I have honed old skills and acquired some new ones. I have thought long and hard about many of the issues my audience told me they were struggling with. I have read many, many books, talked to hundreds of people, and studied up on the latest findings and publications on history, sociology, psychology, behavioural economy, neuroscience and philosophy. It has changed my perception of what matters. From trying to bring people skills to IT professionals and help technology have a more positive effect on people, my focus has shifted to bringing a human focus to organisations and helping business have a more positive impact on society. My past experiences have brought me much joy and satisfaction, but – more importantly – they have shifted my perspective.
In other words, even I could keep repeating my past performances, talking about the same topics, and drawing the same kind of people, I would no longer enjoy it as much as I did before. That path has served its purpose – and done it well – but it is time for me to look for the next iteration of it; the next stage in my journey as a speaker and thinker.
The next pearls on this particular string will have to relate to topics that are closer to my heart than anything I have talked about before. I want my passion to help me push my talks and presentations out of the conventional safety zone. I want my audience to experience moments of surprise and discomfort. I want to them hear things that contradict and challenge ideas, concepts and knowledge they thought they understood already. If I do it right, my work should cause them to stop and rethink their current thinking. At the very least it should make them examine their ideas to decide for themselves if they want to be persuaded by my arguments to change them.
The desirability question covers what we want our future pearls to look and feel like. The next step is to look at the feasibility of what we imagine those future pearls to be. Do we have what it takes to make them happen? Are they within our reach?
I feel I can safely say I do have the foundations in place for this next leg of my journey. I have honed my presentation skills and deepened and broadened my content. For my next peals to shine, however, I must make sure I can be even more persuasive and thought-provoking. I must think even more in-depth about what I want to talk about. I must push even harder against the conventional wisdom I believe is holding us back. And I must find ways of presenting my material that drives home my messages more directly.
So there is still work to do before my next set of shiny pearls can materialise. However, having work to do is not a problem. What is important is that I am confident that that work is not beyond my capability to carry out. I know how to get there. I have the time and the discipline to work on this at least a few hours a day. I have enough ideas and outlines of stories to feel I am not blindly pushing forward.
I do realise there are some limits to the feasibility of what I am aiming for. I can’t completely break away from my current public persona. People have expectations about me and about what I will be talking about. I can’t suddenly start talking about International trade policies or the complexities of the financial system, for instance, never having done so before. I also can’t make complete U-turns on the positions I have publicly taken in the recent past without undermining my credibility. Where my opinions have changed, I will first have to take my audience on the same journey that led me to reconsider my position, so they understand why I changed my mind. From a feasibility perspective, the next stretch of pearls will have to be a continuation of my current public persona before I can gradually sharpen my positions and what I speak about.
Other limits have to do with reaching an audience on the scale my previous job made possible. I have left the corporate machine that kept bringing in people in large numbers. I will now have to find my own channels and connections. I will have to establish my own brand now I no longer carry the respectability and clout that came with my previous position. The good news is that the past years have helped to grow my network and my personal influence. So I don’t have to start from zero. It’s going to be reasonably modest, to begin with, but I am confident I can grow things from there.
The feasibility question is mostly there to make sure we don’t overreach. Just because we deeply desire something doesn’t mean we are ready to make it happen straight away. We need this reality check, and we need to be honest with ourselves. However, we also need to keep believing. We may find we don’t have the knowledge, capabilities or capacity to go directly to where we want to go. That doesn’t mean we need to give up on our dreams. It just says we need to take a step back and first figure out how we can close that gap so we can get where we want to go at a later time. Acquiring the skills, collecting and preparing the tools we need and practising our moves before we make the next big step are all part of the same journey. As long as we see how we can move forward, we are not giving up on the dream.
The next question is about sustainability and repeatability. Will the next pearl be a one-off event or the start of a whole series? Will it be an item we can tick off on our bucket list, or will it be part of our continuing growth and development?
This question may not be so easy to answer. It involves much guesswork about the future, about other people, about external factors we may not have much power over. It may not even be clear how relevant the concept of viability is to our quest to create our ideal future narrative. Viability is primarily a business concept. Businesses are supposed to aim for growth and longevity. A great trick that only works once is not something you would base a business on.
To make viability relevant to our personal narrative and the string of pearls we are constructing we need to redefine it slightly. We can make it more about whether we think the effort and time required will measure up against the duration and intensity of the satisfaction we expect to get out of those future pearls. In other words: will it all be worth striving for?
That is a very personal question. I find it hard to give any clear guidance or rules for it. We all have different desires and fears. What feels like the Holy Grail for some may ultimately fail to motivate someone else.
What matters here is our own feeling when we think about the pearls we plan on creating next.
Imagine those next pearls in their shiniest possible form. Everything works out exactly as planned and maybe even better than that. How does that make us feel? Does it give us a surge of energy; a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction; a sense of achieving a significant milestone in our lives?
Now imagine the work we need to do to make those pearls happen. Think of the time and effort we estimate it will take us. The pearls will still be the same. But do we still feel that same energy and inspiration? Or does the prospect of all that hard work ahead of us diminish our sense of satisfaction and achievement?
There is no mathematical formula to objectively calculate the balance of costs and benefits of reaching our next perfect moments of flow. All we have is our intuition and our emotional system signalling to us. If we feel more inspired than cowed, we should go for it. If nagging doubts and a sense of dread diminish our enthusiasm, we must not ignore those signals. We must check first whether we are letting our fears and doubts hold us back unnecessarily, or that our emotional system is trying to warn us that the next pearls we envisioned are not actually worth going for.
If the balance of the viability questions turns out to be negative – more trouble than the reward is worth – all is not lost. We should be thankful that we discover it now before we have invested too much in moving forward. We should also remember that in matters of personal choice a ‘yes’ has to be an absolute yes. Anything less than that is at least cause to pause and reconsider. Ignoring nagging doubts, however small, is asking for trouble later.
If we are not convinced we have found the next version of our story, we return to step 4 of the process. We re-examine our collections of pearls and how we summarise their essence. We re-imagine what the next pearls could be, leaving out the paths we have just dismissed. We could find entirely new ideas for pearls we want to make happen. Alternatively, it can mean we modify how we imagine them. We could go for smaller steps that are easier and quicker to achieve. We could imagine ‘intermediate’ pearls that we don’t see as end-goals but as stepping stones to where we want to go later. Such intermediate pearls can be satisfying in their own right and inspire us to keep going while we are learning and practising the skills we need in the future.
It may take a few iterations. We may experience some stops and starts. At some point, however, we will find the future pearls we deem desirable, feasible and viable. Now we need to take a few deep breaths and calm our minds. If we are sure we have found the right pearls, we calmly make the decision. These are the pearls we will focus on for the next months or years of our lives – for as long, in fact, as we think it will take us to achieve them, and for as long as we think we want them to happen.