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September 5, 2013 » 6:31 pm

Be Intentional, but Hold It Lightly

Seb Paquet and I had our second weekly call this morning. (Our “jazz hands” insights video from this week’s call is below.) Seb opened the conversation by sharing a personal story and discussing the importance of being fearless, but not reckless.

Which raises the question: What’s the difference between “fearless” and “reckless”?

After our conversation, Seb posted this very question on Facebook. There were a number of interesting replies, with more likely to come. Two, in particular, resonated with me. Alan Yelsey suggested that the distinction was in whether or not you “fully considered the risk or the value of the objective.” Helen Aitkin noted that the etymology of “reckless” was “without care.”

I agree with both Alan and Helen. I think that intention is the critical distinction, which is still a very fine line. If you take a risk that has a 90 percent chance of failing, and you understand that risk up-front, you are being intentional, but other people might still consider it reckless.

So many of the challenges that we face are ultimately about navigating tensions gracefully. By definition, there are no easy ways to describe how to do this. The best principle I’ve found for navigating these tensions is to be intentional, but hold it lightly.

In other words, have a goal, but don’t be so bound by it that you miss out on the opportunity to learn. Put a stake in the ground, but be open to surprises and new learning. If you practice this basic principle over and over again, you eventually develop an instinct for how to assess risk and navigate uncertainty. If you move without clarity about your intentions, or if you hold on to those intentions too tightly, you will likely fail.

This, to me, is the essence of craft, and it’s become the foundational principle of my work.

I shared this principle with my friend, Mark Bolgiano, a few years ago, and he noted that this same principle applies to golf. You need to have a strategy for how you are going to propel your ball to the hole, but if you grip your club too tightly, you will likely miss your mark. I found this to be a nice physical metaphor for how to think about this principle.

Similarly, Seb brought up the analogy of scientists discovering anomalies in their experiments and reacting in frustration, when the anomalies may actually be clues to some groundbreaking new principle. If you hold onto your intentions too tightly, you miss out on the learning.

The discipline of being intentional is an art form in and of itself. On both calls with Seb so far, we’ve spent quite a bit of time discussing the challenges of setting good goals and being explicit about success. Here are some principles that have emerged along with some relevant blog posts:

  • Define success as a spectrum, from minimum to wild. Seb was the first to share this principle in our conversations by way of a great template from Amy Kirschner. He also noted the importance of considering the zone of proximal development. I first picked up this idea from Kristin Cobble (read her blog post for more), who was strongly influenced by Robert Fritz’s “rubber band model” for navigating tensions.
  • Define both success and failure. This is a good way of coming up with and gut-checking your spectrum of success, and it was my “jazz hands” moment from today’s conversation. When we are far removed from the actual moment of assessing success or failure, it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking we might treat something as success when we actually believe it to be failure. If you ask, “What is failure?” explicitly, you can identify this behavior well in advance.
  • Ask the “wild” success question twice. In the same way that we might be overly lax in defining minimal success, we can often be overly constrained in defining “wild” success. We self-censor ourselves, because we don’t really believe that wild success is possible. Another trick I picked up from Kristin is to ask this question twice, explaining, “Okay, how would you really, truly define wild success?”
  • Always measure something, and evolve your metrics as you learn. If you rely purely on how you feel, you will either rationalize your way into thinking you are always successful, or you will punish yourself unfairly.
  • Include failure rate in your definition of success. This was Seb’s “jazz hands” moment from our conversation. If you’re trying to accomplish anything hard, you need to expect that you will fail some percentage of the time. You should actually incorporate that failure rate into your success metrics. We agreed that succeeding about two-thirds of the time felt about right, which is consistent with Google’s expected measure of success.

Here’s a story I shared last year about applying the principle of being intentional and holding it lightly on one particular project. And, without further ado, here are Seb and my “jazz hands” moments from today:

Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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6 Responses to “Be Intentional, but Hold It Lightly”

  1. Splendid. Can I build on the spectrum of success part? When we were doing the Agency at Thrivable, I had our agents define:
    the baseline – what they need to get in order to keep going
    the win – what they thought of as being successful
    the epic win – what an out-of-the-park mark might be

    I think baseline is important to define – if I am not meeting that, then I need to stop by this date because I don't have what I need to keep going on this path. And I think the epic is inspiring to consider…but if we set ourselves up to expect our BHAGs to be realized all the time, we are going to be frustrated and generate negative self-talk. So setting a reasonable expectation goal helps mitigate the epic goal expectations. It isn't a full spectrum, it is just three important points on the spectrum that we found useful in practice.

  2. Thanks, Jean! Yet another valued voice in favor of the spectrum (or at least spectrum skeleton) approach to defining success. Appreciate your insights!

  3. Eugene and Seb, I keep coming back to this post. It's helping me personally and professionally. Thanks for the insights.

  4. That's wonderful to hear, Jay. Thank you for sharing this with us! I'd love to hear more about how it's helped. Looking forward to catching up sometime soon!

  5. Awesome that we've been able to inspire you, @jaycross! You're welcome!

  6. […] so. I think the better approach is not to stress too much about getting it right up-front. Be intentional, but hold it lightly. If you realize that your goal isn’t quite right, then change it, and learn from that […]

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