For as far back as I can remember I’ve started every project with a pencil and paper. When I was building and racing model cars, I always began with a few sketches and a list of parts. For my neighborhood lawn care business, every week commenced with a list, detailing what needed to be done in each yard. College study sessions began with a written plan for subjects and assignments that needed my attention. To this day, when my wife starts talking about the things she wants done around the house, I tell her “Make me a list.”
As I think back over a lifetime of list making, I can’t help but ponder what it has done for me. The DSM treats list making as a symptom of OCD, linking it to an irrational fear of forgetting something important. In my case, it’s as simple as this; seeing a list of tasks put before me makes me feel useful, and crossing things off feels really good.
If I’m going to the store for a quart of milk, there is no need to bother Siri, or hunt for a pencil. For the more complicated projects, I need a tangible guide. In the business world, brandishing a list creates the illusion that you are thoughtful and organized, helping to avoid the career-limiting “loose cannon” label.
The un-aimed arrow never misses, but it somehow feels better to have some sense of the goal we would like to hit. We thrive on goals, and our primal goal-lust fuels a relentless search for guidance. The second bestselling non-fiction hardback book in the history of our country is The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren (number one is the Bible, which also has a lot to say about goals).
Not surprisingly, researchers have studied people’s lives, drawn to the subject by the vast pool of available data, and perhaps a little self-interest as well. Their work shows that life satisfaction follows a U-shaped curve, bottoming out in the mid to late 40’s, where the heavy burden of failed dreams and crushing responsibilities is frequently overwhelming.
The essential lesson is this; we start out giddy with anticipation of all the success we feel entitled to, without a clue as to what will truly make us happy (Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert). This is followed by a season of broken dreams, coming to terms with the fact that we will never be as great as we hoped, and that no matter what we’ve accomplished, we aren’t really happy anyway. From here most of us slowly recover, embrace the story-line of our lives, and adapt to the reality of our weaknesses and strengths.
Running these U-shaped rapids is treacherous, with lots of rocks and eddies. The world at large pushes promises of happiness through money and nice things, all of which conspire to capsize our boat. If sketching a goal is critical to navigating the waters of business, why do we resist doing the same with our lives?
Some of us struggle to identify our true passion, while in reality that is the easiest step of all. What you actually do with your combined resources screams the message of what you really love. If you look there and don’t recognize who you really are, you are wasting your life. It’s that simple.
Stress and unhappiness may arise from the sketches that don’t materialize. Fear and embarrassment can make the entire process feel futile. Unexpected events come along, and suddenly everything we hoped would happen, doesn’t. But sometimes magical things arise, presenting life-changing opportunities. Sketching my life is not a wasted exercise because it has undergone so many alterations; that is precisely why it is a success. I am learning to pour my heart and soul into the magic, and always keep an eraser handy.
My evolving sketch does not portray a fancy car or a big house (although I have nothing against either). There is no impressive title on my penciled-in business card. There is evidence of many corrections; I have been slow to realize that it is not the image of a destination, but rather a narrative recalling a journey of patience, courage, introspection, and sharing. I have never been able to articulate exactly what I want, but the sketch keeps looking better as the years go by.
When business or life starts to feel overwhelmingly complicated, I remind myself of this. Simple pleasures have always mattered most. If you enjoy the beauty of a sunrise, you are in luck. There will be lots of them.
Prior to founding INVENTtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, Dr. Smith was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. While at Seagate, he was a proud member of the team that brought the world’s first notebook disk drive with perpendicular recording technology to the market.
Dr. Smith holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, a Master of Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.