There are different ways of using whatever wits you may have been blessed with to improve your quality of life. Are you effectively using all three?
Level 1 — Maneuvering
This is the level of simple tactics. Observe the situation, and act to better your position. In traffic, you might try to get in the fastest lane. In a fast-paced conversation, you might listen for a gap so that you can speak your mind. In doing your job, you might CC your boss on a deliverable to a third-party (to make sure your boss knows you’re actually doing some work).
Effective maneuvering demands concentration and cleverness. Most of us master the basics on the school-yard, and later refine our maneuvering skills by learning to work more efficiently and effectively. Time-saving tips and optimization techniques fall into this category.
Maneuvering, on its own, won’t take us very far. The other day I got caught in Giant’s traffic — the approach to the Bay Bridge was agonizingly slow. Drivers (myself included) maneuvered to get into the best lane, to “cheat” and get into a lane at the last minute, or to drive close to the car ahead in order to prevent other drivers from cheating.
All of us, though, were stuck in traffic. Whoever “won” the lane-changing game was still languishing away in traffic hell. None of us had sufficiently thought or planned ahead to avoid the situation in the first place.
Level 2 — Strategizing
Strategy involves trying to anticipate possible future outcomes, and planning accordingly. Effective strategy requires considering the motivations, knowledge, and character of your competitors (or customers, or quarry).
If two competitors are both maneuvering for the upper hand, but only one of them has a strategy, the one with the strategy will usually win. Even if you are slower, weaker, and/or dumber than your opponent, you can often compensate for these deficits by employing an effective strategy.
Once, as a high school fencer, I faced an opponent in a tournament who was both faster and more experienced. In our first bout he beat me 5-0. The second time we faced each other that day, he came in overconfident, continuing to attack with the same technique he had used in the first bout. By the time the score was 2-2, I had learned to defend against his main attack. I expected him to change his strategy at that point, but it turned out he didn’t have a strategy. He just had a single tactic, which he used over and over again. I won the second bout 5-3, and placed much higher in the tournament than my opponent. I didn’t have much of a strategy beyond “observe my opponent’s technique and adjust my style accordingly,” but that turned out to be a better strategy than just fighting habitually (without any strategy at all).
The best part of the bout was watching my overconfident opponent become massively frustrated as I learned to adapt to his static fighting style. It’s one of my best sports memories of all time.
Back to the traffic example — in that case an effective strategy would be gathering information on traffic conditions and then planning your route or trip time to avoid congested areas altogether. I wish that could have been me the other day.
Effective strategy involves foresight, information-gathering, preparation, planning, flexibility, and an understanding of human psychology. People who have mastered strategic thinking and action will usually be able to accumulate resources and the power to do the things they want to do, but they may not achieve the quality of life they desire. To do so requires an even higher level of mental processing.
Level 3 — Envisioning
To envision a “best possible life” for ourselves, we need to consider what kinds of rewards we are seeking, and why. Are these rewards consistent with the things we actually enjoy in life? What do we value most? Free time? Peace and quiet? Incredibly fashionable clothing? Expensive cheese? Constant novelty and excitement?
The answers to the questions should be obvious, but the pernicious influence of advertising and various false realities portrayed in advertising-friendly programming can distort our natural desires. Do you want what you want, or do you want what the machine tells you to want? Is your ideal life vision your own, or is it populated with MTV fantasy McMansions, car collections, breast implants, and other consumeristic fetishes?
Envisioning is difficult. It requires self-reflection to strip away the projected desires of society, corporate media, our family, and our peers. It requires mental energy to imagine what our ideal life looks like. What kinds of activities would fill our days? To what purpose would we devote our energy? What would our ideal relationships look like, and what kinds of personal changes might be required to attract those relationships?
Envisioning is also incredibly liberating. If we can come up with a compelling vision for our own life, then following up with the appropriate strategies and tactics often falls into place easily. Maybe things we had been putting off, we can begin immediately.
When I was reevaluating my own “ideal life” a few years ago, one thing that was clear to me was that I wanted to write on a regular basis. Since then I’ve written two novels and 100 blog posts (this is #100). It turned out there was nothing preventing me from starting to write … except having a cohesive vision of my life that included that activity.
While not every activity can be started so quickly, there is always some step that can be taken immediately, once you’ve created a compelling future-vision.
In the traffic example — what kind of ideal transportation scenario can you envision for your own life? (Working from home works out pretty well for me.)
Individual vs. Communal
The examples above all apply to the individual space, but the same three levels of thought also apply to communal spaces such as family, community, city, state/region, nation, and planet.
When we maneuver on a communal level, we appeal to those in power to help us with our problems.
When we strategize on a communal level, we work within the system to change the values and priorities of those in power.
When we envision on a communal level, we change the system itself, to better reflect our own communal values and priorities.
In the United States, Democrats employed effective strategies in 2008 to elect their candidate, but Obama’s successes have been limited. His healthcare plan is filled with concessions to powerful for-profit health care companies, and his stimulus plan focused too much on Wall Street bail-outs and too little on job-creation and new infrastructure. Now the economy looks poised for a second slump.
Progressives would like to see and understand a vision for the future of the United States. So would conservatives (though their vision looks a little different). Both visions would probably include a strong economy with incentives for domestic production and employment, less spending on military and/or unnecessary entitlements (like social security for the rich), and a fair/progressive tax plan (even conservatives believe the current distribution of wealth is too uneven).
What’s blocking both political agendas in the United States are deep systemic problems in the way our country is governed. Multinational corporations have gained too much power, and routinely pay off legislators to their advantage. The results are a shrunken middle class, widespread poverty, crumbling infrastructure, a stagnant economy, plummeting tax revenues, and massive cutbacks in state services.
How do we change the system? We limit the power of corporations, via corporate charter reform. This includes getting rid of corporate influence in Washington. Most elected officials (of both major parties) will oppose this kind of reform, as they enjoy the perks. It will be a hard change to make.
Corporate reform is just one possible vision for change. But in order for human beings to survive (and hopefully) thrive throughout the challenges of the next century, we’ll need to do more, on a communal level, than complain to those in power, or get behind our favorite candidate. We’ll need to reinvent many aspects of the way we govern ourselves, and interact with each other, and with our host planet.
Integrating the Personal and Communal
As much as I believe corporate reform is important for the political/social evolution of the United States, it’s not a cause I’m directly involved in. I’m not a lawyer, I don’t understand the intricacies of corporate law and corporate charters, and if you tried to explain it to me my eyes would glaze over.
The part we play in “communal envisioning” (trying to make the world a better place, more or less) needs to sync with our personal interests and abilities. “Going where we’re most needed” doesn’t work unless we have something to contribute when we get there.
I’ve directly supported the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (mainly through the SETI Institute) for the last 15 years. Is this the kind of thing that’s important for the future of humanity? It depends on if you’re looking through a ten year lens or a ten-thousand year lens. My belief in the importance of this cause sustains my enthusiasm. Like most science-fiction nerds, I hope that human civilization, in whatever form it may take, will eventually expand beyond planet Earth and join some sort of galactic community. To me, this goal is even more important than preventing the United States from declining into a corporate-controlled quasi-state controlled by demented religious nutballs and their trillionaire puppet-masters.
Integrating the Three Levels
Sorry — I didn’t mean to turn this post into a political rant. Back to the three levels …
How do we effectively integrate maneuvering (or tactical action), strategizing, and envisioning?
If we have a clear vision, the top-down approach works pretty well. If we know where we want to go, we can start to devise a way to get there.
But a clear vision (for our own lives, or for our community) is sometimes hard to come by. It might take years of soul-searching, false starts, and just muddling along before we figure out what kind of life and world we want to create.
If we don’t yet have a clear vision, the best we can do is act intuitively, staying true to our core principles.
One example of this in my own life is the party Qoöl — an electronic music event I co-host with my business partner Spesh. For over a decade we threw the party every week at 111 Minna. The party achieved epic status, with lines snaking around the block, huge dancefloor crowds, and all the fun and stress that such popularity entails. When the weekly event finally ran its course, we ended it amicably with all parties involved. But after a short break, we realized we still wanted Qoöl to continue in some form. We had a number of meetings to come up with “a new vision for Qoöl,” but kept failing to come up with anything definitive.
Finally, we decided to keep throwing the party on a monthly basis, on a collaborative basis with another San Francisco promoting team (Pink Mammoth). Instead of a “grand vision,” we would just stick with our core principles (great music, inclusivity, low prices, low personal stress) and let the event develop organically.
Is this “envisioning”? It is. Even though we don’t currently have a long-term “master plan” for Qoöl, we’re basing our promotional and booking decisions (our strategic level) on our core principles and true motivations, rather than blindly chasing some idea of what a dance music event “should be” (the biggest, most expensive, loudest, whatever).
(If you can swing by tonight, we have special guest Chloe Harris down from Seattle.)
Edit: If this post seems a little discombobulated, I should disclose that I’m two days in to a 30-day no coffee experiment.