Why do you do what you do? For each activity area in your life, can you state the main objective of your efforts in seven words or fewer?
Recently I did this exercise for myself, and it enhanced clarity in several areas. I’d recommend this exercise for anyone who can relate to any of the following:
- You feel like a particular area or activity of your life is important for some reason, but you’re not sure exactly why.
- You spend a significant amount of time doing something that does not yield tangible rewards (health, happiness, compensation, recognition).
- You suspect you might be doing something for the wrong reasons.
- You like to analyze your own life (I can relate to this one!)
If you haven’t already done so, taking some time to define your life purpose might put this exercise in context. But the order probably doesn’t matter.
Double-Threat vs. Dabbling
There’s a funny scene in Chris Rock’s “Top Five” where he’s getting to know Rosario’s Dawson’s character and she’s telling him all the things she does (she’s a writer, photographer, and a few other things). “Great strategy,” he quips, “do five things so you never get good at any of them.” I’m not remembering the scene perfectly, but I laughed loudly in the theater. I can relate to Dawson’s character, and I think most people can. It’s unusual to focus solely on one thing, and to hone that skill at the expense of other life pursuits. There’s a popular narrative that obsessive focus is required for success, but numerous counter-examples make me doubt that particular nugget of conventional wisdom. High-performers often excel in multiple areas (though they may achieve fame in only one). In the arts, winning an Oscar usually requires a different set of skills than winning a Grammy, but the list of multiple award winners isn’t short.
On the other hand, it’s equally possible to flit from one activity to the next, never committing enough to the growth process to gain mastery and see some kind of reward for our efforts. There’s nothing wrong with dabbling as means to explore a field and see if it’s a good fit, but decades of aimless dabbling leads to an unimpressive set of skills and meager rewards.
The Efficacy of Having a Singular Objective
In this interview with Ramit Sethi, Noah Kagan describes what it was like to work with Mark Zuckerberg in the early days of Facebook. Kagan would go to Zuckerberg with various revenue-producing ideas, but Zuckerberg wasn’t interested in any ideas that didn’t support his main objective for Facebook. Zuckerberg’s defining question was: Does it help Facebook grow? (Jump to 4 min. to hear the story.)
Zuckerberg’s question inspired me to ask the same thing of myself. What’s my main objective for each life area? If I could answer that question I would have a valuable tool: a single criterion to guide my decision-making in that area. Does a new idea, project, or proposal support the main objective? Yes or no?
Why Seven Words? Mushy (or Kitchen Sink) Mission Statements
Given unlimited word allowances, there’s a natural tendency to add more. This can reduce clarity and meaning. Nowhere is this more apparent than in mission statements. I’ve written my fair share of wordy mission statements that obfuscate more than they motivate. For example, when I tried to write a mission statement for my own database consulting business, this is what I came up with:
I produce, deliver, and maintain high-quality database applications that meet client needs and expectations and support good work in the world, while enjoying the work, working efficiently, treating clients well, and billing fairly (to both self and clients).
It’s a complete and accurate mission statement, but it lacks the decisive clarity of Zuckerberg’s “Does it help Facebook grow?” When I limited myself to defining the main objective of this activity in seven words or fewer, I came up with the following:
Exceed financial goals with short work hours.
Blunt and to this point — the main reason I do database consulting work is to make a large amount of money in a short amount of time. The short-form objective doesn’t invalidate anything in the longer-form mission statement. I do want to deliver quality work to my clients, I don’t want to work for companies that I think are evil, and I don’t want to overcharge my clients. But if a project comes along that is going to require a great deal of work for not very much money, I’m going to reject it. Database consulting is not the part of my life where I help people for free (this blog, on the other hand, does do that).
When I get to a point in my life where passive income from investments and royalties exceeds my financial goals, then my primary objective for database work will change. Maybe I’ll work pro bono for non-profits, or maybe I’ll fill that time with other activities. Until then, my seven word objective statement keeps me focused on earning efficiently (so I can live well and help support my family, so I can support causes I believe in, so I can have time to pursue arts and leisure).
There should be a bigger why behind your objective statement that relates to your life purpose. If there isn’t — if an activity you spend significant time on doesn’t support your core values and life purpose — then the seven word challenge may help you discover that.
A Shared Vision
In both business and family contexts, if we have a different main objective or vision than our co-workers or family members, that can lead to problems. I wanted to define a tight objective for Loöq Records, but it didn’t make sense to do that if my business partner wasn’t on board. After a conversation with Spesh, we came up with the following as an option:
Release and promote great deep dance grooves.
This would actually represented a change — a tightening up the the label’s sound — and getting to this possibility required some reflection and discussion. Each word is significant, and committing to this objective would lead to real changes in our A&R policy.
Language is powerful. An objective statement is a compass. So where are you going? Are you pointed in the same direction as the other members of your group?
In your short time on this planet, are you going to make a contribution? Whether or not you believe in any kind of progress, what are you doing to make this world a better place? This blog is my own attempt to help others. I started it to share what I’ve learned about committing to writing, curing my asthma, and more recently regrowing my hair. Coming up with my main objective for writing this blog came easily.
Help millions of people live well.
When I’m considering a new post I try to think about who it might help, and how it could help them. Not every post helps people — sometimes I write a post to publicize a music release or promote a fund-raiser. But having a main objective helps me decide yea or nay on the hundreds of ideas that come my way, including suggestions from others.
This blog recently exceeded two million views. I assume some of those are bots, but it’s gratifying to know that I’m on track.
Invest in Relationships
The pursuit of happiness is elusive. For most people, prioritizing service, contribution, and commitment generates more happiness and life satisfaction than money, entertainment, and vacations. That said, I think there are two life non-work life areas that effectively and reliably “pay off” in terms of time and effort invested.
One is exercise. Exercise that is not too strenuous, like walking, extends life, boosts creativity, and is a great way to socialize that doesn’t involve drinking or late nights (nothing wrong with either of those, but I’ve found they take their toll as daily activities).
The other is any activity that builds relationships or provides a sense of camaraderie. Your cover band that is never going to make it big, your small stakes poker night, your fantasy football league — it’s easy to underestimate the importance of these activities. They take up a lot of time, often require complex scheduling, and rarely provide income. Should they be dumped? If you like the people involved, these activities are worth their weight in gold in terms of life satisfaction and health benefits. What’s my main objective for playing D&D?
Have fun, build camaraderie, and stimulate imaginations.
I like what the game does to my brain, and I love getting together with other adults to co-create a shared fantasy world and issue a giant F-U to the cult of perpetual productivity.
I’ve noticed subtle changes in my approach to the activities I’ve mentioned above, and also to the ones I haven’t, since I took the seven word challenge. I didn’t decide to drop any activity altogether, but I did correct course in several areas.
If you decide to do this exercise yourself, feel free to share your results or insights below. Take the seven word challenge!