“The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” – Pope Benedict XVI
With one question, she was hooked:
“Why do some people stop growing at age 30, just going from work to the couch and television, when others stay vibrant, curious, almost childlike, into their eighties or nineties?”
At the time, Jacqueline Novogratz was a student at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
The question-asker, was an elderly professor named John Gardner.
As Novogratz recalls in her memoir, The Blue Sweater, “Though I had no idea who this man was, I knew that he was going to play a role in my life.”
John Gardner, she would come to find out, was an extraordinary person.
After serving as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, and President of the Carnegie Corporation, he went on create a long list of transformative social organizations including Common Cause, the White House Fellows Program, the Independent Sector (an umbrella group for non-profit organizations) and the National Civic League, just to name a few.
In Gardner, the young Novogratz found a mentor; a living example of what integrated life looked like.
“Everything John did was about releasing human energies at all levels of society. His greatness came not from any title, but from the way he lived his life.”
Novogratz, who would go on to start Acumen Fund, one of the world’s largest and most innovative philanthropic organizations, learned from Gardner the importance of having vision; of being clear, at a high-level, about the life that you want to live, the problems that you want to solve, the impact that you want to have.
The Importance Of Vision
“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” – Thomas Merton
For some, the idea of crafting a “vision” statement may sound “fluffy” or “woo-woo.” It’s not. In fact, I’d argue that it’s essential for two reasons:
1. Vision makes it easier to make great long-term decisions, in the near-term.
In a world full of opportunity, your vision will enable you to differentiate among competing, compelling opportunities and make the best choice.
While I was in Aspen, in my early 20s, working as a professional ski instructor, bartender and entrepreneur, my friends would often joke “you are living the dream!”
When I decided to leave the idyllic mountain enclave for Washington, DC, those same people were incredulous. “Why would you ever leave?!”
My answer: while that life was amazing, I had to leave in order to do what I knew I want to do; in order to live the life I knew I wanted to live.
Without a higher-level vision of the life you want to live, it’s very hard to make the critical short-term decisions required to achieve your longer-term outcomes.
2. Vision Allows You To Sacrifice, Not Suffer
Have you ever been faced with a choice that, in the long-term promised enormous benefits but, in the short-term, promised almost certain pain?
How do you decide? Do you say yes to the long-term opportunity (and yes to the pain)? Or say no in the near-term and hope a better opportunity comes along?
A clear and compelling vision makes this problem less painful.
Take parenting as an example.
Despite the many challenges of raising kids, we keep at it because we know what we are working towards: the creation of healthy, happy, well-adjusted children capable of making their way in the world.
It’s a clear and compelling vision that, for better or worse, may take years, if not decades, to realize.
Sacrifice is the act of accepting near-term pain in exchange for the longer-term positive benefits of our action.
Ask any leader, anyone who has accomplished anything worthwhile in their life and they will tell you the same thing: sacrifice is a necessary pre-cursor to long-term success.
What isn’t necessary is suffering.
Suffering is near-term pain without the perceived long-term benefits. Too many talented, driven people get caught in a the spiral of suffering and self-pity, failing to recognize that the only thing they are lacking is a story — a clear and compelling articulation of why this near-term pain is a necessary step towards creating the life they’ve always imagined.
That’s vision. And it is anything but fluffy.
It’s the ability to say I am accepting this near-term pain because it gets me closer to where I ultimately want to go.
In other words, it is worth it.
Your vision is the a short description of what your “best life” would look like 5-10 years from now.
The actual date in the future is less important than the fact that it is in the future, and that it is not more than 5-10 years from now.
Why 5-10 years?
- It’s short enough for it to mean something. It’s easy to say “in 20 years I want to run for political office,” or “I’ll own my own business,” or “I’ll be living on the beach in Tahiti.” If the vision is 5-10 years out, you can’t hide behind it. If you hope to achieve it, you’ll likely have to start taking action today.
- It’s long enough that you can make it happen. In researching the lives of many of the most successful, well-adjusted men and women in the world, I discovered that nearly everyone goes through some sort of critical personal and/or professional transition. This transition is typically of period characterized by hard work, uncertainty, and learning. Regardless of the differences, today, between your current reality and the vision of the life you want to live, nearly any transition is possible within 5-10 years.
Creating Your Vision: 3 Steps
Here’s my process for crafting a vision statement that works:
Step 1: Personal Reflection
Self-awareness is the foundation of a great vision statement. Here are three reflection questions to help you shape your vision discovery:
If a child asked me “what does it mean to be ‘successful,’ I would answer…”
The word “success” is ubiquitous, but the definition is often elusive. Sadly, if we can’t define “success” it’s highly unlikely we will ever achieve it.
Start your vision brainstorm by considering how you would explain the concept to a child. As a general rule-of-thumb, the more simple and straight-forward, the easier it will be for you to execute.
When have I been most proud?
Author John Maxwell defines two kinds of pride, good and bad.
“‘Good pride’,” he says, “represents our dignity and self-respect. “’Bad pride,’” on the other hand, “is the deadly sin of superiority that reeks of conceit and arrogance.”
This exploration is about discovering the sources of your dignity and self-respect. When have you been most proud? It’s essential to be as specific as you can be here.
For example, I have a client who initially answered this question by saying “When I helped my colleague at work.” A good start, but not enough. “With what?” I asked. “Why did that matter so much to her?” Why did that matter so much to you?”
With a little more reflection, the moment of pride took useful shape:
“I am most proud of the time that I helped my colleague on a project that transformed her role and and impact at our company.
I am proud because, before the project she was struggling to find her fit professionally. She is a single mother of two and having this job, and being good at it, is really important to both her, and her family.
I was able to guide and empower her to do something she didn’t realize that she could.”
Who, today, is living the way you hope to live?
Specifically, who today is…
- is having the kind of impact you hope to have?
- is doing the type of work that you hope to do?
- love and cares for their family they way you hope to love and care for yours?
I call these people “Regret-Free” Role Models and I view them as a secret weapon in the quest to create a life you love. In our role models we can see the outcomes to which I aspire made manifest. I know what “happiness,” “success” and/or “fulfillment” means to me, because I can point to specific examples made manifest in another person’s life.
In addition, role models help us to clarify what is, and what is not, possible. I often joke I have two strong personality traits that are fighting a pitched battle in my mind:
In one camp, the “dreamer.” This is the part of me that wants to “have it all” and I want to have it “as quickly as possible.”
In the other camp, the “pragmatist.” This is the part of me that is suggests the more conservative path forward; that encourages me to be “reasonable;” “satisfied;” “patient.”
Role models provide a constructive counter to both sides of my personality.
On one hand, they encourage the dreamer (and rebuff the “pragmatist”) by demonstrating that “extraordinary” lives DO exist; that the kind of person I want to be, the kind of impact I want to have, IS possible.
But they also support the pragmatist (and temper the occasional irrational exuberance of the dreamer) by often illustrating that with any life – extraordinary or otherwise – there are trade-offs.
Both of these perspectives are important as we craft our vision — ensuring that we define a reality that is both ambitious, but achievable.
Step 2: Brainstorm
Your vision statement should be both aspirational (i.e. you’re not there yet) and empowering. Like a “lighthouse” at sea, it should help you find your way to where you really want to go.
Many vision statements will describe one or more of the following elements:
- Professional: What you do, for whom?
- Physical Health: How do you look? How do you feel?
- Financial: What is your level of security and/or wealth? How do you spend your money?
- Family: How big? How do you interact? Spend your time together?
- Relationships: How many friends? What are the nature of those relationships?
- Experiences: What have you done? Where have you traveled? What have you experienced?
- Impact: What difference have you made? What problems have you solved? How are things better because of you?
Before we craft a final vision statement (Step 3), brainstorm answers to each of these questions.
If you don’t have a fully formed answer (e.g. I want to have a net worth of $5 million dollars that allows my wife and I to travel while we live off the interest), that’s OK. Instead, just focus on specific words that capture the essence (e.g. “financially free” “secure” “confident”).
Step 3: Craft Your Vision Statement
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to describe your vision but here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Keep it short enough to remember. In my experience, the longer a vision is, the harder it is to remember and, therefore, the less likely it is to achieve.
- Make it aspirational. Even if things are going very well for you today, resist the temptation to describe the life you are already living. Take effort to describe a reality that feels out of reach today but, with time and effort, can be achieved.
- Make it inspirational. Your vision should move you, emotionally. It should fill you with energy and hope. You the words, images and ideas from your brainstorm to guide you.
Here are a few simple frameworks that you might use (hat tip to MadLibs for the formatting idea!)
Vision Template #1
I am a world-class _____________ I feel _____________ when I wake up each day. I am known for my _____________ and _____________
EXAMPLE: I am a world-class engineer. I feel healthy and strong when I wake up each day. I am known for my patience and for being a great teacher.
Vision Template #2
I am one of the best _____________. I work hard to _____________ and never _____________. I feel _____________ and _____________ when I wake up each day.
EXAMPLE: I am one of the best teachers in the state. I work hard to stay healthy and never take shortcuts. I feel grateful, curious and aligned when I wake up each day.
Vision Template #3
I live a _____________ life. I find great meaning in purpose _____________. I am financially _____________, physically _____________ and spiritually _____________.
EXAMPLE: I live a regret-free life. I find great meaning and purpose in being a great dad and husband. I am financially free, physically strong, and spiritually centered.
Vision Template #4
I am _____________ and _____________. I live these values every day. I create value in the world by _____________. I love _____________ more than anything.
EXAMPLE: I am passionate and creative. I create value in the world through my work and the love I give to my family. I love helping others grow more than anything.
Steve Martin: Born Standing Up
The comedian Steve Martin, once asked how, in the early years of his stand up comedy career he could bear the harsh criticism that he received.
His answer: “Even the most unsavory tasks become meaningful when you know that they are moving your closer to your dreams.”
That’s the power of vision.
In a world full of both uncertainty, and opportunity, your vision serves as a “lighthouse” that keeps you ever-pointed in the direction of your dreams.
What is your vision? What is the inspired, and inspiring, life that you want to live? What is the impact that you want to have?