Visioning – painting a picture of the life you aspire to lead over
the long run – is one of the most powerful tools for growing and enriching your
life professionally and personally.
However, experience has taught me that you shouldn’t think of visioning as
a straightforward planning exercise. I’ve
never come across a person who regularly updated a formal, personal vision
statement, and I can’t imagine formally updating my own vision on a regular
basis as part of some sort of personal strategic planning process. Instead, in
real life, so far as I can tell, a person’s vision, rather than being formally
planned according to some kind of schedule, unfolds over the course of a
person’s life, through a largely informal process of learning from — being
educated by — experience. Sometimes the experiences are dramatic and abrupt,
easily commanding our attention and eliciting a strong emotional response: for
example, you lose your job or your spouse initiates divorce proceedings.
To take some real-life examples, at the more dramatic end of the
spectrum is the experience of a close friend and former teacher of mine, then
in his mid-seventies — a distinguished professor of management, a Jew who had
for years adamantly resisted any involvement in the religious aspect of
Judaism. One afternoon he was walking by a storefront Orthodox synagogue, when
he heard loud singing. As he told me later, he felt a powerful emotional jolt
out of the blue. Not understanding what was going on, he stopped and looked in
the open door to see dark suited and hatted men in a circle singing and
dancing. Tears streaming down his face, he stood there for a few minutes, until
the circle opened up and he was motioned in. He danced for a few minutes,
feeling, as he told me, that he’d in some deep sense come home. For the rest of
his life, “Grundy,” as I knew him, was an observant Orthodox Jew, attending
synagogue faithfully and observing dietary restrictions for the first time in
his adult life.
Another example of being dramatically educated by experience
involves a woman I know well — a highly creative graphic artist — who’d taken a
job heading the graphics department of a consulting firm, lured by the salary
and other perks. You might say this was an example of poor visioning, in
contrast to Grundy’s discovery of a part of himself he’d kept at bay for years.
Fired after less than a year on the job, Karen — humiliated and devastated
(she’d never failed in any major way professionally before this) — curled up in
a ball to lick her wounds, bitter at what she saw as brutal mistreatment. But
as she reflected on her experience, she eventually realized that her true
professional vision — her fundamental source of satisfaction and fulfillment —
was to create directly, as a graphic artist, not to manage a shop of artists.
She actually came to believe that she’d sabotaged herself in her corporate job,
unconsciously asking to be fired, as a result of straying from her true vision,
even though she wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time.
At the less dramatic end of the change spectrum is a vision that
unfolds over quite some time and feels like discovering some true side of
yourself — of what you are meant to be and do. I have always loved the true
story of a teenager who the summer he turned fourteen worked in his dad’s
bakery in the small Illinois town where he’d grown up. With the money he saved
that summer from his $36-a-week paycheck, he bought a cheap record player and,
without thinking much about it, joined the classical division of the Columbia
record club. Every month a new record showed up in the mail, and over a couple
of years he was introduced to the mainstream classical repertory: Beethoven,
Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mozart — the whole crew. As he observed years
later, “Listening to those records taught me that the good life I aspired to
live had to include easy access to classical music, not just on record but even
more important, in live performance.”
Can you get better at visioning?
In my opinion, you definitely can, but it won’t be by sharpening your
technical planning skills. Rather, the preeminent key to visioning is paying
close attention to the emotional signals that are elicited by events you
experience in your life journey, whether positive or negative, and asking
yourself what the feelings mean, whether they might call for moving in new
directions in your life. And you’ve always got to be on guard against blocking
out uncomfortable feelings, such as fear and anxiety, or, worse, using alcohol
or some other anesthetic to blunt the pain.
This article is drawn from Doug Eadie’s forthcoming book, Leading
Out-of-the-Box Change: The Chief
Executive’s Essential Guide To Nonprofit Innovation and Growth
(Governance Edge, 2012).