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).