Keeping your options open

Growing up, I was always told to work hard, to try my best at everything and so keep every door open. That way, I should have more choice about what to do with my life.

That was the theory.

It didn’t do me any harm then.

But as you grow up and enter the working world, regardless of where you land up at any point in time, trying to keep every option open can be both a burden and an obstacle to progression and self-fulfilment.  

This mindset risks procrastination, indecision and then often a panicked response that doesn’t make for clear and rational choices. It can also damage self-confidence and over-dilute your talents, further contributing to your doubts about self-worth or capabilities.

And that’s really not surprising. After all, none of us is an octopus and while as a working mum, I often wish I was, there truly are limits to how many things one human being is capable of doing well at any one time. As the old Chinese proverb goes, “if you chase two rabbits, one of them will escape”

Mindfulness expert, Deepak Chopra wisely reflects this same teaching when he counselled, “When you do one thing at a time, you're guaranteed excellent results. If you do too many things simultaneously, it messes up your neural circuits. Focus on one thing at a time…”

I like the theory. It makes terrific sense. But when you’re juggling child-care, homework, missing PE kit, unexpected illnesses or expenses – oh and a career - focusing on one thing at a time is a rather mythical, luxurious aspiration and not very close to everyday reality.

But, clarity and rationality of thought matter. And there are definitely benefits to slowing things down, giving ourselves space to think and doing one thing at a time. Especially when it comes to career and life decisions.

What helps us see clearly

A popular school of thought when it comes to seeing clearly and feeling the motivation to make the right decisions is to harness the ‘burn the ships’ approach. Derived from military exploits over the millennia, from Julius Caesar’s and Alexander the Great’s campaign tactics to more modern day military leaders, ‘burning the ships’ effectively advocates shutting all other doors so that there is no other choice, no route back, and no plan B.

In its extreme incarnation, it’s a rather brutal – some might even say desperate – approach. Something about it reminds me of marauding pirates who’d burn their own ship so that every pirate crew member channelled their desperation into a bloodthirsty determination to win control of their target ship.

I’m not sure that this necessarily makes for rational thought either! Although I am sure that in the moments of realisation that there is no way back, it must be easier to move forward and to do whatever it is that needs to be done in order to survive.

Having said that, as Rich O'Ben, author of the linked vlog (below) suggests, we can certainly borrow a little bit from the ‘burn the ships’ mindset to help us with everyday motivation and productivity – particularly when it comes to the big career and life decisions.

For in its far less extreme manifestation, ‘burning the ship’ could be as simple as choosing single-mindedly to focus on just one life or career goal and making a public statement about your intention to hit this goal, so that others may help you to stay on track in reaching it.

Really, what a more moderate ‘burn the ship’ mentality can help with is increasing your levels of discomfort and the pressure on you to achieve what you’ve said you want to do. And that discomfort and pressure can be very powerful.

Business coach and leader, Bill Eckstrom’s short but compelling TedTalk makes a good case for discomfort being the place where, as individuals, we often grow most. Because although most of us hate to feel uncomfortable, it’s true that being out of comfort zone often unlocks our most creative thinking and generates the courageousness, resilience and determination that we need to achieve things that we’d otherwise probably never have considered.

It’s all too easy to just let everything tick along, being busy being busy and allowing routine to drive us through the day, with little immediate need or opportunity for deviation.

Step into the arena

Sportsmen and women have long known that the secret to improving on a personal best and to self-analysing with far greater depth and objectively, is to become uncomfortable and to create an environment of pressure to motivate them. It’s a tactic also known and practised by the best CEOs, scientists, engineers, artists and yes, even politicians.

What do they do? They play out their efforts, achievements and stated goals on a public plain, openly scrutinised and critiqued by the masses.  There’s nowhere to hide.

That’s a pretty scary prospect. I’m sure it’s often hugely uncomfortable.  

“Fear is your friend”, says Rich O'Ben.  Fear of failing, of letting others – or yourself – down, or of trashing all your hard work and investment, can be very motivating.

Being really afraid, however, can be paralysing. So keeping the fear to manageable levels is essential.

Happily, you don’t need to take it to extremes and there are definitely ways to keep the fear to a manageable level. A simple chat with a friend or colleague, or a tweet or Facebook post, outlining your goal may well be sufficient to set down your marker in the sand and create the pressure to ensure that you make it happen. Rich explores several more suggestions in his vlog.

‘Going public’ recruits cheerleaders

And you know what? When you make that kind of commitment, you’ll find plenty of people who’ll applaud your ambition and cheer you on from the side-lines. They might even join you on your mission and you can coach each other along the way.

Don’t be afraid to share your goals and your fears so that you can draw strength from those who you’ve now empowered to support you.

The real power in ‘going public’ is in realising that you’re not alone and that others can help you if you share with them … making that goal just that bit easier to reach.

And if, in spite of all your efforts, things don’t go to plan, there is always another door and another option.

You may not be able to see it right now, and sometimes that door or option will only be a springboard to where you really want to go, but that’s ok. You don’t need to see it or to worry about that today.

For now, put all your focus into making today’s plan happen.