#82 The fifteen-year review
Two years to the day after I fled home on my bike from a meeting, trying to outrun the “novel Corona virus,” I finally tested positive. Fit, vaccinated, and boostered, I was surprised to lose my smell. Also, I’m not as sharp as I would have liked to be for this update. Fortunately, it has been 15 years in the making.
15 years ago, I worked on the very lowest rung of a consultancy agency. I was living in an in-between space at the time. In between The Netherlands and Spain, where I was about to move for reasons that swiftly disappeared. In between a BSc and an MA that never materialized. In between jobs and careers, although I didn’t know that then. I also met my wife then, although it took us a few years to figure that out.
The consultancy specialized in vision development. It was also obsessed with developing personal vision statements, building on the ideas of Porras and Collins. And while my responsibilities didn’t expand much beyond the print room, they did offer me a few post-its to think about my personal vision.
I took this seriously. Once in Spain, perpetually broke, constantly lost, I made a personal vision for the very, very long term. Forty seemed like an age to aim for, a lifetime away. Unfathomable. I could be as ambitious as I wanted to be. Such a time made everything possible.
These days, I turn 40. How different my life is now.
Vision statements are meant to be empowering. They create urgency and enthusiasm for long-term change processes. In the never-ending now, businesses spend billions on the opportunity to think about the future.
More than statements about the future, visions reflect the now. Most of them extrapolate what is important now to paint a picture of a similar tomorrow. No vision in 2022 can be complete without a reference to climate change, global inequality, or diversity.
So, what was important in 2007-2008, from which I extrapolated my own vision? The financial crisis was important, so money and making money were decidedly unimportant. The Secret and the heyday of Web 2.0 pretended everyone had the agency to be and create whatever they wanted to, with a TED-red dot on the horizon. Also, in 2004 ten countries had joined the European Union, making a city like Madrid unbelievably cosmopolitan. Moreover, the dawn of low-cost flights had made the continent closer. For the first time, I sensed that while I couldn’t afford it, I could afford to consider the world my playground.
I added to this mix an obsession with globalization, the new field of digital marketing, perfecting my Spanish, and the great classical works of world literature.
Walking along Madrid’s Castellana or seated in the Plaza Santa Ana, I translated this zeitgeist into a long-term ambition. My purpose:
When I’m 40 years old, I will sustainably contribute to intercultural understanding, international cooperation and development as a writer and social innovator.
The purpose of such a purpose is to describe the change you make in the world. It should be just beyond reach. Thus, it pushes you forward, relentlessly, into the unknown. Importantly, it doesn’t tell you what you’ll actually do. In the approach of Porras and Collins, BHAGs – big, hairy, audacious goals – describe your actual activities. I had six. Unlike my opaque purpose, they’re somewhat specific and fun to reflect upon:
1/ Publish a book
When I’m 40 years old, I will have published a book that reaches and inspires at least 200,000 people.
Imagine living midway in the 00s and wanting to write a book – a few hundred slices of a tree held together by glue and a narrative! Hah! Clearly, I failed.
The closest I’ve come is with the Digital engagement book I wrote with Jim Richardson. You cannot easily find the PDF anymore, but it has been downloaded some 80,000 times. If I cheat, my old blog, with over 1M visits in its lifetime, could count as a book. Still, then I should have been wiser in 2007-8 and have understood the digital transformation that was underway. So, no. 👎
2/ Share my knowledge
When I’m 40 years old, I will share my knowledge with others as a speaker and/or trainer and as a writer.
My favorite part here is the “and/or and” construction of the BHAG. Anyway, I do share my knowledge as a speaker AND trainer, AND writer, so yes. 👍
3/ Know the world
When I’m 40 years old, I will have lived and worked on all continents and in the most significant cultures.
If we ignore Antarctica, I’ve worked on all continents. What I didn’t know at the time was that there are millions of significant cultures, not just the ones in Clash of Civilisations. Also, I have learned that these cultures can be found everywhere. You do not have to travel the world to discover the diversity of humankind. So, yes. 🌍
4/ Be artistic
When I’m 40 years old, arts, culture, and music will be an inseparable part of my daily life.
This BHAG encountered a setback a few years ago when I realized I do not particularly care about music. I like it, but I can live without it. So now, I would list ‘music’ under ‘arts’ and be done with it. Also, this BHAG suffers from a lack of SMARTness. What does it mean to be an inseparable part of daily life? Knowing what I know now, I would argue that this means participation in arts and culture.
In that light, I can always be more artistic. I’m insanely proud of Time to Turn, which I made together with Merlijn Twaalfhoven. I would love to continue producing such works for the rest of my life. Also, I really hope to master the guitar and take singing lessons soon. This is work in development. So, yes. 🎵
5/ Talk the language
When I’m 40 years old, I will be able to fluently communicate in four languages.
Нет, извинения. I tried Russian and am still keen to learn it, albeit less keen now than I was a month ago. On the plus side, I did not lose my ability to speak Spanish and English, and I have improved my German over the years. But, I have to be strict, so no. 🤐
6/ Make the walk
When I’m 40 years old, I will have run the six most famous marathons of the world.
I really wish we could ignore this one. Because no, good intentions notwithstanding, I never ran another marathon. I’m also pretty sure I will not run one any time soon.
The point of BHAGs, the reason they are big, hairy, and audacious, is that trying to achieve them enables other things. They build the skills and experience, and stamina to achieve a purpose. The reason to go running for me was to stay fit, travel the world, and have stories to tell. I ran in most of the countries I visited, from Greenland to Australia and Moscow to Washington DC. Alas, never more than 15, maybe 20k. So, no. 😓
Score: three out of six. With a bit of goodwill, I’m inclined to let me pass. Thanks. Yes, I’ll try harder next time.
I’ve always envisioned my career as consisting of three parts. This was part one. Now, I can take all I’ve learned and do something else. A pivot. Not because I don’t like what I’ve done so far, but because a new skin gives more room to grow. I want to level up.
The other day I met with twenty-odd students from the Central European University for a superbly moderated Q&A about leading networks for change. Did I feel jealous of this group of bright young people from all over Central Europe, Africa, and Asia. Such get-togethers always turn towards career advice. We talked about making money while doing what you care about and a fee structure that allows you to live.
Would I recommend these students – others, you, me for the next third of my career – a personal vision?
The only way I can answer that question is to go back to my purpose. Fifteen years ago, I set out to contribute to intercultural understanding, international cooperation and development as a writer and social innovator.
Over the past fifteen years, I’ve repeatedly tried to steer my career in this direction. While I never started a project to ‘contribute to intercultural understanding,’ I tried to say ‘yes’ to the opportunities that arose. The work I liked best was work that contributed to this purpose. It may be that the vision provided focus. Although it also may be that it was just a good description of what I care about deeply.
For a few years, notably between 2014 and 2018, I used my personal vision to set yearly goals. These goals I’d translate into monthly and weekly objectives. I ran and wrote a lot those years, but the process also drove me nuts. You cannot run life like a business.
I’m on the fence about recommending a personal vision. I’m not inclined to redo mine for the next third of my career. Instead, I’m more interested in a list of things I’d like to do (and started this one already). On the other hand, the periodical reminder of what I cared about had its uses. If I did it again, I think I would focus more on exploring values and behavior and less on outputs.
To a large extent, I think, a vision for personal development is like a second home. The greatest value isn’t in the ownership; it is in the opportunity to dream of another place. Whether you actually get there is less relevant. Still, I made it to the other end of the vision. That counts for something.
Thank you for reading, subscribing, forwarding, replying. Many of you have been part of the fifteen-year journey. I hope we’ll share the next chapter together as well. Thanks again, and have a wonderful week. It’s spring if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere like me!