Thursday, February 08, 2007

Success Secrets - Purposive Drift

I have been reading motivational literature all my life. I have achieved success in life, and work hard to stay positive and optimistic. But one of the mysteries that has haunted my for years is “why don’t explicit goals seem to work for me?” While certain motivational habits have seemed to work: going with my strengths, keeping fit and healthy, taking time to reflect on the direction of my life, and, above all, reading and learning, have contributed enormously to the quality of my life, I personally found that explicit goals (income, body weight, weightlifting reps, etc) often did not come to pass, or even backfired by shutting out people and possibilities from my life. Sometimes, just looking at a list of last quarter’s goals would make my eyes glaze over. Why wasn’t it fun to pursue these goals? Why did I dread them? Why did affirmation, visualization, and intention seem to not only work well, but make me feel better than working on an explicit goal?

Richard Oliver has a thesis as to why this is so. He has written a brilliant essay, Purposeful Drift: Making it up as we go along. In it he reminds us that an openness and flexibility seem to mark the brightest artists,, scientists, and even corporations, because:

  • The future is impossible to predict

  • There are more possibilities than we can imagine

  • Conditions in the world are constantly changing.

Think of it: Why do we watch the Super Bowl every year? Because , even though the goals are explicit, and the rules are strictly defined, there is no way to absolutely guarantee a path to that goal. And we are talking about a highly structured environment! Our world (inner and outer) is a lot more messy!!

Not only do conditions and possibilities change, but, the very act of working on a goal generates new information that was not present when the goal was set. As Oliver says “plans goals, formal processes, and targets can … [blind] us to the valuable information that is generated by the actions we take to implement them.”

In the creative field, I can attest that creation is an iterative process. At each stage our creation-in-progress gives us feedback that changes our view of the work we are doing, and changes the outcome, as we experience the various iterations of the process.

The creative field is not unique in this respect. Drugs designed for one malady often are startlingly effective on other maladies. Thomas Schweich, in Staying Power : 30 Secrets Invincible Executives Use for Getting to the Top - and Staying There tells us that that the top tier of successful executives recommends not planning out your career in detail as it will blind you to unthought-of possibilities, as well as possibly diminish other peoples’ perception of the breadth of your potential.

Oliver suggests using one’s sense of well-being as a central “compass point”, and to use “Purposeful Drift” based on three factors: values, competency, and context. Here are a some examples that occurred to me:

Values – your sense of well-being, and what is working for you, can change. At one point of my life, I valued “pedal to the metal” success. At another point, serenity. Monitoring this inner well-being is going to change our plans, goals, and actions.

Competency – An entrepreneur builds a company, but, as it passes the billion-dollar-mark, his competency as CEO is going to be different. Perhaps he must move on, but certainly goals are going to change

Context – As Barry Diller mentioned in a recent interview here, the concept of big media as a “choke point” is over. Big media, which relied on “scarcity” for its revenues, now has to “do a 180” and find out how to prosper in an era of “plenty”.

Oliver’s thesis is only strengthened by the current conditions in our world: scarcity of capital and scarcity of information have given way to a torrent of both, thus multiplying the “possibility matrix” in as little time as it takes to go to sleep and wake up the next morning.

Oliver’s intriguing essay is featured on one of my newest favorite sites : which contains numerous thought-provoking "manifestos" (their term). I look forward to exploring their content in depth.



richard said...

Thanks for the very generous review. It is such a pleasure to read the ideas I struggled to express communicated so clearly and and succintly here.

Richard Oliver

Manny said...


Thank you so much for your comment, and for visitng the blog. Your essay really crystallized so much for me. I look forward to any future writings you may release on your inquiries.