Author of the New York Times Bestseller, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World. If you’re like most of my readers, you’re already a high-achieving leader. You’re committed to making big contributions at work—and seeing big results.
Leaders make decisions, but clarity can be hard to come by. In this episode, listeners fire their most pressing questions at Michael and Megan. They bring practical solutions to the problems many leaders face, based on more than 30 years of business experience.
I love watching the movie where a guy named George finds himself stuck in a crummy little town working in a shabby little office. Everyone else has moved away to bigger and better things. His hardscrabble life and years of sacrifice and responsibility chip away at his dreams of seeing the world.
Suddenly, a financial crisis leaves him nowhere to turn. Even his prayers seem unanswered. With no hope, he makes a desperate choice.
Once his family and friends discover the crisis, they pitch in and come up with the money. Problem solved.
But cash was the easy fix. George had a bigger problem, and he only came to the conclusion that it’s a wonderful life after he experienced the loss of something he loved. George Bailey’s bigger problem needed a special gift, which came wrapped in an unusual package.
What was the gift? In a word: perspective.
The holidays give that same gift for us. It even has our name on it. But it’s easy to miss amidst the flurry of other gifts and activities. Unless we look for it, our greatest gift stays unopened.
Broadening our perspective
The Texas Driver’s Handbook has a diagram that illustrates how when we sit in a parked car, we have a full 180-degree field of vision. When our car accelerates to 20 mph, our field of vision reduces to 66%. At 40 mph, our visual field shrinks to 20%. At 60 mph, our field of vision becomes barely wider than the space between our headlights.
The faster we go, the less perspective we have.
The same holds true in our journey through life. As we hurdle through life in the fast lane, perspective can easily get shoved in the trunk—or left behind. If we never sit still, we never see the big picture—only the immediate slice right in front of us.
That’s how the holidays offer us a gift. They toss a much-needed wrench in the wheels of our productivity. Clients and vendors close. Nobody answers our emails. Even shopping malls lock up on Christmas and New Years Day. Holidays force us to slow our pace.
They offer us the space we need to open our special gift.
Unwrap the gift of perspective
We unwrap the gift of perspective through reflection—which only time affords us. Looking at family photo albums or reading old journal entries, we see how many crises we’ve forgotten that seemed so overwhelming at the time.
Such reflection gives us a reason to press on, because it gives us the gift of perspective. Somehow we made it through the past, so we’ll make it through today.
Even reflecting on loss offers remarkable perspective. Getting really sick reminds us of the blessing of health. We may exercise, eat well, and get enough rest, but we shake the unwashed hand of one infected individual—and whammo! One little virus takes our entire body down for days. Sickness can make us grateful for health we had all along.
But some losses in life we can’t “bounce back” from—like a losing a child or a marriage or suffering a serious health issue. After healthy reflection, nothing we learn from these significant losses can replace what we’ve lost.
Nevertheless, loss in life offers us an invaluable perspective because it forces us to go somewhere we would never otherwise choose to go. There we have the opportunity to learn what we never would have chosen to learn.
Seeing the potential
I’ve opened some of these unwanted gifts in life. Like after each of my parents divorced and remarried multiple times; or after my alcoholic mother died tragically; or after losing a great position in my career—twice. And these are just a few I’m comfortable writing about.
I learned that loss gives us a crash course in growth if we choose to glean perspective. These deep griefs offer us gifts of a lifetime if we choose never to waste a significant loss. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, “These shall not have died in vain.”
Five years ago I attended the Platform Conference in Dallas. Driving home from the conference, it struck me, I could create a membership site that gives virtual tours of the Holy Land for those who cannot go. But honestly? I thought, Yeah, right.
Two years later, I lost my job without warning. It caught me completely flatfooted. But I also saw the potential that fear had kept hidden. Fear of leaving an executive position in a place I enjoyed serving kept me from seeing my potential as an entrepreneur.
I realized how all the years behind me had prepared me for the path before me. Upon reflection, loss gave me a perspective—even an opportunity—I never would have had otherwise.
(And Michael Hyatt said it was after he broke his ankle and while he was stuck in bed that he started his blog—which laid the groundwork for his current business.)
Perspective stripped away the blinders of my limiting beliefs.
The gift that keeps on giving
I like that what was true for George Bailey was always true. The only thing that changed was his perspective. Of course, life is more complicated than a two-hour classic Christmas film. But the premise remains the same.
Perspective is the gift that keeps on giving, as long as we choose to unwrap it. The good news is we don’t have to suffer great loss to gain great perspective. But we do need to slow down long enough to give the road our full 180-degree field of vision.
The holidays have a gift for us: time to slow down and gain perspective.
Can you imagine just leaving one of your gifts under the tree?
Goal visibility is one of the key but often overlooked components of goal achievement. So as 2018 draws to a close, I asked four business leaders how they keep their goals in front of them once they’ve been set. They all had different ways of doing it, yet they all make the effort.
Maybe one of these strategies will work for you. If so, then you’re likely to be reflecting on a number of personal and professional victories come next December.
Seek accountability when setting goals
“Even for the most self-motivated individuals, accountability pushes us to be better,” says Kristi Porter, nonprofit consultant and founder of Signify. “When we know someone is going to ask us about our goals and we have to report our progress, we want to know we’ve done the best we can.”
Porter is a member of a mastermind group in which everyone states their goal for the next two weeks at the end of each meeting, with plans to update the group at the next session. While Porter acknowledges that her individual progress doesn’t hinge upon the progress of her peers, sharing with them forces her to keep her own goals front-and-center.
“I don’t want to be the only one to show up not having done anything to accomplish what I stated,” Porter adds. “If I continually let my efforts slide, it hurts my business and doesn’t show that I value [the mastermind group’s] time and energy in being present. It’s like a healthy form of peer pressure.”
Regularly review goals with team members
Keeping everyone at work aligned on the same goals is just as important as keeping those goals top-of-mind. Horst Schulze, co-founder and former president of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and founder of the Capella Hotel Group, knows this first-hand.
Throughout his career, Schulze has focused on refining the customer service experience in hotels and resorts — a goal that cannot be accomplished without the buy-in of the managers, housekeepers, chefs, and other employees who have daily access to guests.
“Service always implies caring,” Schulze says. “If we settle for lesser goals — meeting the budget, for example, or safeguarding jobs in a tough economy — we will miss the most important work. It is excellence in service that secures our future.”
To this end, Schulze outlines his customer service goals with a list of 24 Service Standards that is given to all staffers. At the beginning of every shift, each team has a 10-minute standup meeting, during which the team leader discusses one of the standards and how it applies to a current guest challenge. “Keeping these goals and guidelines front-and-center is invaluable to each member and each level of our teams,” Schulze says.
Knowing that everyone is on the same page also gives Schulze the confidence to empower each team member to achieve the goal of excellence in customer service. Any staffer can spend up to $2,000 to solve a guest problem or issue.
Schedule goals and goal-related tasks
Being aware of goals and what it will take to accomplish them is one thing. But Jameson Sharp, owner of BlackBeard’s Media in Kansas City, Missouri, knows that if goals and goal-related tasks aren’t scheduled — just like workout sessions or client meetings — they’re not likely to be completed.
“In 2016 I had just started building out and accepting new referrals for advertising and video marketing projects,” Sharp says. “I was absolutely swamped running two companies and managing 15 client accounts, and as I continued, a major problem revealed itself. Although I was focused on day-to-day operations and maintaining the momentum, I began to notice no growth and was forgetting to keep my first business on course. So one day I questioned myself: Why was this happening?”
The problem, Sharp discovered, was that he wasn’t following his schedule, a schedule that includes a daily rundown of goal to-dos.
“I write down my goals in the margins of my daily schedule the night before,” Sharp explains. “If I don’t keep referring back to my daily schedule and see the goals and tasks throughout the day, those smaller goals become less important, and will be pushed aside to a later time. The consequences of not referring back to your schedule and goals leaves you vulnerable to procrastination and, ultimately, to goal failures.”
Keep goals in constant view
If that which is out of sight is also out of mind, it makes sense that goals should be readily visible at all times. So Brianna Rooney, founder and CEO of Techees, writes her goals on post-it notes and sticks them to the side of her computer. She starts with 25 goals and narrows the list down to her top five before placing it in constant view. She encourages her team members to do the same.
“We work in front of our computers all day long so that’s where we put [the post-it note],” Rooney says. “I find that having it at work motivates you to do better work. Eight hours a day it stares at you, and I look at it every day, at least 20 times a day. It’s extremely motivating for me.”
The motivation has paid off. In addition to achieving a number of professional goals (she is a recruiter for software engineers), Rooney has reached some personal milestones as well.
“This year I finally bought property out of the country,” she says. “I talked my husband into taking the leap to take our two little kids to Mexico. We stayed there for 80 days in the summer, and I got the itch to buy. The last week we were there we ended up seeing some properties. We got home; I put my post-it back on my computer; and I kept staring at it. Within a day or two I got in touch with the realtor and made an offer. Within a couple weeks we were signing paperwork to move forward.”
My sister is obsessed with games. Video games, board games, role-playing games – she loves them all. She will readily admit that the pure glee she derives from unlocking achievements fuels this obsession.
She isn’t alone. Quests result in gold, each round of Tetris earns additional points, and grown adults spend more time searching neighbor’s yards for imaginary Pokemon than they should admit. Gamification has even become a catchy concept in productivity literature. Despite the trendy buzzword, the concept is based on relatively old science.
The secret sauce of gamification is neurobiological in nature, and you don’t need badges, prizes, or points to use biology to your advantage. Breaking larger tasks into smaller pieces and celebrating each small accomplishment will do the trick. Welcome to the science of dopamine.
The power of dopamine
Dopamine is a scrappy neurotransmitter that plays many important biological roles. It has been linked to learning, attention, mood, movement, pleasure, and motivation. That’s just the short-list. The mechanics of how dopamine influences so many different pathways is still being explored and many scientists have shifted focus from dopamine as the prime pleasure molecule, to dopamine as the intrinsic motivator.
Two important dopamine pathways – the mesolimbic and mesocortical – are involved in how we experience internal rewards. Once thought to cause pleasure, researchers now believe that these dopaminergic pathways trigger a different sort of reward mechanism. The mesocortical pathway also plays a role in motivation.
Dopamine and motivation
Though the nuts and bolts are still heavily debated and researched, we learn more about how dopamine influences motivation each year.
In a 2008 study, scientists studied mice genetically engineered to become dopamine deficient unless given a specific treatment to rescue dopamine production. With depleted dopamine levels, the mice were unwilling to engage in goal-oriented activities. By five weeks old, they had starved to death. Their motivation was restored when dopamine levels were rescued.
Research suggests that the dopamine-motivation paradigm is just as relevant to people. Disorders associated with a lack of motivation involve dysfunction in dopamine-related pathways. A study comparing the brains of go-getters and slackers found higher levels of dopamine in the more motivated individuals.
Research involving manipulation of dopamine levels in human participants shows similar results.
In one study, smokers with reduced levels of dopamine in their systems were less willing to exert effort for a nicotine reward. In another, researchers administered d-amphetamine, an agonist of dopamine, to volunteers. Based on a monetary-based Effort Expenditure for Reward Tasks, they found that participants were more willing to expend effort when they had been given the drug.
Dopamine and productivity
Short of injecting dopamine agonists as a method of enhancing motivation, how can regular people tap into this resource?
Dopamine is naturally released during reward anticipation. The best way to fit long term goals into the dopamine paradigm is to reconstruct them into smaller, more manageable chunks and celebrate each win. By constructing our goals to manufacture more frequent rewards, we orchestrate a corresponding dopamine response.
Let’s say your goal is to lose fifty pounds. That takes time. Done correctly, it takes a lot of time. Months of hard work will have passed before you taste the sweet dopamine-laden payoff of success.
In those months, you will have nothing but pure willpower to see you through.
If you break your goal into more manageable chunks – like meeting a calorie goal each day, spending twenty minutes at the gym twice a week, or even losing five pounds – dopamine can help you out. Every time you hit one of these micro-goals, a concoction of happiness neurotransmitters will remind you to come back for more.
The same applies to business goals. When you break long-term goals into smaller chunks, your innate reward and motivation system starts to work with you.
Dopamine and willpower: turning foes into friends
If dopamine is the biological wildcard of motivation, willpower is its well-disciplined older brother. Where dopamine operates unbeckoned, without practice or training, willpower is a muscle with limited capacity. It must be trainined and used sparingly.
All too often, these two tricks of the trade are diametrically opposed to one another. Dopamine sparks our wants, and we use willpower to keep ourselves in check. Willpower doesn’t always win.
The best way to maintain motivation and accomplish your goals is to tap into the motivational synergy of dopamine working in coalition with willpower. When you break larger tasks into smaller targets, surges of dopamine allow you to accomplish more while using less willpower. Each success bolsters your confidence, adding to your willpower reserves.
And as incremental steps become entrenched habits, you’ll find yourself slaying ambitious goals in record time.
Steve Smith is a Scotland-born, Canada-raised hockey defenseman whose NHL career spanned 15 seasons. He is less well known for winning three Stanley Cup championships than for a single mistake.
In 1986, while a rookie skating for the 2-time defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers, Smith took the puck behind his own net and looked up ice for a teammate to hit with an outlet pass. He fired the puck through the slot, but before it reached its intended target, it hit the back of the left leg of Smith’s own goaltender, Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr. The puck ricocheted into the Edmonton net and became the excruciating deciding goal in a 3-2 Oilers loss in Game 7 of a playoff series.
After that disastrous own goal, Smith fell to the ice on his hands and knees, perhaps hoping that a giant hole would open up beneath him and swallow him up.
Our own own goals
We’re going to come back to what happened to Smith after that unforgettable own goal. But first let’s remember that the difference between his own goal and the ones we make in everyday life is that so many people were watching.
We make own goals – unforced errors that hurt and embarrass us – all the time. We have the sale clinched but we keep on talking and talk the buyer out of it. We finish fixing a laptop computer only to stumble over the cord and send it crashing to the floor.
The real question isn’t are we going to make own goals but how are we going to deal with own goals – our own and the foibles of others? And the Steve Smith story turns out to be a good example of what to do after an own goal. Three lessons stand out.
1. Smith didn’t let it define him
After Smith collapsed to the ice, he got back up. His rookie season came to a thudding close, but he played for 14 more seasons. The next season, he played well enough, and with a sufficiently good attitude, that it made a real contribution to team morale.
2. His team didn’t let it define them
Sometimes a bad break can break a team. That was not the case with the Oilers, and their mindset probably had something to do with it. They viewed Smith’s own goal as essentially a hiccup or a speedbump. It was a distraction on the way to better things.
As is tradition, the Commissioner of the NHL presented the Stanley Cup to Wayne Gretzky, all-time NHL scoring leader and Captain of the 1987 Edmonton Oilers. Another less formal tradition is that the Captain, after taking a victory lap, hands the Cup off to a teammate, who holds a special place of honor. Gretzky handed the Cup to Steve Smith, who skated a victory lap around the rink a year after an unforgettable failure.
3. Smith learned from it
The mistake Smith made was one that hockey purists understand was avoidable. He could have – and should have – made a safer pass, rather than one that was sent through the middle of the defensive zone. But rarely does such an error – made dozens of times in the course of a season by even the best players – have such a devastating result.
Smith continues his hockey career as an NHL assistant. Surely there is no one better positioned to pull aside one of his players after he has made a mistake and offer encouragement, with a unique personal story to back up his words.