Business · On Writing · The Good Life

Counterbalance for Achievers

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Fear’s trusty whispers

Suggest useless evasions

Of work’s hard truths and joy

I learned the lesson well: Focus on that one big thing that you want to accomplish. In one company that I worked for, there was a name for it: The Big Idea. All of us smart, eager, marketing types were goaded into submitting ideas for the product, promotion, mind-blowing initiative that would change the world — or at least, bolster sales and profit for the next quarter.

This approach to innovation, to making a huge impact and difference to the world as we know it — or at least in our own small lives — was all the rage at the time. Magnificent, loud, admirable gurus proclaimed that only way to succeed at anything important was to devote your entire being on one singularly perfect, brilliant goal. The goal had to be the right kind of groundbreaking, out-of-the-box thinking original, but not too wild, not too crazy, because, smarter, shinier, more successful senior managers have to agree to do it and they hate big change.

Earnest, smart, hard-working me and my cohorts threw ourselves into meeting the challenge. I don’t remember what the prize was — my bet is that it was lucrative and tied to swift progression to the corner office.

I created a new product proposal that came to life several years later when someone found it stuffed in a drawer, blew off the dust, and put it into development. A friend proposed a promotion approach that is still a key element in the marketing calendar and that he leveraged into a partnership at his next employer. Yet another friend suggested an integrated, powerful approach to recruitment, training, and grooming managers that would have yielded a more cohesive, multifaceted organization.

The proposals flowed in to the vice president in the corner office with the Big Idea device that shot colorful electrical charges ricocheting around its big glass orb when you flicked a switch. He pretended to evaluate all the ideas with great care and attention, going so far as to talk further with a few of us, but in the end, M won, as we always knew that he would because he was the designated heir and sanctioned company genius, looked great in his blue suit, and played vicious volleyball with a big grin.

Knowing who was going to win didn’t calm us down when we were gathered into a conference room to hear about his idiotic idea and eat cake as the Big Idea orb flashed green, red, and blue shocks at the front of the room. A few individuals took their ideas elsewhere and profited gloriously, such as the guy who joined a leading promotion agency that he now runs. One manager meditated upon the experience, quit his job, and moved to Los Angeles where he enjoys marvelous success, sending us a picture of his exceptional red convertible.

I was promoted into the new product department in the next promotion cycle. There, I learned the real business of big ideas, that you need lots of them in all stages of development at all times. Sometimes they work, but most times they don’t, so get used to picking yourself up off the ground and going on to the next ones.

There, I learned that even a genius, brilliant initiative is never one single, solitary thing that you get to focus on all the time. A big idea has many critical facets including the actual product itself, its branded identity in packaging, advertising and promotion, sales and distribution, as well as active, responsive engagement with the marketplace — never mind arguing with scientists to consider the real-world implications of their esoteric inventions (ensuring that the amazing vanilla flavor does not rely upon a single orchid vine in a dangerous region). Bringing a much vaunted big idea to reality can be as small as the design of the napkins for sampling booths. In this dynamic, exciting group, we were never able to focus on any one thing to the exclusion of all else. Priorities were forever smashing, shifting, breaking into fistfights (the priorities, not the team; we got along really well).

In my current role as novel/story developer, I’m learning how to work with steady focus on several goals at the same time. It’s rudimentary physics, recognizing that I do best when I plan for the equal and opposite reaction to every action.

My ideal is getting those equal and opposite reactions going off powerfully and often. I set goals that are huge and daunting, seemingly impossible, figuring that I can always change them, adjust as needed if they’re breaking my heart and making me crazy.

The goals must be worthy and may not conflict. I also insist that the goals do not build one upon the other which would make it feel like I was only focusing on one thing. While they might be related, they’re cousins, not siblings.

When I began a daily blogging challenge, I also started to work out at a new studio on a friend’s recommendation. The instructors are terrific, the studio is wonderful, and the workout is the most difficult and fun one that I have ever attempted. By the end of an hour, I am a sweaty, wobbly, happy mess looking forward to being sore, getting stronger, and coming back for more.

These efforts dovetailed with a whole new approach to my work in progress. I’m thrilled with the new direction for the work in progress, even though I wince at the necessary shredding, revising, and thrashing a new way through the wilderness.

Daily, I work on my goals. I’ve learned that working focused, with all that I have in one endeavor, builds my capacity and energy for the next. One fuels the next, fuels the next, fuels the next, in an ongoing, upward spiral.

For all the sweating and the heartbreak and blithering mental mess that I can be at the end of the day, I have never been happier, more productive, and more proud of the work that I accomplish. And it’s done my way, with multiple Big Ideas all going at the same time.


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