03 March 2005

It Comes Around

It's a small world isn't it? Just when you think you've carved out a piece that you can get your head around and make sense of, it just evaporates into thin air. You are left holding this completely abstract perception of which way up is, where to find a great burrito, what constitutes good music, and just who these people are that keep jostling your elbows.

Perhaps this is another of those life lessons about not holding on to tight, always be prepared, never surrender...blah, blah. I always thought the one about the best laid plans of mice and men was a little cheesy. (Okay, that was lame.) Actually, I prefer "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy." by Karl von Clausewitz a noted military strategist from Prussia. But seriously, one lesson I've been consistently refining is the importance of bounded flexibility.

Bounded flexibility is choosing ahead of time what your limits and tolerances are and then accepting everything that falls inside those boundaries. This can be a lot more tricky than most people realize. The problem is that we tend to shoot from the hip or just play it as we go. We don't discern our boundaries up front, we wait until they are crossed to attempt to correct. Add to this that we continue to try to correct towards an arbitrary focus or goal instead of choosing a boundary range and letting whatever will happen inside that range, happen freely. Here's some simple examples that come up over and over again.

In the workplace I am constantly surrounded by people chasing irrelevant and contradictory aspects of their jobs and careers. They might want to work on their own schedule, but not have to punch a clock so the business can properly bill their hours. They want to take time to train, but don't want to be bothered with certifications. They want to be paid more, but take more time off. They don't want to travel or commute but they want their jobs to have variety and to work with different customers all the time. They don't want to work long hours, but they refuse to do detailed planning and estimation. The list goes on and on. They make themselves miserable in their jobs, make detrimental choices, stress out themselves and those around them by frantically worrying about promotions, raises, etc. And then they wonder why they aren't advancing and obtaining their goals.

If you review how many of the people playing in the stock market perform trades you will see this erratic behavior and meager returns. They are constantly shifting focus from trend to trend, potential return to potential return. The cost of the trades wipes out any profits they might realize in any case. The short-term financial plan from an experienced planner doesn't cover 3 months it covers 3 years! I know people who complain because they have to wait 6 months to get a promotion. These are people who have been working the same jobs for years and will most likely be doing the same jobs for many years to come. What short-sightedness!

At the heart of bounded flexibility is the ability to discern what truly is relevant and influential and then let go of the rest. Choosing money over time, long hours over detailed planning, traveling for clients instead of only working locally. These are just a few simple examples of choosing what is really important and then letting the rest slide. Are you a person that wants flexible hours? You better get good at tracking and justifying the time you spend. Do you want great benefits from a stable company? Expect to deal with bureaucracy and a slow-moving corporate culture.

Of course there are exceptions and I'm intentionally oversimplifying the examples. The point is, do you know what's important? Not just generally in a hand-waving way. But at the brass tacks and postage stamps level. Do the decisions you make every day line up with what your priorities are? More than just your work-life, but in your family-life, your social-life, your education, your investing, your recreation-time, your religion, your politics?

If you've ever played Skee-Ball you know the beauty of bounded flexibility. The game is rigged so that if you continue to try and hit only the maximum numbers you will get the minimum score when you fail which is pretty much every time. Much like the rest of life. If, on the other hand, you aim squarely down the middle your chances of succeeding with a high score are greatly increased. True, you'll never hit the absolute maximum but it's my experience that people will enjoy the game much more when they finish off with a bunch of high scores than a bunch of low ones.

When was the last time you listened to someone around you, a friend, go off on a rant and you just sort of tuned them out because you realized it was a lost cause not worth your time. You didn't give up on them, you don't stop hanging out with them, you don't complain about how much of your time they are wasting. You smile and say "really?" and "that's interesting" and so forth because it's more important to be a friend and waste a little time, then to damage the friendship over a few lousy minutes. You see? We all know how to exercise bounded flexibility. We just don't exercise it enough.

No comments :