The punchline: Think first about how you want to be remembered. It will help you answer what you want to do in life.
So, what do you want to do?
I struggled with this question for the longest time.
There was a storm inside me that constantly reminded me of my potential. The problem was I didn’t know how to apply it to answer this question.
Practicality told me to earn money to pay rent.
Experience told me to rust on to the best leaders to accelerate my learning.
Military service told me to never underestimate the power of high calibre teams and mateship.
My upbringing told me to respect people’s perspectives, motives and religion.
And hope told me that hard work’s payoff would reveal my ‘why’.
But hope isn’t a strategy and I was also no closer to answering what I wanted to do when asked by friends, colleagues or recruiters. And when the question came up when a military career was no longer an option and after my first venture failed, saying ‘I don’t know’ or fabricating an answer was exhausting.
I was desperate for an answer. The frustration was palpable and it kept me awake at night.
That’s no longer a problem.
Answer a better question
In 2015 LinkedIn acquired Lynda.com, an online guided learning platform. The acquisition was a push towards LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s strategy to increase the importance and convenience of education.
I remember reading a summary of an interview between Lynda.com co-founder and CEO Lynda Weinman and Jeff soon after the deal closed. Jeff asked Lynda about her future ambitions. Much to his surprise, Lynda responded that she prefers to think about how she with be remembered.
Jeff was astounded by Lynda’s answer. I was too.
Lynda started with the end in mind. Her end in mind. She could clearly describe how she wanted to contribute.
In strategy, that would be called describing a vision. Lynda didn’t talk about the intermediate steps or objectives. Instead, she outlined the principles or guideposts for how she would make career decisions.
Strategy set by organisations guides a large proportion of our working life. Unfortunately, corporate strategy often lacks clarity and meaning to inspire the people who are employed to deliver it.
This is because defining strategy starts at what’s known before attempting the very difficult task of describing the future state. Ironically, and to Lynda’s point, people charged with strategy at an organisational or profession level rarely ask how it will be remembered.
For example, if you’re a doctor the career path comes with some choices but it’s relatively linear. The same is true for bankers, electricians, teachers and other important jobs in established professions.
The thing is that if you fit into a traditional profession or organisation, answering what you’re going to do is largely already decided for you.
The bigger issue, as I’ve written about before, is that a growing number of people don’t fit into a traditional career mould. And for those who do, their institutions are facing massive disruption. This means that organisations face the real threat of becoming utilities (e.g. financial services companies) or just obsolete.
The net effect is that traditional employment pathways are breaking down. Consequently, those people who used to be guided by tradition movements within an industry or profession will start being asked ‘what do you want to do?’ more often.
In other words, they will start joining entrepreneurs, those transitioning from the military and corporate refugee who is being asked the same question.
How do you want to be remembered?
The penny immediately dropped for me when I heard Lynda’s comment. Shortly afterwards I had clarity on how to guide career decisions.
The most liberating aspect of this shift was that it didn’t rely on highly specific and exhaustive rules.
I want to be remembered for being family first, increasing collective wisdom and making the greatest net-positive impact on the world possible.
That’s my answer to ‘what would you like to do?’ and here’s how actions map to philosophy:
On being family-first
Anyone with children will tell you how priorities change when they arrive and how quickly they grow up. We’ve made a decision to choose ventures and companies to work with that enable us to minimise (or concentrate) time spent travelling for business. Sometimes that means leaving money on the table, but rarely.
On a practical level that means being able to be home for bath time (for little ones), getting them into bed and then jumping back into work afterwards.
On increasing collective wisdom
This means putting experience-based knowledge into the hands of people who can use it to move the world forward.
This journey consists of two parts, both of which are works in progress.
The first is learning. For me, learning comes from:
- Finding ways to collaborate as quickly as possible to understand perspectives and incentives
- Speaking last as often as possible so as to not bias conversations
- Fighting to thoughtfully disagree which essentially means not reacting but thinking about and formulating an argument that will (hopefully) yield a positive learning experience for those involved. It’s not always possible but you know it’s working when the people you thoughtfully disagree with come back for more.
- Finding rooms where I am easily the least smart!
The second part is paying the knowledge forward. I do that by making the time to write each week and surfacing interesting conversations with other entrepreneurs.
On making the greatest net-positive impact
This is all about time and how you invest it to get this return. For me, that means being curious about big problems and enjoying the process of sizing the opportunity (which I love).
It also involves:
- Exercising humility because you won’t always get it right
- Being kind because the world is in a massive deficit and being kind creates unexpected opportunities with others
- Being strong because building new things is bloody hard
- Making every day count because you’re running out of time
While these ideals aren’t unique, and I’m sure many subscribe to similar notions, these three are specific enough to help me and my wife make decisions about how to invest time.
One last thing…
I reflected on this event as part of writing In Between. It was a major psychological shift and turning point for me even having already started two companies at the time.
There is an inherent simplicity in this approach, like most things with hindsight, and I do hope it’s as valuable for you as it was for me.