Years ago I listened to noted columnist James Kilpatrick give a talk about writing. He said every good piece should follow the same formula:
"Let me take you by the hand and show you a place I know, which for seeing, will change you forever."
I would be delighted to think this is about to happen here and now for someone reading the words that follow!
In the autumn of 1996 I had just moved back East to New York City from California to work for Morgan Stanley after a 20-year career as a journalist and a half decade as a scenarios-to-strategy consultant -helping companies decide what they should do in light of the uncertain future.
It was a beautiful autumn day. I stepped off the curb in front of the public library, Fifth Avenue yawning full of traffic to the north and people bustling to work. I can still see all the details of that moment as clearly as on that day.
Four phrases appeared on the screen of my mind, as it were, and I stopped to write them down in a little notebook I always carried with me. (Retelling it now reminds me now of something that my scenario work has taught me - the most important idea can come from anyone at anytime, anyplace. But is anyone listening? And will they DO anything?)
The words were four separate thoughts in sequence, which have become principles in my business and I try hard to apply them in my life:
1. Clarify the Intention
2. Define the Sacred
3. Understand the Commitment
4. Act to Be
At one level - the words themselves, and the phrases, are simple enough. It is in their application that we can discover the value of them, as I have found in working with individuals and organizations over time.
Clarify the Intention.
It was Yogi Berra who allegedly said that if you do not know where you are going it is hard to know when you get there. We also learn that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step - but a step of what kind, and in which direction? Directly toward the target, or just "west," as in "Go west young man?"
What is it you want and need to do, which in the doing will bring you closer to something you deeply desire? This may be a big question about what you want to become in your life, or a smaller one about where you want to live, or it could be an enterprise issue of defining a strategy for the next year or three or five.
Often in exploring this question - and it is valuable for executives of organizations to apply scenario thinking here - we discover that the intentions we thought we had are not as important as the ones we have determined to clarify for ourselves from this moment on, and pursue in a new way, for reasons that become clear in the present work. Our perceptions of the future can - and should - influence present action.
We want to "become," but become what? What is your intention, that you most need to express because in so doing you will fulfill what is very if not most important to you? You can apply this to a day, a week, a year or a lifetime. It's up to you - your clear intention.
Define the Sacred.
I directed a re-visioning effort at Morgan Stanley in the late 1990s to clarify the intention, so to speak, for the "new company" that was formed by the Dean Witter-Morgan Stanley merger. One company was all about retail investors, the other was all about institutional finance. Two cultures. What were they to become as one company?
They had different intentions, different value systems. A lot has been written about what happened there, and since, and I won't explore that now. My research at the time revealed that a visionary company is six times more profitable that one without a vision, and no visionary company succeeds without core values, lived and expressed by the people doing the work. Top-down, bottom-up, side-to-side.
What do we mean by "core value?"
A core value is one of a few closely held convictions that you actively express and do not abandon just because things are hard or the audience is hostile. You deeply believe it and stick to it. And you can't fulfill your vision - your intention, if you like - without core values.
So what are the few things that you believe deeply and do not want to abandon no matter what challenges you face because these values are deeply a part of you?
Perhaps you know them, and live them. Perhaps you know them and don’t live them. Perhaps you are not sure. They are worth thinking about, and worth expressing in your life if it is to become the life you want.
Understand the Commitment.
It is in some respects easy enough to declare an intention and lay claim to sacred beliefs, but the fulfillment of these requires resources - time, effort, expertise - and an understanding not only of
your course of action but of all the known elements required to "get there."
It is not useful to declare an intention to be fit, and a belief in a healthy lifestyle, if you are not willing to do - and not do - the things required. We can all think of things we say we want to do but are unwilling seriously to undertake because of the commitment required.
Before I went sailing alone in the ocean for the first time, I realized how much I had to learn, how much preparation the boat and I both required, and how the effort to prepare us would draw not only on all the
resources that I had but required that I add more abilities and understanding to my effort before it would become credible - or even safe - to undertake.
As an old sailor warned me then, "The sea lies in wait for the unwary, but she stalks the reckless." It can be reckless to set off on a journey for which you are truly unprepared.
Act to Be.
Those of you who studied French philosophy might recognize this as the existential challenge. I heard it first clearly from a somewhat infamous land developer I interviewed in Hawaii after I arrived there
after sailing in alone from San Francisco.
His name was David Murdock. He was a controversial figure who had overcome considerable family tragedy as a young man and now was building hotels on Lanai amid objections that he was ruining one way of life in favor of another. I was interviewing him for a business story for the San Francisco Examiner for whom I worked then and he made a case for action that stuck with me.
"It's not bad to have an ego," Murdock said, "It's bad to have no ego. You understand this because you identified something you wanted and needed to do and you did it. You sailed alone in the ocean for 25 days to get here, and you got here, and now it is part of you forever. That is the lesson. Act to be."
As it happened this decision I had made to sail alone to Hawaii and back at that moment in my life changed the course of it. It led me away from newspaper writing, started me on a book that took me 20 years to finish and also into scenario thinking as an business-like approach to uncertainty. This turned out to be a fascinating way to use possible stories about the future to change the story of the present – how you understand it and how you act on the possibilities before you.
Scenario thinking, which was a perfect practice in many ways for a journalist - created an unexpected career that brought me to Morgan Stanley for one of the most extraordinary decades on Wall Street, and finally - or so far – here. As a consultant and writer and sometimes speaker – and father of three from two prior marriages - I am still trying to live certain ideas in my life to become the person I had in mind.
Or perhaps I should say, “have in mind” because intention is something we are expressing now, whether we are doing so clearly and intentionally or not. We are becoming as we behave. Intention is our guide, a compass of our own design. Perhaps if you accept this metaphor you should examine what seems to attract you most essentially.
These four principles are easy enough to remember and say aloud but challenging to apply. They are valuable insofar as you make them about you and your life, day-to-day, week- to-week, personally and professionally:
Clarify the Intention. Define the Sacred. Understand the Commitment. Act to Be.
It is up to you.