The Shortest Path
When our lives aren’t unfolding as we’d like, we sometimes contemplate big changes. Entrepreneurs imagine retooling the nature of their companies. Workers contemplate wholesale career changes. Most all of us daydream about selling everything and starting a new life, elsewhere. These are normal responses—but not necessarily useful ones.
Unexamined change yields nothing
Someone once told me that he was making a 360° change. (I didn’t have the heart to point out where this would leave him.) In my experience, though, most big changes are equally futile. The hope that one bold move will solve all your problems generally makes you blind to what does work for you. So, you end up throwing out a lot of good stuff, in pursuit of a fantasy.
We collectively suffer a cognitive bias when considering new avenues. We imagine all of the positives, but fail to recognize the less desirable practicalities. This makes sense. The dream is exciting, but it’s predicated on incomplete data. Let’s say your dream is to quit your job and write full time. I bet you’ve visualized writing on a patio, while sipping on an iced-coffee; however, opening rejection letters and dealing with days of self-doubt probably aren’t part of your imaginary scenario.
The worst part about dreams is that they absolve you of responsibility. So long as you have that dream, you’ll allow yourself to do nothing—because you’re busy waiting to act on your big, life-changing dream. In truth, though, this brings you no closer to any actual change.
I too have (stupid) dreams
As I write this, I realize that some of the ideas I present here are vague. So, I’m going to share three of my fantasies with you. In doing so, I’ll note why I love these notions. I’ll then consider what the actuality might look like. Then, I’ll explore simpler ways I could address the underlying need/desire. Here goes:
The “better place” fallacy
My friend Mike once noted that, “For as long as I’ve known Eric, he’s been about to move.” This is for good reason. Vancouver is expensive. Leaving it behind opens our family up to a new lifestyle, which offers very real advantages. So, I read about communities, ask questions, check real estate listings, and dream about a move.
As advantageous as a new place might be, moving would involve giving up good things our city offers. A move would take us away from friends, a diverse and progressive community, great education opportunities for our kids, and an international airport. These are all things I’d probably yearn for if we moved elsewhere.
Truth is, there’s not much I’d change about our current hometown. In fact, what I think I’m missing out on involves three, reasonably small, things: 1) I’d love to have a sauna more often (I have Finnish roots). 2) I’d like to spend more time skiing and biking in the mountains. 3) I’d like to have bike storage. If all those things were met, I wouldn’t have much of a reason to leave Vancouver.
The simple solution? A car. With a car, I could pop by the pool in 5 minutes, and hop in the sauna. I could also zip to the mountains quickly and get on my bike/skis for a few hours a day. As for bike storage? Well, that remains difficult in our small townhouse. 2 out of 3 isn’t bad, though. And although a car isn’t free, it’s way cheaper—and easier to make happen—than a household move.
The “amazing idea” mirage
I often dream about new business ideas/possibilities. This happens most when I’m out for a run, and endorphins are tickling my brain. (I even pause during these runs so I can tap notes into my smartphone.) I then imagine all the ways these ideas could take on a life of their own, benefit people, and afford me more time to play with subsequent “world-changing” ideas.
Reality, however, is less welcoming of my ideas. My mid-run brainstorms are so elaborate they’re typically difficult to make happen. These plans generally require more capital than we possess. Meanwhile the customer/user acquisition path is unclear. More importantly, though, most of my half-baked ideas don’t address a real need. As such, it’s safe to say that most people won’t seek these things out.
What I really want is to build things that people use. Asking “what might someone else want?” is fun, but a flawed approach—because it takes me out of reality. Instead, I should ask what problems bug me, and find a way to resolve them—because these are real challenges, which others likely face, too. In fact, @shelkie did this with Campnab when he got sufficiently pissed off about all the campsites in B.C. being booked. (It’s brand new, so, probably buggy.)
The escape fantasy
A few years ago, I contemplated selling our townhouse, putting our things into storage, and buying a van. We’d drive around the Americas, take in the sights, and spend time together as a family. I still like this idea—and I’m not alone, as the #vanlife hashtag proves.
My vanlife scenario is replete with beaches, sunny skies, ancient trees, and breathtaking vistas. It pays less attention to a van that’s always dirty, stir-crazy kids who just want to see their friends, not finding a place to park, or mechanical failures. While you have to take the good with the bad, I recognize that life on the road involves some real downsides.
So, I looked more closely at what I actually want. Turns out that’s mostly time outside with family—and I can have that right now, without needing to buy and customize a $40k+ van. So, I started an activity list, and we’re doing the things on it—now. Last Saturday, we played frisbee golf in the park, as a family. On Sunday, we went to an outdoor museum. This weekend is sunny, so, we’re going to try skim-boarding.
“Big deal,” you say. “You’re going to the beach. So what? Anyone can do that.” And you’re absolutely right. However, it’s easier to not do such things, when you’re occupied making grandiose plans—and that robs you of real experiences you can have now.
Ways to make small change happen
I constantly evaluate my life, and make new plans. This is just part of who I am. The more I do, the more I realize that a small action now is better than a big change that never happens. This awareness isn’t foolproof, though. Instead it’s something I have to work on, because I often forget—and then tend to complicate matters.
From what I can tell, there are a few tricks to making small changes work. The first is to separate the problem from the solution. Instead of saying, “I want a new job,” find out what you dislike about your current one, and ask how you might fix this without leaving. Be lazy about it. Don’t try to do everything. Find the smallest change you can make—right now—and try it. If it works, awesome! If it doesn’t, you probably haven’t lost much.
I think part of setting yourself up for more successful changes is to look for the closest actionable task (I call this “the shortest path”). If your company isn’t selling enough, don’t redesign your website and start a rebranding process. Instead, pick up the phone and talk to a client who already buys from you, or has bought from you in the past—and ask if they might need more. This gets you around a 3 month project, and into something you can do right now—that’ll probably yield more.
This same thinking can be applied to your friendships, hobbies, aspirations, and other aspects of your life. Small acts now afford real data you can interpret and continue to act on. Dreams, however, remain perfect in your mind—but rarely ever come to fruition.
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