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Vagueness and values

How did you get here?

Erm, set aside the stork for now. I mean: how did you get where you’re at in your life and your career?

You probably have a pretty good story to tell about how you set out to do (a) , but because of (b) , you’re now doing (c) , which you never could have anticipated.

No matter how many things you square or divide, there’s no Pythagorean theorem for triangulating your way through life.

Unexpected things happen.

Gut-punched or overjoyed, grieving or grateful, we adjust and move ever forward.

A year ago, Henrik and I sat in an attorney’s office getting advice on working our way out of a poor business decision that cost &yet a huge amount of money at a moment when we absolutely didn’t have any spare to spend. We’d already gone through six months of financial turmoil, and in our desperation to improve things, we made them much, much worse.

I remember feeling violently ill and desperately trapped. Henrik didn’t look like he felt much better.

We walked out of the attorney’s office with our painful course of action in front of us. We talked about how horrible and frustrating the situation was, and how we were simultaneously overwhelmed by the work we needed to do in order to keep paying the bills.

Then we decided to feel differently about it.

We looked at each other, laughed and said, “Well, it’s just money. We can always make more. The truth is we’re incredibly lucky bastards and we have no justification to complain about our lot.” We started counting our blessings: our dear friends and family, the wonderful people of &yet, our homes and our community, and the amazing privilege to work in the industry we do.

Since that point, so many great things have happened. It’s most definitely been a year of seeing a lot of seeds planted long ago start to bloom a tiny bit, which has been encouraging.

On that horribly stressful day which came after six months of unrelenting challenges, we decided not to give up, and we decided that even if we did fail in the process, it was all going to be alright.

That was the turning point. From a place of gratitude, there wasn’t much that incredibly overwhelming situation could do to us other than what we let it.

I believe strongly that the person who’s grateful already has everything.

But what we never have is the ability to predict the future.

The future has a tendency to chuckle a bit at us. “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” as John Lennon put it.

Yet we know there’s always more to any story. If it wasn’t for Steve Jobs getting fired from Apple, we’d never have watched Pixar’s “Up”. If it weren’t for the collapse of Netscape, we wouldn’t have Firefox. And, undoubtedly, your life has its own “phoenix rising” stories.

Stress is the result of a discrepancy between your expectations and reality. Adjust your expectations and you can win back control of your mind and your life. Stay flexible and you have no idea what great things could emerge.

So— how?

I keep finding myself repeating a different quote to people to explain how I go about approaching planning, problems, and possibility:

“You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea” — Pablo Picasso

Now, people have criticized me and &yet in the past for not having a plan or a “clear direction” or a tight enough focus. I actually think those are valid criticisms, I just don’t know how to do it any other way.

The interesting thing is that I’ve actually found this perceived weakness to be a strength. We have been able to adjust and adapt quite dramatically and quickly, entering entirely new fields, evolving quickly, reinventing ourselves organizationally over and over, and tackling different problems along the way.

I gave the Picasso quote to someone recently in defending our unconventional and scattered way of doing things and they had the most hilarious response: “Well, sure, but Picasso’s finished product is still pretty vague!” So true! Yet his work is still impactful and it completely stands out, there’s no doubt.

The point of Picasso’s quote is to be fundamentally driven by values over goals. Ana Hevesi wrote a post early this year that does a nice job exploring this.

I am strongly driven by feelings that are in turn derived from what I value. While I may love vague ideas, you won’t ever hear me hold back my thoughts when it comes to what I value. I trust my gut—for better or worse.

I believe the fun things we’ve been able to do in the past few years have emerged from the ability to stay flexible, adjust, and adapt to things as they come—to have a vague idea of what we’re going to do, based strongly on our values. Then we start to get more specific as we get closer to the target.

This takes a lot of patience and it’s stressful to people who want to know “the plan” and who get overwhelmed by ever-shifting sands—but in a fast changing world of complexity and the unexpected, our natural hunger to nail down “the plan” is never going to be successfully sated.

Focusing on a clearly identified destination is highly overrated.

Staying sharply focused on your underlying values will always put you in the best posture to evaluate new possibilities as they emerge and threats as they appear.