Principles for cultivating an effective approach to life
If we only get one shot at life, we better do what we can to make the most of it. To realize our potential and accomplish what matters most to us, we must develop our general competence and formulate a functional approach to living.
By cultivating a toolbox of practical skills, principles, and personal qualities, we can equip ourselves to deal with whatever life may throw at us. I call this toolbox “personal effectiveness.” Do this well, and we can navigate our way through life smiling and clutching whatever prize we hold most dear.
Leveling up in the game of life
Imagine life is a video game, and you are the lead character who starts with a basic set of personal attributes and character stats. Each time you improve one of these stats, you level up to become more powerful, and you can accomplish more in the game. That is how developing your personal effectiveness works. You build your skills and qualities up one at a time until you become an unstoppable force who can deal with whatever challenges lay ahead of you.
So, what attributes do you need to level up in the game of life? Life is complex, so you need a broad range of skills and a good grasp of some underlying principles to tie them all together. This article is an overview of what I have learned from personal experience, study, and observing successful people in different domains. I have broken down these lessons into a list of what I consider the most essential skills and qualities for a successful life.
Each item warrants a more in-depth, standalone article, but I have omitted much of the detail here to keep things brief and digestible. Think of this guide as the 80/20 approach to personal effectiveness — an overview of the 20% of things that will help you take care of 80% of everything. They are not listed in any particular order.
Let’s dive in.
Always seek clarity
The more you have, the easier it is to hit your mark. Make your goals, objectives, timelines, and available resources as specific as possible before you act. It will help you to remove speculation and pinpoint exactly what you do (and don’t) need to do. SMART goals are a great way to clearly define what you want to achieve.
Greater clarity will help you focus on what matters so you can plan effectively, avoid false starts, and save time. Wherever possible, don’t work off assumptions. They can lead you astray, waste your time and energy, undermine your efficacy, and will kill your motivation in the long run. You can’t always confirm everything 100% before you must act, but the more you can reduce uncertainty, the better.
Develop your self-awareness
The better you understand your strengths, weaknesses, drivers, beliefs, and behaviors, the more you can leverage your natural tendencies. Improving your self-awareness makes it easier to find activities, relationships, and opportunities that are a good fit for you. It helps you maximize your upside, limit your downside, and avoid wasting time and energy chasing dead ends.
I like to think of self-awareness as a meta-skill that underpins many others, making it a priority for personal development. It is one of the fundamental components of Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence model. Get to know where your natural edge lies, then harness it for all it is worth.
Don’t be afraid of failure
School may be where we start our education, but the way school learning is structured plays a cruel trick on us that undermines our growth. Its focus on all or nothing exam assessments and teaches us to avoid failure at all costs. But failure is nothing to fear. In the real world, what lies on the other side of it is usually another opportunity. Mistakes are merely learning experiences that accelerate our understanding and give us a greater chance of success next time.
The most accomplished people tend to those who have failed the most. They understand that setbacks are just part of the process of achieving great things, so they don’t get hung up on them. When Amazon’s Fire Phone failed, Jeff Bezos rightly told the project leader, “You can’t, for one minute, feel bad… Promise me you won’t lose one minute of sleep.” The technology and learning that came out of the project laid the foundation for the Echo, one of the most successful products of the last decade.
When it comes to failure, embrace it, learn from it, dust yourself off, and come back better. If you’re not making mistakes or failing on occasion, you are not working on hard enough problems, which means you are playing it too safe and holding yourself back. Not trying because you are afraid of failing guarantees that you won’t get the outcome you want. And that is the biggest failure of all.
Focus on positives, not negatives
A positive mindset is super-important. To achieve anything, you must first believe it is possible. Otherwise, why bother trying? Optimism is a forcing function that gives you the motivation to overcome friction, making it easier to establish momentum and keep going.
On the flipside, a can’t do attitude, underpinned by limiting beliefs, is a barrier to progress. Thinking the glass is half empty rather than half-full is self-sabotage. Why? Because you can still drink from a half-empty glass. Don’t close yourself off from opportunities because of their imperfections; otherwise, you will walk away from almost everything. Frame things in a positive light; it will give you the drive to get things done.
Focus on solutions, not problems
If you focus on problems, you will find reasons to quit. But ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away, so that isn’t the solution either. Instead, frame problems as a springboard for learning and reflection. Explore different ways you can overcome challenges, then weigh them up against one another. You will not only solve the immediate problem, but you will also develop analytical skills that will help you overcome future problems. Life gets easier and progress comes quicker when you do the extra mental work required to focus on solutions.
Don’t compare yourself to others, but take inspiration from them
You can never be someone else, so there’s no point trying. If you want to reach your potential, focus on being the best version of yourself rather than emulating others. Use people’s achievements as a source of inspiration, not as a metric for judging yourself. If you want to compare yourself to anyone, compare your current self to your past self. It is the best way to measure your progress, remind yourself how far you have come, and know where it is you are going.
Never stop learning
Bill Gates said, “You don’t really start getting old until you stop learning,” which is a good enough reason to be a lifelong learner in itself. Author Ken Schramm said, “A smart person learns from his mistakes, but a truly wise person learns from the mistakes of others.” Study is the practice of learning from others, and it shouldn’t stop when you finish school. A commitment to lifelong learning is the cornerstone of self-improvement, so it is in your interest to remain curious and open-minded.
With books, podcasts, and the internet at your disposal, it has never been easier to access learning resources. Study whatever interests you, but don’t focus on learning facts that can easily be Googled. Instead, aim to cultivate a deep understanding of how things work and their underlying principles. That way, you will develop a richer appreciation of the world and can apply your learning from one domain to another. As David Epstein discusses in his excellent book, Range, this is often where breakthrough insights come from.
Develop your critical thinking and reasoning skills
If our lives are the sum of the decisions we make, we want to make the best decisions possible. Good decisions require sharp evaluation skills. A practical way to improve our decision-making is to have a set of mental models we can rely on. Mental models give our thinking a sound underlying logic that will get us better results than just winging it. Concepts such as reverse engineering, economies of scale, and opportunity cost are handy things to have stashed away on your mental hard-drive when facing a dilemma. Find a few that work for you and familiarise yourself with them so you can call on them when needed.
Brushing up on your probabilistic reasoning is valuable for those times when you can’t get the level of clarity or certainty you desire. Ex-poker player Annie Duke’s book, Thinking in Bets, is a great resource to start with because, as Duke explains, life isn’t checkers or chess; it’s poker.
Learn how to communicate effectively
Effective communication is critical for success. Learn how to communicate well visually, verbally, and in writing. These are all crafts you can study and learn. Clear communication is underpinned by clear thinking, which is another reason why developing your critical thinking skills is essential.
Say no to things that take you away from your goals
Most worthwhile accomplishments require you to do something difficult at some point. And difficult things require focus. A big part of focus is having the discipline to say no to distractions so you can concentrate on what actually matters. Saying yes is great for exposing yourself to opportunities. But once you have set your sights on a goal you want to achieve, you must start saying no to things that take you away from it. Only then can you focus on doing what is required to get the outcome you want.
Ideas and intentions are nice things to have, but they mean nothing if you don’t act on them. Consistency is the most crucial aspect of becoming competent and accomplished, as described by Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule. Almost everything else on this list is about improving your efficiency and efficacy when you show up. But if you don’t show up consistently in the first place, you can’t expect much to happen or change. Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art is all about the idea that resistance to reliably showing up is the biggest enemy of success, especially in creative pursuits. If you want results, do the work — consistently. It’s that simple.
If you want to be average, do what everyone else does
If you want to be better than average, you need to do something different from everybody else. By definition, the standard approach will get you standard results. It may help you avoid making gratuitous mistakes and suffering major setbacks, but it won’t get you outstanding results. If you want to excel and achieve things you are proud of, you need to find a way to elevate your game.
Deviating from the standard path brings with it the possibility of failure. But as we have already seen, failure is part of the process of achieving great things, so don’t fear it. Be bold. Your self-awareness and critical thinking skills can help you deviate from the standard path in a way that plays to your strengths and minimizes your chance of failure. See how these building blocks all fit together?
Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. Many people lose out long-term by settling for what seems valuable in the short-term; a tendency known as temporal discounting. Putting your energy into quick payoffs is often a form of false progress. It feels good in the moment, but it can undermine your ability to realize more rewarding longer-term outcomes.
A series of one-night stands will never be as rewarding as a long-term relationship. The same is true of most things in life. There is a correlation between people’s ability to resist the temptation of quick, easy wins and their level of success. Learn to play the long game. Embrace delayed gratification instead of short-term payoffs, and good things will happen. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Act quickly when the stars align
Opportunities don’t stick around forever. Once they’re gone, they’re gone, so you need to be poised, ready to strike when they come your way. This is the flipside of patience, and there is a balance to be struck. Being ready requires preparation, and preparation requires patience. Unless you get lucky, being in the right place at the right time to capitalize on a situation involves a lot of hard work being done in advance. So, while you need to be patient when looking at the big picture, you need to act fast when it comes to crunch time. “Macro patience, micro speed,” to quote Gary Vaynerchuk.
Be flexible and adaptable
The smartest people know the importance of planning, but they don’t blindly stick to a plan. They scan the horizon for new information, assess it, and adapt their approach in response. When they sense the winds change or identify a better way to do something, they quickly discard their original plan and embrace a new one.
Don’t fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy and stay tied to the old path when a new, better one is available to you. Strong opinions, weakly held, is the way to go. If you’re not flexible, you are fragile. And fragile things fall apart under stress. Don’t be rigid and get stuck in a certain mindset; always be willing to adapt, change, and grow.
As Bruce Lee said, “When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water, my friend.”
Your future is determined by what you do in the present
If who you are now is a result of the choices you made in the past, then who you will be in the future is determined by what you do in the present. Putting things off until tomorrow won’t get you there tomorrow. What you do today will. Don’t just think about how your actions affect you in the moment; consider how they will affect you in the future too.
As we have seen, being patient and playing the long game is how you get the best payoffs, so act in a way that will get you to where you want to be in the future. Consistency and compounding lead to outsized long-term results. As the famous Chinese proverb goes, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is today.” Invest in yourself now and enjoy the rewards later.
Big picture first, details later
Common wisdom pigeon-holes people as being either detail or big picture-oriented. But by being mindful, we can be both. The best approach to most things in life is to start by looking at the big picture to get a sense of scope and context before zooming in to focus on details.
Let me explain.
When Michelangelo sculpted his masterpiece David, he didn’t start by intricately carving the eyes or any other minutiae. He began with the big picture, getting the proportions, balance, and harmony of the composition right before moving on to finesse the details later. Similarly, successful business leaders and war generals know that they must focus on strategy (the big picture) before thinking about tactical details.
We want to use this same approach in our own life.
First, start with a clear goal and decide on a broad brushstroke strategy for getting there before moving onto the details of how to execute it. This should help you foresee problems and solve them before they occur, resulting in an actionable plan that makes it easier to efficiently accomplish your goal.
Know where you’re going, but don’t try to do everything at once
Trying to tackle too many aspects of a project simultaneously will cause us to become unfocused and get pulled in a million different directions. This is a recipe for overwhelm, burnout, and going nowhere fast. It is akin to multi-tasking, which has been proven to be ineffective. A better approach is to devise a logical plan to achieve your goal, then work through it step-by-step.
Don’t underestimate this simple approach. The simpler you can make something, the more likely you are to realize it.
Big problems are best solved by breaking them down into small, manageable chunks then tackling them one-by-one. This incremental approach was used by legendary startup incubator Y Combinator to deliver some outrageous successes. At fortnightly progress check meetings, YC mentors and startup teams would agree on sub-goals to solve before their next meeting. These sub-goals were all the teams would focus on in the interim.
The lesson here is that, as long as you are aware of the big picture, there is no need to be looking at it the whole time. Just have it in the back of your mind. Success at YC comes from a continual process of focusing on immediate problems, solving them, then moving on to the next set of issues until the end goal is reached. Given that heavyweights such as Air BnB, DropBox, and DoorDash came through the famed startup incubator, the results of this method speak for themselves.
Aim for simplicity, not complexity
Humans are easily impressed by big, new, shiny objects and tend to default to the view that bigger, or more, is better. But the designers’ maxim less is more is often a better guiding principle. Simple solutions are usually more elegant, robust, and adaptable than their more complex alternatives, making them the smart thing to aim for.
But simple doesn’t mean easy. The design of simple, effective approaches requires a lot of thought. Einstein proposed five levels of intellect, the highest being simplicity, which he placed one level above genius. Indeed, he is quoted as saying, “Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.”
Framing problems in terms of “what is getting in the way that can be removed?” rather than “What do I need to add?” will help you strip things back to their fundamentals. Once you have got to the essence of what you are dealing with and identified what is important, discard everything else. Your problem should then be simpler to solve.
A favorite quote of mine, from French writer and aviator Antoine De Saint-Exupery, succinctly articulates this idea into a tidy takeaway:
“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing less to take away.”
Minimizing your downside can be the best way to maximize your upside
The stock market is known for “taking the stairs up and the elevator down” because it tends to rise slowly and steadily for years before quickly falling and losing lots of its value. A similar pattern is true in many aspects of life.
One critical mistake can lead to a catastrophe that undoes years of hard work. Just think of the endless stream of celebrities who have trashed their careers overnight due to a scandal. Knowing this, it often makes sense to focus on avoiding blunders rather than chasing optimal outcomes all the time. Consistent small wins may not be as glamorous as hitting big scores, but they will compound to create substantial impacts if you are patient and avoid making costly mistakes. Slow and steady wins the race.
Work smart, but work hard too
“Work smart, not hard” is commonly quoted advice, but really you need to do both.
Imagine you had to move a wheelbarrow and a pile of bricks from one end of a street to the other. You could put the bricks in a backpack, pick up the wheelbarrow, and carry everything down the street. That would be working hard, but it wouldn’t be smart. The smart thing to do would be to put the bricks in the wheelbarrow and push it down the street.
So far, so good. But what if you had to moe a lot of bricks on a tight deadline? You would need to load the bricks into the wheelbarrow and run as you push it down the street. Then run back and do it again, making multiple trips until you have moved all the bricks. That is working smart and hard.
You can apply the wheelbarrow metaphor to most things you want to accomplish. Start with a clear goal, figure out an efficient way to achieve it, then don’t half-ass it.
Working smart and hard is the secret sauce that allows you to maximize the return on your effort and achieve more than you thought was possible.
Cycle between activity, rest, and reflection
Getting things done isn’t just about doing things. It’s also about balance. Hustle culture might glorify the grind, but you can’t stay in high gear indefinitely; you will burn out. You need downtime to recharge between stints of productive activity. And you need periods of reflection, which is when much of your deep learning and deep thinking occurs.
Allowing your mind to be underemployed gives it a chance to wander, which is where the magic often happens. It’s hard to have eureka moments and insightful breakthroughs if all you do is grind until you fall asleep. Rest and reflection give you the energy and mental space necessary to develop quality thoughts and put them into action. To be effective, you need a healthy balance of all three states.
Be open to the input of others
You can’t do it all on your own. Even the uber-beasts who are competent enough to realize their dreams by themselves don’t have the time and energy to do everything by themselves. Not in the timeframe they would like, anyway.
Collaboration and cooperation are catalysts for success. Working with others will help you achieve more in less time than you could do flying solo. There is an old proverb that says, “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Don’t try to hold on too tightly and control everything yourself. Learn to let go. Teamwork makes the dream work.
Listening is more important than talking
Our ability to communicate and work with others is why humans are at the top of the food chain. As Sapiens author, Yuval Harari, notes, “Humans control the planet because they are the only animals that can cooperate both flexibly and in very large numbers.” Learn to understand people so you can get the best out of them and have allies in the right places when you need them.
The best way to understand people is to listen to them. Hearing other people’s perspectives can be incredibly insightful. They can help you think about things in ways you haven’t previously considered and arrive at a deeper understanding of the world.
Listening helps you learn about people and build solid relationships. Showing interest in what someone has to say is one of the best ways to make them feel valued. Dale Carnegie advocates a listening approach in his classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Don’t overlook, underestimate, or dismiss others. The attention and respect you give them will pay you back in dividends. Your network is your net worth.
Find a coach or a mentor
You can only take yourself so far. We are all limited by the boundaries of our own minds and experiences. Working with a coach or mentor can furnish us with different perspectives and unlock knowledge that gives us new ways to look at problems. They can help us overcome our limitations, grow, and reach our potential. Coaching is also an excellent way to improve that valuable meta-skill; self-awareness.
Think of the top performers and athletes in the world. Even though they are world-class at what they do, they have a whole team behind them. No way they are achieving all that success by themselves. They rely on their coaches’ and mentors’ support to become the best version of themselves and achieve greatness. If the people at the very top can benefit from coaching and mentoring, there’s no doubt the rest of us can too.
A word of advice: coaches and mentors come in all kinds of flavors. If you are thinking of working with one, first decide if you want a mentor or a coach. When researching potential candidates, check their credentials to make sure they are what you are looking for in terms of personality, style, and approach. You need to know you can trust someone before you start working with them. A good sign is if they are a member of a professional body such as the ICF or EMCC. Any qualified, ethically sound coach or mentor will offer you an initial meeting (which shouldn’t be a sales pitch) to make sure you have a good rapport and that their coaching style is right for you before you commit to anything. Always take them up on this offer and trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, walk away. Once you find one you are happy with, trust them and commit to the process. You will be surprised what it can do for you.
One more thing
Some of the items discussed here, such as patience vs. speed, and being true to yourself while remaining open to other people’s input, are in tension with one another. That is because personal effectiveness has another layer to it; knowing how to balance the tension between these opposing qualities. The more adept you become at walking the fine line that this tension sits on, the more effectively you will be able to apply these principles to your life. Walking that line is not something that can be taught. You have to develop a sensitivity for it through experience.
While it can’t be taught, it can be coached. Working with a skilled coach can help you reflect and develop this sensitivity. I have repeatedly witnessed my clients make rapid progress in many of the areas discussed here when they have committed to the coaching process.
If you are interested in developing your self-awareness or want to get support with an issue or a different perspective from a trained coach, get in touch with me to arrange a coaching conversation. I’d love to talk to you.