I recently read a great blog post by Greg McKeown of The Harvard Business Review Blog Network titled “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” He talks about a theory he calls the clarity paradox, which has four phases.
Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.
Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.
Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.
Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.
This year I’ve been trying to discern which opportunities, while on the face of it seem very good, are in fact diffusing my efforts toward my ultimate goals. It led to a relatively drastic pruning of pursuits. I left one of my three jobs. I drastically shifted my focus in one of the remaining two. I’m learning not to ask myself whether I’m too busy to do something; rather I ask if it’s worth doing. I’m giving myself the freedom to be disinterested in otherwise good things.
But by no means have I mastered this skill. Let me highlight one example. At the beginning of the year I promised myself I would commit more of my time and resources toward improving my health. I’ve struggled with lower back pain for a while now. A good friend recommended I see his chiropractor. When I did this man discovered I was a web developer and proposed we trade services with each other. I thought it was a great offer. And for a while it was.
McKeown warns his readers to beware of the endowment effect. In a nutshell it means that we tend to place inordinate value on the things we already possess, even if they haven’t maintained their original value. After about five months of treatment from this chiropractor my back was much improved, but even though I didn’t sense that I needed to continue our arrangement I had a very difficult time giving it up. After all, on the face of it this deal was a good thing.
McKeown offers a helpful line of questioning in the struggle against the endowment effect.
Instead of asking, “How much do I value this item?” we should ask “If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?” And the same goes for career opportunities. We shouldn’t ask, “How much do I value this opportunity?” but “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?”
In this particular case the answer to that last question had changed over time. My treatment, once a commodity I was willing to sacrifice my time and energy to obtain, no longer held the same value it once did for me. In fact, when I evaluated all my freelance and consulting relationships I made the very same determination. I’ve since ended them all. I’m now only a web developer for the FSU College of Business and for The Navigators. All of those other business relationships were great; none of them ended on poor terms. But the sad reality is they were diffusing my efforts toward my bigger goals.
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If you’ve been reading and listening to what I’ve posted to this blog over the past few months you’ve probably noticed I’ve been circling around subjects in this vein quite a bit. This year has been all about reexamination, transition, and rest. I’ve said several times before that it’s my desire to live a life that would make for a great story. Certainly there’s much in life that’s out of our control, and everything ultimately is under God’s sovereign control, but I believe God has graciously granted us the ability and faculty to make choices each day. I view that as an important responsibility and an incredible opportunity.
A mentor of mine in college was fond of saying, “God’s will isn’t a tightrope. It’s a six-lane highway!” And I think that’s true. Once we weed out the choices that would be sinful we’re left with lots of legitimate paths we could take. Even after you and I zero in on a clear purpose, especially after we find some measure of success, our options remain numerous. The challenge I face, and perhaps the one you face too, is to cut through the distracting good and focus on the elusive great. The frustrating reality is no one will ever do that perfectly. But it’s something I want to strive for. I hope you’ll join me.