Are you awake to see opportunities?
Why is it that some people have the knack to see an opportunity and seize it, and others just watch them pass by?
Having spent a career as a software engineer, I encountered a world of problems in hundreds of different industries. I knew nothing about the industries at all, but what I did know was that a method to gather their needs, analyze them, design something to solve their needs and build to that design worked. We call that a “methodology”. When I looked outside of the engineering space, I found a few implementations of methodologies – in particular, business methodologies used in large organizations. I guess I naturally use methodologies without thinking, but it provides a way to codify something repeatable. In this episode I’m going to offer you a methodology that I use, that has helped me become and continue to be unconstrained.
First, let’s discuss what is a methodology. Typically it is something you can use as a template for repeatable results. The world and life is a complex place, and if you can find a methodology to follow, it can allow you to focus on components of a problem rather than be overwhelmed with the entire problem.
A methodology provides an almost “paint by numbers” approach to solving problems. The assumption here is that life is a problem, of course.
Now if you ask anyone from Russia about life, they will tell you that life is struggle. And you must learn to embrace struggle in order to embrace life. Although that could be interpreted as bleak, it is actually very empowering. But what it really does is to underscore the importance of having a methodology that helps you do this, since using this interpretation, life is a problem.
So if you take yourself out of the day to day ordeals we all face, and realize that every minute of every day should be pointed towards some destination, then you will eventually get to it. Most of us don’t think like that. We are distracted. We swat away at problems, like a swarm of mosquitoes, but the swatting is the distraction that stops us looking past the swarm.
Some of us are blessed to be able to see past those problems and look for solutions. But many have no training in finding solutions, so they end up going in circles out of habit, comfort, denial, etc. That never leads to a better outcome.
It became very apparent to me in the early days of writing software, that there had to be a discipline applied. Software is complex, and it is very easy to get bogged down in the code and forget why you are writing it. For that reason, prior to the 2000s, it was common to find those in the software development world grouped into roles that reflected in their seniority in the field. Entry level people in software were Jr. Programmers. As you gained experience, you would rise up the chain to Sr. Programmer. Then Programmer/Analyst. Then Systems Analyst, and finally you would be “Architect”. The key here was the term “Analyst”. An analyst could detach themselves from the code (the solution) and was an expert in learning and understanding the problem. They would use methods and techniques that combined modeling with psychology. I worked for years in that role, and was lucky enough to work alongside some of the best analysts & psychologists, including one of my mentors, Dr. Manny Baker. Dr. Baker was a luminary in the software engineering space, being one of the authors of military standards for software development, used worldwide as the “best practice” for how to write quality software. He moved on to be a member of the Carnegie Mellon’s Software Engineering Institute and focuses on the development and auditing of organization’s ability to write software using a thing called the Capability Maturity Model.
This technique rates the organization’s ability to take a problem and develop a software solution for it. They are given a rating that determines whether Federal Governments will award them contracts, etc. So it’s a big deal.
Anyway alongside Dr. Baker, I must have done dozens of meetings with organizations all over the world using a technique called “JAD” (Joint Application Design). The idea was that we would take everyone who was a stakeholder into a room, and for a day we would hash out their issues, codify it, using psychology to capture the linguistics of their problem, break them into nouns & verbs and basically model everything in front of them. They would then provide feedback to the model, validate it, improve it, and finally we would walk away with an understanding of their world and how we could address their issues in software design.
This worked. I don’t do that much anymore. Since about 2000, it seems that software development no longer wanted to solve problems people had, but give them an entirely new set of things they would never have thought about, and that’s the world we live in today. The software industry invents new things, and we just accept and embrace it. The software industry doesn’t consider the end user other than for some “experience” in using their inventions, and we just go along like sheep in a pen now. That was not how it was back in the 1980s when I honed my skills. We had to work with people, and we had to listen.
Anyway back to methodologies.
One thing I discovered is that in complex worlds, you have to have some over-arching philosophy that everything is measured or traded-off against. In business analysis, this is often referred to as a “mission”. Businesses do a pretty poor job of missions. But they do know that the founders of some company had a mission. And it was because of that mission that the company was created. Most companies have their heydays when the original founders are there and the mission is evangelized to their teams. That’s what happened at Apple back when Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak were leading the charge. It is what happened at Microsoft under Bill Gates. It is why GE grew to the enormous organization it became under the stewardship of Jack Welch. These people were incredible at being able to state a mission and evangelize others to carry it out.
You see, most of us don’t have a mission. We defer that either to religion, government, or the company we work for. We don’t realize that we are CEOs of ourselves and responsible to create and state a solid mission for our lives.
For me, my mission is to be unconstrained. Basically freedom. I tell my story of how I arrived at that conclusion, and I live my life in accordance with that mission. It is why I created this podcast and beunconstrained.com. It drives me to write about it, record about it, be interviewed about it, research it, and constantly support the mission with my actions.
Like in the case of a corporation who has a well stated mission, they then break down what they do to support the mission by way of “critical success factors” or CSFs as we’ll call them.
Unlike a mission, a CSF is quantifiable. You can determine when you succeed or fail with a CSF. It is Boolean – either true or false. There may be levels of success or failure, but basically you know when you have achieved the CSF.
CSFs could be things like “Get out of debt” or “Get a 2nd passport” or “Lose 50 pounds of weight” or “Create a legacy” or “Write a book”, etc. Think of these things as large scale endeavors. But most important, they have to support the mission. When you state the mission, it should be succinct (ideally 30 words or less) and you have to be able to ensure that what you do is in support of that mission. And that’s done through CSFs.
Now for each CSF, you can have one or many projects. A project is specific to an end result, and you should be able to measure the status of the project. Things like “Proposed”, “Ready to start”, “In progress”, “QC”, “Finished”. You work on projects. That’s where our toil goes.
Each project has a set of requirements – that is statements that do not dictate HOW you are going to do the project, but only something that states exactly what the project has to achieve. Things like “Pay off all credit card debt” or “Buy a home” or “Learn to fix my own car”. You need to spend time to think through the requirements in detail. I can tell you that most projects that fail, do so because the person doing the work on the project never spent enough time to really analyze the requirements of the project. In fact, in software projects, analysis of failure typically shows 75% of the reason was due to poor or erroneous requirements analysis – not that the programmers didn’t know how to code it.
You see, our life is about working our “projects”. Everything you do is basically your efforts in the “construction” phase in a project. Although this technique isn’t used as commonly in software development as it once was, it used to be common that a “Top Down” approach to software projects broke the work required into the following phases:
2. Requirement Gathering
5. Coding (Construction)
Although that’s a very engineering process, what I’m trying to show you here is that we all work on projects and we may be proud that our methods of working results in excellent success in the projects we embrace.
But the key missing part here are all the reasons why you do the project in the first place. That is the CSFs and the mission.
Most of us never have the mission defined nor do we understand what will allow us to achieve the mission (the CSFs). We just aimlessly go about our days doing projects, without knowing why we are doing them. We go to college, we go to work, we toil, but for no reason. We just think that’s what the 21st century man or woman does.
Yet the results we get are pathetic. We believe that since projects are often resulting in financial income, that all the world is about money. It isn’t.
We believe that if we just keep doing what we do, doing it harder, longer, smarter, etc. that we have to result in a better outcome for our families. But it doesn’t work.
I continue to state the statistics proving this:
78% of people living pay check to pay check
Most families can’t afford a $500 unexpected bill
Most are slaves to their employer due to debt levels
We live in fear of being sick or having a medical event
Few have hope that their future will be better than their past
Retirement is only a luxury that about 30% of the population get to afford
Rather than addressing these things, we find solace in distraction. I’ll just go to work each day like I did the day before. I’ll put up with the shit from the boss, and stupid deadlines, the staying late to get the job done, etc.
When I do get time off, I’ll waste it watching TV or looking at my phone. I’m exhausted, so I don’t have the energy to do anything meaningful. And if you are a parent with kids, this means what is left of you is given to taking the kids to soccer practices, or ballet practice, etc. Or PTA meetings, or church, etc.
There is nothing left of you after all of this. Certainly nothing that lets you deep think your mission at all.
So rather than addressing that, we just rinse & repeat the same over and over. By the time we get older, maybe have amassed a little savings, etc. and we have the time to think again, it is too late. We missed the opportunity that should have come when we defined our mission and our life should have been a series of CSFs and projects that supported that mission.
Think of it as a ship leaving port. If it has a destination in place, it can direct itself to that destination. Few of us have that destination (the mission) defined. We leave port aimlessly. We spend most of our days in choppy waters, dredging the water out, so we don’t sink. But we are drifting towards no actual end. Maybe we look to some communal embracement of a philosophy or faith to get us through. But that doesn’t not tell us OUR mission. Only a set of rules or guidelines to live by. Without the destination clearly identified, they become just another set of constraints that we have to abide by to limit our choices.
Why has this all happened? Because we never understood the importance of mission.
And I’m not saying that your life has to be about one mission. I’m just saying that if you want to achieve big things in life, you have to at least have a mission. Otherwise you will be someone else’s lunch rather than enjoying your own 5 star meal.
I would say that 99% of the things you think are important in life, are not. We all get so obsessed and focus on others that tell you that you could buy this crypto currency and get rich. Or invest in this stock. Or if only you had a Tesla. Or you should live in this neighborhood. Etc.
All possibly good ideas, if they are put within the framework of a mission, CSFs or projects that supports what you want. But if your mission was to become a buddhist monk, would they? No. They would distract you or divert you from achieving what you wanted. The same would be true in reverse. If your mission is to get your family out of poverty, would it make sense to go live in a monastery in Nepal for a year? Probably not.
Those that achieve the greatest things in life, do it because they know their mission. It is that simple. No, frugality is not a mission. It is a requirement of a project somewhere deep down in the bowels of a mission. The same is true of income creation. It may be needed to support one or more projects, but it is not the mission itself. If you think it is, then you have missed the boat completely.
I watch a lot of groups who embrace common ideals. The one that is of interest to me is the FIRE movement. They congregate around in circles of people that feel that they are on a mission – to retire early. But that is not a mission. At best, that is a CSF. Why would you want to retire?
I can tell you that most people who retire (and I experienced this at the ripe old age of 32) are miserable. They have no mission now. They have no destination in life. They stop. They are stuck. You can only do that for so long before you lose yourself in it all. The concept of exiting from the workforce is great – but when you exit something, you must enter something else. Most have never even looked at that side of life.
Why? Because they don’t know their mission. If they did know their mission, they may not need to exit work at all. It might be that their mission is to create great art. If so, maybe they can achieve that by changing careers into the art world. Or maybe they need to amass money to buy income producing assets, so that the assets provide them with the money they need, allowing them to focus on their mission better.
You see, the aimless idea of just retiring is to give up. Never give up. We are not designed to give up.
The only thing that can combat entropy (that is the fact that everything in the universe eventually turns to dust), is to either attend to things (maintain them) or to create new things. The latter has the greatest chance of usurping entropy. The former only staves it off. But either activity is rewarding at a universal level. If you do nothing, you will turn to dust. It is that simple.
So peace comes from involvement into either attending to, or creating things. Because we all know our role in life in this universe finds happiness when fighting (and winning) against entropy. Anyone that thinks that they can retire early, do nothing and be happy, is a fool.
If you took a job because the social mantra told you to do that, or you had bills and you needed money, but you never had a mission, then it doesn’t surprise me that you want to retire early. But take yourself back to your teenage years – the years when your parents funded your existence. It was then that you had the chance to challenge yourself and find your mission. That said, it is very hard to do that if your head is stuck in a smartphone all day long.
Some of us did that. I was lucky enough to stumble into technology & electronics and I made that my mission. In parallel, I wanted to create great music, so I did that as well. It was like a battle between the left & right sides of my brain. But I knew that I could handle both. So I did. It took me all over the world – it told me to go for job interviews. I found myself in enviable positions with startups that became something. Even to this day, I have people I’ve worked with over the decades asking me to be on the board of this company or as an advisor to that company, because they value my advice. Why is that? Because I can see, as an outsider, if they have a mission, if they have CSFs under control, if their projects support those things, and if they are likely to succeed. When I’ve been able to put that input into organizations, they have turned into hundred million dollar companies in 3 years. Or although I was just one of a team of early guys at Amgen, a $40 billion corporation.
Is it that I am special? No. There are millions of better programmers out there than me. But what I do understand is the inter-connectedness of things, and how a mission with CSFs & projects work. And the power of leverage of your successes to the next level of success. Those things are real.
But why would you want to advise someone else on this? Surely you would first advise yourself, right?
So I leave you with this challenge.
Do you have a mission? Does your family have a mission? Have you written it down? Have you evangelized your family around it? Do they all agree that anything you do as an organization in support of the mission is worthy? Do they give you permission to pursue anything in support of that mission?
Now if you have a mission, do you have 5 or more CSFs that support the mission? Are they quantifiable?
For each CSF, do you have one or more projects that help advance the CSF? If so, do you have a more engineering focus on the project? Do you really understand the requirement of the project? And do you have a plan or a timeline for completion of the project. What are the resources needed? What milestones are in place to determine progress? Do you have contingency plans in place? What quality control methods are you going to use to determine if you have successfully completed the project?
Can you share around the projects to all members of your family? Wouldn’t it feel less stressful if you were part of a team moving towards a collective destination? Would you not have more empathy for the challenges that each team member has in their projects? Can you help out others to succeed, so that the entire group succeeds?
And I will leave you with this last point….
If you are blessed to be listening to this episode and you have not yet been suckered into bankster debt, before you do anything, find your mission.
If you don’t know what that is, then your job is to seek it out. Travel the world to find it. Speak to people. Look inward to yourself and your passion. Is it sports, art, entrepeneurialsm, creating something, helping others, serving a cause you believe in, etc. Know that your happiness will most likely come from your battle with the universe of entropy. In the same way my friends in Russia would say “Life is a struggle”, I would change that to say “Life is a battle with entropy”. You know you can never win that battle, because you will eventually turn to dust. But you can spend your life on a positive mission to either attend/maintain things, or create things, and that will likely bring you the greatest happiness. That, surely, should be a part of your mission.