Alexander the Great (Former King of Macedon, a State in Ancient Greece)
“In real life, strategy is actually very straightforward. You pick a general direction and implement like hell.”
Jack Welch (Former Chairman and CEO; General Electric)
“Perseverance and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.”
Biz Stone (Co-founder; Twitter)
Strategists and sheep have nothing in common.
Shearing sheep is actually pretty easy. You might imagine that rounding up over a hundred sheep and funneling them towards a scary metal door with a large man wielding an extremely sharp and extremely loud buzzing device would be difficult. But, in reality, it’s pretty easy. This is because sheep aren’t very smart. In fact, sheep are pretty stupid.
In between my freshman, sophomore, and junior years of college, I worked on a sheep farm in Cheney, WA. I learned how to do cool things like feed baby lambs, inject farm animals with (gross) anti-tick medication, build electrical fences, operate back hoes, drive tractors, and, of course, shear sheep. Once a year, usually in June, my boss would hire a sheep shearer to come down to the farm and sheer over a hundred head of sheep in the same day. Sheep shearing day involved herding the sheep into a triangular fence, funneling them one-by-one through a tiny metal door, pinning the sheep down, and removing each sheep’s woolen fleece. Each fleece would then be pressed and transported to a manufacturing facility to create blankets, jackets, sweaters, scarves, and other garments. The shearing process wasn’t painful, but still, the sheep hated it.
My job was to get all one hundred plus sheep out of the pasture and into the large triangular cage near the shearing shed. To do this, 2-3 other farmhands and I, each of us holding two large sticks, would circle behind the sheep and position ourselves between the sheep and the triangular cage. Next, we would start banging the sticks together and walking towards the cage. Sheep are afraid of everything. The herd’s reaction was always the same: one sheep would hear the banging sticks and take off running in the opposite direction and immediately every other sheep would follow. The entire herd would run right into the triangular fence. They did all of the work for us. All we had to do was keep banging the sticks and walking towards the gate that opened into the fence. Once the herd was in the fence, the next step was to funnel the sheep, one-by-one, towards the small metal door that was set up at the far corner of the fence. To get the sheep to come towards the metal door, I would lure them forward, inch-by-inch, with carrots and other treats. Once a sheep reached the metal door, it was too late for him to escape. He was cornered. His only option was to go through to door and be grabbed by the big man with the shearer.
Sheep Are The Ultimate Tacticians
Sheep only respond to two things: sticks being banged behind them and carrots being held out in front of them. This is why it’s so easy to shear sheep. Their herd mentality and lack of foresight make it very easy to funnel them down a narrower and narrower track until they are stuck. The sheep are trapped by their own tactical nature. But sheep aren’t the only animals that get stuck by groupthink and nearsightedness. Sometimes, it happens to humans too.
Feeling stuck in a situation or trapped by your circumstances is one of the worst feelings in the world. Growth is a core human need. As soon as you stop experiencing growth, you stop experiencing life. This is why being stuck can feel like death. It can feel like you’re slowly rotting while everyone else is getting ahead. But how do you get stuck in the first place? In life, you get stuck when you think you know where you’re going, but you really don’t, and then, when you finally get to where you were going, you’re not sure how you got there. You don’t know how you got there but you do know that you want to be somewhere else.
Human beings get stuck the same way that sheep get stuck, by staying within the herd and failing to create a long-term vision. When we live our lives like tacticians instead of strategists, we end up trapped. The good news is, no matter how far down the tactical rabbit hole you traveled, it’s never too late to start thinking like a strategist. A strategist is someone who can see the end from the beginning and who acts independently from other people’s expectations. The following list will help you stop thinking like a tactician and start thinking like a strategist.
15 Keys To Strategic Thinking
1. Ignore other people’s expectations – Disapproval is the biggest stick of all. Most people spend their entire lives running away from the disapproval of others. These people will do anything to avoid letting their friends, family members, and peers down, even if that means missing out on their biggest dreams. Similarly, approval is life’s biggest carrot. It’s in our nature to seek validation. The problem is that most people only seek external validation. They make important career and life decisions based on meeting other people’s expectations, not their own. As a result, these people end up working jobs they hate and living empty lives.
2. Think outside of the herd – Avoid groupthink. Groupthink is the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity and individual responsibility. The more time you spend in the herd, the easier it is to get lost in groupthink. Studies such as the Solomon Asch conformity experiment have shown that individuals planted in a group will deliberately answer questions against clear visual evidence in order to conform to the answers of the group. Conformity is career death. The more you conform, the more your creativity and identity suffer. It’s impossible to grow and conform at the same time.
3. Work alone as much as possible – Isolation is not a stick. You should not fear being alone. In fact, you should thrive on being alone. In the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain explains how the world’s biggest breakthroughs were not initiated by committees, teams, or other groups of people, they were initiated by individuals. Cain tells the story of Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, who toiled alone to create the personal computer. Wozniak created the computer, on his own, from nothing, by working late at night, over a period of years, all by himself. Solitude is the starting point of all life-changing creations.
4. Spend the first hour of the day on you – The best hours of the day are the first few that you’re awake. The problem is that most people give these hours away to others, or, they sleep right through them. Studies show that early risers are more proactive, get better grades, and are, in general, more successful in life. Early risers have also been shown to be happier and more confident leaders. One report showed that most powerful CEOs wake up by 6 a.m. The key is to use the first few hours of each day on yourself, even if that means waking up a little earlier. The morning is a great time to spend some time alone strategizing, creating, and connecting without distractions.
5. Ask yourself will this matter in 1 year – Hard work is tiring, but emotional upheaval is exhausting. Strategic thinking means learning to pick your battles and see past the fires that other people start in front of you. The best way to do this is by continually asking yourself, “Will this matter in 1 year?” Think back to where you were 1 year ago today. What were you thinking exactly? What were all of the little things that were stressing you out? Can you even remember what you were wearing? Chances are you won’t be able to remember any of this. If it won’t matter in a year, drop it. You’ll be surprised how much energy this will save.
6. Ask yourself where you were 5 years ago – A lot of people have a hard time being strategists because they’re addicted to carrots. They crave and need short-term rewards and constant pats on the back. These people are addicted to immediate gratification. They don’t recognize the power of strategic thinking. Understand that most people overestimate what they can do in a short amount of time and underestimate what they can do in a long amount of time. A quick way to see the value of strategic thinking is by asking yourself where you were 5 years ago. Chances are, you’re very different person today than you were 5 years ago. Chances are, you’ve experienced quite a bit of growth. From day-to-day, it might seem like you’re not making any progress. But, by zooming out, you can see how far you’ve come and start to see what else is possible.
7. Create a 10 year vision – All rags-to-riches stories occur in decades, not days. All overnight successes start with a 10 year prologue; a back story riddled with hard work, repeated failure, and unreasonable persistence. Stop looking at the carrots in front of you and start looking towards where you want to be 10 years from now.
8. Find a strategic mentor – The fastest way to get to where you want to go is to recruit the help of someone who is already there. The fastest way to move 10 years ahead in your career, is to learn from people who are 10 years ahead of you. This means actively seeking people to coach and mentor you. The key is finding mentors who want you to reach or exceed their level of success, not keep you beneath their level of success. Most mentors are tactical. They want to keep you, like sheep, in their flock. Their goal is to merely turn sheep into better sheep. On the other hand, a strategic mentor wants to turn sheep into wolves. Start finding people who are willing to raise you up to their level, not keep you under their wings forever.
9. Start a personal project – Strategists thrive on growth and autonomy. Once you stop fearing sticks and stop chasing carrots, you’ll start connecting with a strong desire to grow and, importantly, to control your growth. The best way to fulfill both of these needs is to start a personal project. Find something you’re passionate about and start to breath life into it. Whether it’s a hobby, nonprofit, book, or small business, the act of creating and developing it will give you something to measure and dictate. Being a strategist requires a medium. A personal project is your medium.
10. Build your own connections – Tactical people work hard to build their companies’ client lists. These people network for their employer’s sake but never think to network for their own sake. Strategic people, on the other hand, work hard to build long-term relationships that will benefit both their employers and themselves. Relationships are a strategy, not a tactic. Your relationships, both professional and personal, are one of the few things that will stay with you for your entire life, but only if you nurture them strategically. This means constantly adding value to your relationships, not just using them to get ahead in the short-term.
11. Launch a product or service – Take your personal project to the streets. In the end, your goal should be to take your gift, your message, your purpose; and share it with the world. This means turning your personal project into a product or service that can better the lives of other people. The only way to convert strategy into legacy is by adding something of value to the rest of the world. If you want to have an impact, creation is not enough. You have to launch. You have to ship. You have to go to market.
12. Break the 10,000 hour law – Studies show that it takes the average person 10 years, or about 10,000 waking-hours of work to achieve mastery. Strategic people can shave hours off of this law by converging, synergizing, and morphing their efforts. Greatness usually requires mastery in more than one field. The only way to achieve mastery in multiple fields before you run out of time and die is by converging your efforts. This means overlapping your pursuits in as many ways as possible. If you want to be a great writer, inventor, and public speaker, then write about inventing and public speaking, speak about inventing and writing, and invent books and speeches. Also, for each pursuit, form a mastermind group or tribe with other like-minded people. Synergy is the great way to share, and thus reduce, your hours. The key is to keep these groups very small (3-4 people max) and to only utilize them for occasional feedback, not for overall creative direction. Finally, morph other people’s work into your own. Life is too short to start at the bottom. Find people ahead of you who are doing what you want to do and put your spin on their work. Don’t just stand on the shoulders of giants, make their shoulders your own. Of course, you should always reference appropriately and give credit to your inspirations.
13. Manage willpower depletion – Everyone has a daily willpower limit. Studies show that, for most people, this limit is 3-5 hours per day. In this case, willpower is defined as your ability to maintain a state of deliberate practice, or, in other words, your ability to make good, strong decisions that push you outside of your comfort zone and result in growth past your current abilities. Strategists excel at saving their willpower stores. They do this through ritualization, automation, and adjustment. The most important thing that strategists due to prevent willpower depletion is create a morning ritual. A morning ritual is a collection of habits that are stacked on top of each other and completed first thing in the morning. Habits do not require decisions, which means, they do not lower your willpower. The more things you do by habit, the more willpower you’ll have for things that really matter. Also, strategists save their willpower by automating, or outsourcing, as many unimportant tasks as possible. This can be as simple as using a calculator for long division or as complicated as setting up a team of assistants to take care of your marketing efforts. Of course, you can’t outsource your health and you should never outsource your relationships. Finally, strategists adjust their environment to fit their overall purpose in life. Just like losing weight is more difficult when you have a fridge full of cake and a freezer full of ice cream, strategic thinking is more difficult when you surrounded yourself with drama and tacticians.
14. Measure everything – The only way to experience growth on a regular basis is to measure everything. Understand that growth is impossible without measurement. No one can move forward without feedback. Start keeping a short journal at the end of each day of what you get done. This will help you start focusing on outcomes rather than on feelings and desires. It will also serve as a source of feedback for you to turn to whenever you get stuck. In terms of your personal project, start tracking analytics. How many hours are you spending each week on creation versus connection? How many people are visiting your website each day? How much money is your personal project costing you each month? How much money are you making on your personal project each month? How many followers do you have? How many people are you following? The more you measure, the more growth you’ll experience.
15. Sow opportunities everywhere – A strategist’s success is measured in terms of his or her opportunity. The more opportunity you have, the more successful you are. Opportunity is leverage. In any dispute, battle, competition, or negotiation, the person who has most opportunities, or the most other options, wins. Failure, in terms of strategy, is when you lack opportunity, or when you lack options. Failure is when you get boxed in, stuck, and painted into a corner. Failure is when you look up and see a dead end in front of you. Failure is living like a sheep. The best way to increase the number of opportunities in front of you is to start sowing opportunities behind you. This means adding value to the lives of other people. This means giving opportunities to others. Your options in life are proportional to the options you give to other people. You can only reap what you sow.
Which of the above keys to strategic thinking resonated the most with you? How have you been strategic in your own life? Comment below.