Monday, May 11, 2015

Plan Ahead, But Not Too Far Ahead

A former mentor once told me: "You can't plan too far ahead."

A wide-eyed new kid on the block eager to make a splash, I had bluntly asked him how managed to climb through the ranks in the company. Like all other big bosses, he had travelled across the globe through the decades, doing exotic long-term assignments in the Caribbean and South-East Asia, before landing an exalted position back in the corporate headquarters. It got me wondering and all excited. Did he plot his incredible ascent right from Day One? Is there a secret shortcut to reach to the peak? What is the secret formula to success?

As it turned out, he patiently explains, there is no secret plot, secret shortcut, no secret formula.

The Long, Winding And Unexpected Journey

The path to success is never straight. The greatest success stories seem almost accidental. Today, Facebook is a global phenomenon with billions of registered users and net worth. But turn back the clock to ten years ago, and it was exclusive only for Harvard. No one really foresaw its hyper-growth.

As its first investor, Peter Thiel (former co-founder of Paypal) has been frequently asked in interviews as to what drove him to bet on Facebook over more established rivals like Myspace and Friendster, to which he responds - almost sheepishly - that at that time he had been only thinking as far as Facebook dominating American colleges, and that was a good enough return. Even Mark Zuckerberg himself admits that shortly after launching Facebook, he thought to himself that "someone needs to build a service like this for the world" but never imagined that his team would "be the ones to help to do it".

That is not to say entrepreneurs do not plan for the future. They all do have a destination in mind, and they worked hard towards that direction, few steps at a time. Which is very different from anticipating every porthole and dead-end, and avoiding wrong turns altogether. You should plan ahead, but not too far ahead. The journey is long, winding and unexpected. It is impossible to plot every step of the way - and so you shouldn't.

Even Bilbo Baggins didn't know he would meet a dragon, steal a powerful ring and be a hero, when he walked out that door

The World Stands Still For No One

People always tend to liken all great planning efforts to chess. Right from the start, think of the end game. Always plan ten - no, twenty - steps ahead. Victory can only be assured by comprehensive long-term planning.

But there are some big differences between chess and the real world. Nothing stays static in the real world. Every day, new forces come into play and fall out, beyond our control. Governments rise and fall. Rules are regularly rewritten. Technology advances rapidly. What is true today, may not be true tomorrow.

Constant changes impact our lives, both on a macro and micro level. Only last year, American oilmen were gleefully rushing to dig for shale oil. But now, the sudden drop in oil price threatens to put them out of business. Today, your boss privately tell you that he is about to retire from his Asia-Pacific Regional Head of Retail Marketing role within five years, and has put in a good word for you. Few months short of his retirement and your long-awaited promotion, the role is instead merged with the European unit due to cost-cutting restructuring.

Often times, the crystal ball is murky. New surprises keep springing out from the shadows and foiling your well-laid plans. Big deal. Shit happens, even to the best of us. Don't despair over minute details. Don't agonise over inconclusive analysis. Don't be too hard on yourself when things don't turn out the way you hope them to be. The sooner we let go and accept that some things are really beyond our control, the quicker we can get on with our lives and work on the things that are within our control.

There is no point staring and screaming at the crystal ball, desperately waiting for the mist to dissipate. Fine, you can't see very far into the future. So what? No one can. Even Mark Zuckerberg had not anticipated Apple kick-starting the smartphone revolution, and Facebook was left stranded momentarily playing catch up to join the mobile world. There's only so far one can foresee. There's only so much one can plan. Don't panic. Be patient. As Theodore Roosevelt once said: "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."

Pivoting You Way To Success

Sometimes you hit, sometimes you miss. Life can be cruel. But life is also fair. If you push hard enough towards the right way, you'll wind up in a good spot in the end, even if it wasn't the exact spot you had been aiming for at the start.

Facebook miss its original goal of being an exclusive college social network, but fortunately, hit on something even bigger. Paypal missed its lofty goal of creating the first global currency, but still hit a big mark on the electronic payment scene. In tech speak, the term is called 'pivoting' - knowing how and when to transform your original product into something bigger or smaller, in order to capture greater value. America leads the trend of innovative pivoting. And fittingly so. After all, Christopher Columbus setting off from Spain on a quest to find a new maritime route to Asia but instead stumbling upon America ought to go down as one of the greatest pivot in modern history.

Everyone can dream big. But successful people know how to turn big dreams into even bigger dreams or slightly smaller dreams, according to the capricious wiles of reality, whilst milking out the most from their hard work. If you hit a brick wall, turn around, retrace your steps and pivot. Chances are, the path to gold and glory is just round the corner, a few steps behind you.

King of Spain: "Look, Senor Columbus, for the last time, that's not India!"

Step By Step

My former mentor meant well when he cautioned me not to plan too far and worry too much on the future. He was speaking from his own experience of finding success at unexpected places and timings, of course. But as history shows, the experience is a commonly shared one amongst the successful.

Plans may fail. Plans may change. So what? Leave them be. Planning is a means, not an end.

Steer towards your vision, even if it means wandering into the unknown. Stay the course, even if you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. Make the most out of life, with what you have where you are, one step at a time.

No comments :

Post a Comment