Little known fact: the original schools, started in the 19th century, had the goal of training obedient factory workers. The whole notion of sitting still at a desk, taking instructions and following orders was quite alien to many who had grown up on farms. For the factory owners to have access to workers, it was necessary to train people to take instructions from managers. In many ways, the school system of today follows that tradition and kids are taught to be quiet, disciplined and reactive.
In the digital age, obviously, waiting for someone to tell you what to do is a terrible idea. When I worked in Silicon Valley, there was a story of an engineer hired by one of the large, successful companies in the area. On his first day at work, he tried to find his manager to ask what he should be working on. When he finally succeeded, his superior looked at him in disdain and seemed ready to fire him on the spot. The feedback he got was: “I don’t know what you should be working on – that’s why we hired you. Figure out how to add value.”
The problem is that most of us have decades of schooling to undo before we can switch from the reactive to the proactive approach. However, it’s critical that we do, as in the digital age, we need to take ownership of our own destiny. The world is changing so fast that if we wait until others tell us what to do, we’ll go obsolete before we realize it.
Many of us prefer to stay with what we know and avoid changing until we absolutely have to. It’s not just our schooling, but also the general human tendency to stay in our comfort zone. The problem is, as we all know, that your comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there. We don’t grow and develop by repeating what we already know. We only do that by doing new things, having new experiences, exploring new horizons.
The question is how to engage in the challenge of being proactive. In many ways, this entire set of 10 rules for thriving in a digital world is concerned with being more intentional about the way we organize work and life, rather than following the ingrained patterns and habits that we have formed over decades. In my experience, there are at least three strategies to consider.
First, being clear on the purpose we’re pursuing forces a level of intentionality that causes many of us to question our current ways of spending our time. In my experience, the very action of defining a purpose and then associating concrete outcomes to that purpose causes a transition from a reactive to a proactive mindset. It’s about changing from the backseat, tagging along for the ride, to taking the driver seat as we now have at least some high-level idea of what we’re pursuing.
Second, many of us want to accomplish something large but fail to get the machinery in motion to make it happen. The best strategy, which I’ve used on numerous occasions, is to break the grand idea into small steps and take the first step immediately. As the saying goes, walking to Rome starts with a first step. However, we do need to take that first step; overwhelmed by the overall challenge, it’s easy to avoid it and remain stuck in the old place. Therefore, I try to take the first step, however small, immediately. Maintaining momentum is much easier than creating it. Those having run a marathon know the mental struggle around the 30K mark when the body is aching tremendously already, you feel out of energy and you still have more than 10K to go. For me, I had to switch focus from the finish line to whatever smaller goal was in front of me such as an upcoming corner, a tree along the road, and so on. As soon as you reach that small goal, you set the next small goal. One of the bloggers I occasionally read calls this “clean the tile, not the floor.”
Third, one of the key things keeping us back is fear. This is an extremely important and valuable emotion, which has ensured survival for countless humans in the history of humankind. In the modern world, many of the risks we take aren’t really existential in nature but rather limited in consequence. However, as our minds have difficulty distinguishing between the two, even smaller risks can easily grow in our minds as insurmountable. One technique we can use is fear setting (as opposed to goal setting). Tim Ferriss has a good blog post and TED talk on this, but the basic principle is that we in detail specify the risks, worst-case outcomes and mitigation strategies associated with what we’re looking to pursue. By making it explicit and tangible, it becomes much easier to overcome the fear holding us back. As the infallible Yoda said: “Named must your fear be before banish it you can.”
In a rapidly evolving and changing digital world, we can’t afford to be passive and reactive, waiting for others to tell us what to do. Instead, we need to proactively pursue our purpose and the associated outcomes. To overcome the resistance in ourselves and our environment, strategies such as taking small steps and fear setting can help us gain momentum. So, my challenge to you is to, in any interaction with others, aim to propose a course of action at every opportunity. Be willing to take input from others, but don’t accept any deadlock situations. Remember, as long as you’re moving in the right general direction, you’re making progress.