Aspirational thinking means taking the high road and playing the long game.
The high road represents behavior that makes you a better person and the world a better place. You enjoy the act of achieving an aspiration because the act and the progress you make is its own reward.
When the reward is the activity itself — deepening learning, delighting customers, doing one’s best — there are no shortcuts. The only route to the destination is the high road.
— Daniel Pink
The long game is an understanding that you are embarking on a life adventure. There are no shortcuts, nor do you care to take any. Every step you take, every new level you reach, brings you closer to who you desire to be and reinforces your new identity.
This article is the third in a series of essays on Aspirational Thinking.
Your adventure begins cautiously, tentatively. This is new and unfamiliar territory, yet exciting and filled with promise. Each step brings validation and confidence. Progress is slow at first but success compounds. Your steps will get quicker, bigger. Before long, you will look back on your progress and be astonished at just how far you've come.
Insight 11: Take the high road to your aspirations where each action is the reward.
While taking those first cautious steps, consider the following key elements of making aspirations a reality:
You are most vulnerable at the beginning, and these elements will be your shield and armor against uncertainty. They will also serve as kickstarters for your adventure.
I find that examples aid in understanding, so let's consider one of my core aspirations.
I am a writer who shares his knowledge to help others improve.
Notice there are two important elements: What and Why. The What is my aspiration. The Why is my intrinsic motivation — something that is a reward in and of itself.
Let's apply the three elements to my aspiration as an example. Do the same for your aspiration as you follow along.
Insight 12: Each aspiration should define a What (who you will be or what you will accomplish) and a Why (the intrinsic reward).
Let's start by looking inward and see what your own experiences to date can provide.
Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.
Start by asking this question: What would a [insert aspiration here] do?
For my aspiration: What would a writer do?
Before going down a Google rabbit hole, quickly write down whatever comes to mind. The resulting list provides an important perspective on your starting point. It also gets the creative juices flowing.
Here is the initial list I came up with for myself:
Your list may be shorter or longer. No pressure!
Keep this list in a safe place. Add new actions as they occur to you. This list is guidance for what is to come. You may feel like a pretender at this point, but that's okay. I bet you have some real gems there.
The true value of this exercise is putting into writing what you understand your new identity to be. You then simply do what that person would do. With each act you reinforce the new identity. You start to believe.
Insight 13: You decide what your life will be with every act and what it will not be with every failure to act.
Now it is time to validate what you think against people who are today, at this very moment, who you aspire to be. Ask yourself the following questions:
Learning works best when you have a good example of what success looks like. In fact, the best teachers and coaches are practitioners who are capable of actually demonstrating techniques and skills you need to develop.
For becoming a great writer, I couldn't find someone in my existing network. That was a bit depressing at first, but then I remembered a book I read recently. It was Atomic Habits by James Clear. I was fascinated with his style of writing. It was packed with value but so easy to read.
After a little Googling, I found his website and a bunch of articles. I hit the jackpot:
That is just a few of the many resources I found online by Clear about his writing. I received instant validation about setting aside time to write, eliminating distractions, reading what interests me to generate ideas, working in public by generating content regularly and more!
Even better, I was exposed to other great writers and essayists with valuable lessons, best practices and common pitfalls to avoid. My original action list grew significantly. I was on my way.
You can do the same thing. One of the most rewarding aspects of reaching for your aspirations is the archeological work you do along the way. It's like digging for buried treasure in a treasure-rich land.
While looking outward, keep one important point in mind. Your are seeking validation and guidance, not someone to copy wholesale. Your adventure will be unique. You must find your own voice and perspective. A good guide, teacher or mentor will understand this and provide the following value:
Insight 14: Look outward for inspiration and the skills you wish to develop. Then develop your own voice and perspective by doing.
I'm not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead — ahead of myself as well as you.
— George Bernard Shaw
Although your adventure will be unique, good company helps:
At the same time, bad company can be dangerous:
Be careful of the company you keep. The group of people you currently associate with — your tribe — may not be supportive of your aspirations. They may belittle or even ridicule your lofty goals.
Humans are highly social and tribal by nature. We are heavily influenced by the groups with which we associate. For hundreds of thousands of years, the tribe represented safety, power, strength and community. Our need to be connected with others and to fulfill these ancient desires remains with us today.
Any behavior that challenges the tribe is unattractive. We look to the tribe for guidance when uncertain and frequently conform. In many ways, the tribe is our identity. When a new, aspirational identity clashes with the tribe, the tribe typically wins.
So what do you do if your current tribe doesn't support you?
You change tribes. You find one with fellow travelers who value and support the person you aspire to be.
Since you cannot rely on serendipity alone for finding a new tribe, what do you do?
Insight 15: If the people you associate with don't support who you aspire to be, change your tribe.
If your aspiration aligns with local groups or organizations, try that first. Nothing beats personal interaction.
Not all aspirations are a good fit for local tribes. If that is the case for you, broaden your horizons online.
What was once unimaginable is now pedestrian. You are fortunate to live in an age where just about every tribe has a social presence online.
I started by following people like James Clear on Twitter. I looked at who they followed and who they interacted with. I looked specifically for people who had interesting things to say and resources to share on writing and building digital products that scale.
I quickly found some real gems:
As you find one gem, many more tend to congregate nearby. Each of them provide a wealth of value to aspiring people. Platforms like Twitter can be a massive time sink, but in this case, they are an invaluable resource for learning, social interaction and monetization.
If you are a little shy at first, that's okay. You will gain a great deal initially by just watching, listening and following up on recommendations. But don't wait too long to get involved.
You can't interact if you don't say something. You aren't part of the new tribe until you engage in meaningful ways. If the tribe is a good fit for you, it will be supportive even when you make mistakes.
And don't be surprised if some of the people you run across online are located nearby. Online social interaction can lead to local, personal interaction.
Insight 16: Just as one great idea leads to another, so too does one great person lead to another.
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
— James Clear
The key to making progress consistently is a system that works for you.
What is a system?
It is a structured, periodic routine backed by clear principles that accounts for the progression of learning or skill development.
Some real life examples may help clarify:
Consider the following criteria when adopting or designing a system:
Insight 17: Aspirations represent big picture goals. Systems define how you will achieve them with every act.
A system that clashes with your current routine in life is one doomed to failure.
Your current routine and habits are ingrained, as are those of others who depend on you in life. Challenging them early on is like trying to move a mountain.
Try the following progression:
It takes time and consistent effort to establish new habits and the associated rituals often required of systems. Following this progression will help establish a new system with as few changes to your existing life as possible early on. Giving yourself every advantage at success is a smart move.
Some examples from my system of writing:
Insight 18: A good system fits comfortably in your life.
Consistency is a key component of systems. A routine establishes a rhythm and develops effective habits.
My daily work routine as a writer looks like this:
That is just the writing part of my schedule. The first two items require a lot of energy and creativity, so I do them first thing in the morning.
The schedule above establishes a writing system. It makes room for what matters most without neglecting the more mundane aspects of what makes me successful. When this schedule gets disrupted, I feel unfulfilled and even a little irritable. I have done this for so long now that I crave it. Effective habits have formed.
Develop your own system. Start with one activity. Do it consistently. When it feels close to automatic, and you miss it when you don't do it, you can add another activity.
Take time to review your system and schedule:
Everything you do should add value. Reevaluating your schedule at least once a week with this in mind keeps you objective about the things that matter most.
Insight 19: A good system establishes a consistent routine and effective habits.
When you don't set a consistent schedule, the most important aspects of reaching your aspirations get lost in the daily shuffle. Establishing a time and place for everything that matters is one of the best things you can do to make effective new habits stick:
Another important aspect of visibility is the work you have done. You see:
Other great strategies exist for making work visible, especially with respect to ensuring accountability:
The advantage to not working alone is that you get valuable feedback along the way. Other people tend to be more objective about your actions. They will keep you honest.
Insight 20: A good system makes work visible. Progress becomes its own reward.
Getting the support you need is a special aspect of some systems. Here is how the systems I gave as examples earlier provide support:
Fitness classes are a great example of having support built in. Working out in a group setting provides motivation and encouragement. It also makes what you would normally consider hard work actually fun.
Don't underestimate how important support from others can be, especially early on when you are still establishing a new system and associated habits. It can mean the difference between long-term success and failure at the launch pad.
Insight 21: A good system sustains.
When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur.
— John Wooden
Remember that small steps are the best way to make progress. With all of the excitement over what is possible, there is constant danger of doing too much at once. When you feel resistance, start to procrastinate or feel like you are doing a lot without making much progress, reevaluate.
Take a step back, and ask small questions:
The focus here is on making the next step small enough that it doesn't raise internal resistance. One key byproduct is the motivation of simply getting a lot of things done. Those small steps quickly build momentum and compound over time into big progress.
Keep iterating with small steps and enjoy each day of incremental improvement. The journey grows more rewarding but never ends. This game always has a new level to explore. Enjoy every moment of it!