Can a person have a strategy like a business?

One of my favourite concepts is the difference between expertise and strategic ability:

Expertise = knowing things
Strategic ability = knowing how things interact

You can be extremely knowledgable and yet useless strategically because you can’t grasp the dynamics that lie between the things you know; and conversely you can be totally ignorant and yet strategically insightful, because you intuitively grasp the principles that underly all complex systems.

This idea is important for two reasons.  First, it puts to bed the lie that experts are by definition good at strategy in their fields (mostly they aren’t – hence why “trust the experts” is such a contentious statement).  And second, because it reveals the universality of strategy.  It’s not a discipline of the battlefield, or the boardroom, or the political arena.  It’s a discipline of life – where once grasped, it can be turned towards anything you please with minimal effort.

I’ve addressed this universality a number of times in these essays, pointing out that you can develop a strategy for various things outside of the business world – losing weight, decorating a house, raising a child, whatever.  But what I haven’t addressed is a bigger, more fundamental question about personal strategy:

Can a person have a strategy for their whole life?

I’m not talking here about a particular strategy for a particular goal.  No, I’m talking about an existential blueprint which transcends all goals – the single idea which organises and aligns all you do.

When it comes to business strategy, this is the kind of thing we talk about routinely.  Although businesses may also have “micro strategies” to achieve a particular aim (e.g. “what’s our strategy for this meeting”, “what’s our strategy for this product launch”, etc.), all of us here understand that they will also have a “macro strategy” to guide their overall direction in the market.  It’s what these newsletters are all about, after all.

But does the same thing apply to people?

Can we, or should we, also have this blend of macro and micro strategies determining the course of our life; helping us navigate the world with the same focus and creativity as a strategically sound business navigates its industry?

I think the answer is yes – and it can be found in the concept of “mission”.

To my way of seeing things, mission is the human version of business strategy.  Where a business has a “strategy”, humans have a “mission”.  In fact strictly speaking the words are interchangeable.  A mission is a strategy, and a strategy is a mission.  However their separation is actually quite helpful, because it shines a light on the crucial difference between them:

Business strategies are focused on giving value to others
Personal missions are focused on giving value to ourselves

What do I mean by this?

Well businesses exist for one reason, and one reason only: to deliver value.  That’s it.  That is the definition of business.  An enterprise for delivering value to people, and consequently collecting value in return.  For this reason all business strategies should be directed at one simple question: how do we deliver more value?  A strategy that answers that question is a good strategy, because it will result in greater collection of value, and thus “success” as measured in business terms.

(Yes, of course, there are other non-value-oriented business strategies which some companies employ – lobbying, rent seeking, extortion etc. – but these for the most part are unethical outliers, and not the kind of thing we should be concerning ourselves with here)

As a result, in the field of business we can use “strategy” as a synonym for delivering value.  This isn’t the literal definition of the word of course, but because we most commonly use it this way it gets “infected” with that meaning regardless.

Now, when it comes to us people, things are a little different.  At the risk of stating the obvious, people aren’t businesses.  We don’t operate exactly the same way.  We have broader “metrics of success” than merely delivering and collecting value.  A business that fails to exchange value will be a failed business – but a human who fails to do so won’t necessarily be a failed human.  We have all sorts of ways to achieve satisfaction, and to lead a meaningful life of real purpose.

That’s why “mission” is a better word for us than “strategy”.

It speaks to a wider range of options, and conveys a sense of depth and profundity that is appropriate to the human life.  Yes, our mission might happen to involve giving value to other people, a bit like a business – e.g. aiming to lift children out of poverty, or to teach people how to garden, or whatever.  But equally it might not.  Your mission might be to win multiple bodybuilding championships, or to see as much of the world as possible.  These are totally legitimate too.

Either way however, the point to understand here is that despite their tonal differences, both personal mission and business strategy fulfil the exact same systemic purpose in their given fields: namely acting as an overarching idea around which to structure and organise lower level behaviours.  The result, in each case, is coherence, direction, and achievement.

With me so far?

Right, well before moving on with our comparison, we should take a moment here to acknowledge the elephant in the room: that many businesses have “missions” too.  I’m sure we’ve all seen a fair few mission statements in our time.

Personally I’m not a fan of this trend, because the definitions become confused and muddled, as shown by these three differing approaches:

  1. Many businesses just use “mission” as a sexier word for strategy – which is fine in theory but tends to lead to needlessly fancy (and thus fluffy) language.  A decent (and not too fluffy) example of this is PayPal’s mission: “To build the web’s most convenient, secure, cost-effective payment solution”.  That’s basically just saying what they offer, and thus is basically just a strategy.
  2. Others use “mission” as a means of making a bold “inspirational” statement to rally the troops – like Jet Blue’s rancid “To inspire humanity — both in the air and on the ground”.  This is the sort of thing ordinary people take the piss out of, and has no strategic value whatsoever, thus I steer well clear of it.  But given how common such things are I guess some people dig them.
  3. Finally, some businesses have both a strategy and a mission, where the mission is a non-market-oriented aspiration, rather like a personal mission.  For example Tesla’s mission is “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”.  Note that this doesn’t actually outline how they get market leverage, so it’s not really a strategy in a conventional sense.  It doesn’t say how they sell cars.  But it does give a bigger picture backdrop to their activities.  This use of mission is indeed good, and works harmoniously with more conventional business strategy.  However I don’t believe that most brands are well suited to such grandiose thinking, and thus don’t do themselves any favours by trying to force it.  Sorry, but you probably aren’t Tesla, and that’s OK.

So yeah, if we want achieve clear and simple understanding let’s just say that businesses have strategies and people have missions, and just leave it at that.

Wrapping up our comparison then – and looping back to my comments at the outset about the universal systemic nature of strategic thinking – let’s finish by briefly considering the commonalities of what sits beneath business strategy / personal mission.

As we’ve discussed many times before, in order to fulfil a strategy a business will have a set of actions that correspond with it.  Actions nest under strategy – simple stuff.

Well, in the world of personal mission the precise same dynamic applies, only we tend not to speak of “actions” in this case so much as “goals”.  Again, we’ve all heard of goals and goal setting – but we perhaps don’t tend to think of them as being generated and organised by a bigger strategy (mission) above them.

For instance, say your mission was to spend your life travelling the world and to experience as much of it as possible.  In this case your goals at any given time would be directed towards fulfilling that mission – e.g. finding a job with suitable flexibility, learning a language, ticking off certain destinations, etc.

As you can see this stands in stark contrasts to “generic” goals, the likes of which people come up with when they don’t have a mission – you know the cliches; lose weight, get a million dollars, etc. etc.  Such random thinking of course mirrors the scattered and uninspired actions which businesses pursue when they have no strategy.

No strategy?  Crap actions.
No mission?  Crap goals.

See how the parallels work?

To put a bow on it we can summarise with this following handy image:

I’m no Tony Robbins, and I’m no expert on mission or goals, but to me this makes a lot of sense.  And I think it would be fair to say that the positive effects that a clear strategy delivers for an organisation would be mirrored for an individual with a clear mission.

Supposedly only about 3% of people have something they’d call a mission – which funnily enough is about the percentage of businesses I reckon have a strategy.

So this stuff is rare.

And that makes the spoils all the greater for those who become the exceptions.

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