The ‘What’ should always come before the ‘How’
We live in an age of explanations. There’s a how-to manual for anything we desire to do, whether it’s cooking aglio olio; starting a billion-dollar company; building an engine; finding romance; swaddling a baby; triggering a riot; or simply writing a Medium post (like this) that will get thousands of likes.
Given this abundance of information, it should be easy for anyone to craft their life their own way. But for most people, this surplus seems to be having the exact opposite effect. Rather than acting as fuel to their ambitions, it is paralyzing them into inaction and causing chronic anxiety. Why is it so? Why are so many of us unable to utilize the nearly infinite opportunities that exist today?
The answer is simple:
We place the process before the outcome. In other words, without telling ourselves what we truly want, we rush headlong into how we can achieve it.
By overemphasizing the how over the what, we begin choosing actions based on how doable they seem, rather than their importance to our ultimate goal. We, in effect, become like rudderless ships that are entirely at the mercy of circumstances. Even if we manage to reach our destination, it will most likely be an accident rather than a logical outcome of our efforts.
This obsession with action before vision is visible all around us. People going for MBA’s rather than just starting up because they want to ‘learn about business’. Novice writers trying to optimize for likes rather than focusing on finding their voice. Health enthusiasts spending months in the gym without any clear progress. In all these cases, there is just a vague hope that somehow these actions will lead to a desirable outcome.
As a result of this approach, most people end up basing their vision on what already exists or what they see other people doing. This is not surprising because while there are enough how-to guides available on the Internet, your vision can come only from within yourself. Most of us, however, are incapable of peering inside and taking that decision. Doing that would mean questioning our basic assumptions about life, and that in itself can be an unsettling exercise.
So we give up our power to choose and let the external environment nudge us one way or another. Unfortunately, crafting your vision this way is almost like lying to yourself. You might tell anything to the face in the mirror, but you can’t really deceive the deepest part of you — your subconscious — that always knows your true desire.
The seeds of the process-before-vision approach are sown early in life. Parents and teachers, in their attempts to make us well-functioning adults supply us with a steady dose of rules that we should follow, and things that we should avoid. They tell us that if we follow the right procedures, we can achieve anything we want. If you really think about this, this is getting it exactly backwards. You don’t start mapping your route before you decide where to go, do you?
As kids, we are rewarded solely on the basis of how well we follow this script. Subject to this constant reinforcement, we learn to see the world as a maze that can be navigated only with the help of the right rules. The sad casualty of this mindset is our ability to visualize and choose what we truly and deeply desire out of life.
This inability to choose stays with us even as we enter the real world as adults. Despite having greater maturity and more independence, we do not reclaim our power to choose, and become further embedded in the process mindset. This is not really surprising because making choices always involves tradeoffs — by choosing one thing, you necessarily give up something else. So even though we might have more autonomy compared to when we were kids, our tradeoffs increase substantially.
And that is why we choose the soft comfort of following the rules, feeling some sense of accomplishment in doing so. But despite doing so, something continues to lurk inside, gnawing at us every moment of the day. Maybe it’s the remembrance of a vision we might have nurtured once?
The process-first approach also has a heavy emotional cost because doing something without knowing why is one of the most frustrating experiences in life. Whether you’re a kid in calculus class wondering where you’ll use it, or a participant in a pointless meeting, your whole being wants to revolt against the experience.
Even those who decide they want to create something make the mistake of not defining their vision clearly enough. They are taken in more by the act of creating, rather than the creation itself. For instance, just consider how many people want to ‘become startup founders’ rather than start businesses. Diving this way straight into doing without really knowing why, is a straight road to purposelessness and ultimately failure.
Why? Because this method violates a basic law of creation.
In his life-changing book The Path of Least Resistance, Robert Fritz introduced structural tension as the fundamental force that propels us towards success. He defined it as follows:
Structural tension is the gap between your vision and current reality.
The larger this gap, Fritz wrote, the greater the motivation to push forward towards our goal. Considering the two elements of this equation, it is safe to assume that people are more likely to have a better sense of their current reality than of where they want to go. Anyone looking to make a change obviously recognizes that the status quo is not to her liking. However, most people stop right at this point and don’t articulate what they actually want.
To be fair, defining what you want is hard. It necessarily involves making tradeoffs, and that scares us. By committing to a specific vision, we feel that we are shutting off all other options. This lack of escape routes is a tough cross to bear. Following a process, on the other hand, is easier. There’s no ambiguity about what is to be done, and no anxiety about tradeoffs made. Compared to defining a vision, which seems like a fantastical exercise following a process seems like we’re doing real work.
But if you are genuinely committed to creating something that matters to you, the process just cannot come before the vision. The right process always emerges organically once you articulate your vision with clarity. Realize that when it comes to your own, specific vision a standard set of rules cannot get you there. Even if you are aiming to do something that millions others have done before you, your own process will be unique only to you. The path that you take to such a goal will be informed more by your own experiences, beliefs, and resources, than from someone you read about on the Internet.
Therefore, when you are defining your vision make sure it is something you want for its own sake, and not in the service of another goal. For instance, if your vision is to become rich so that you can be free, you are probably doing it wrong. Your vision in this case, is to be free. Only when you make a choice to be free, should you think of how to get there. Maybe there is a way that is better for you; one that doesn’t involve busting your gut to get rich.
Consciously choosing what you want is like building up a muscle — the more you exercise it, the stronger it will get. Our default state, however, is to avoid making a choice because it’s seems too hard. Whenever we whittle down our available options to just one, the anxiety that lost opportunities engender are usually much stronger than the joy of focus. The result? A life that seems disjointed, punctuated by actions taken only as a reaction to circumstances.
A clear vision, on the other hand, is like a strong magnet, ordering all our efforts and behaviors into a unified pattern. Fritz called this vision the primary choice, because it’s more than just a goal; it’s your whole orientation towards life. And when your vision becomes inseparable from how you live, the process emerges on its own.