Monday, April 20, 2015

Ask These Questions

Let’s imagine two scenarios for driving into town at night.

Scenario 1 You’re in a blizzard on an icy road, stuck in traffic, and the gas gauge is close to “E”. You can’t see more than a few feet ahead, and all that shows you is how much trouble the car ahead of you has staying on the road.

Scenario 2 You come over a hill on a clear, dry, empty road and you can see the destination lit up in the distance. The road may have detours or potholes but you can see them coming. The gas gauge reads “F” and there are five extra gallons in the trunk, just in case.

Which scenario will get you into town? Probably, either one. Which car would you rather be in? If this wasn’t about a drive, if it was about one of the big goals of your life, which car would you rather be in?

Significant goals are enough of a challenge when we fully understand them, when we can see ahead, and when we have anticipated problems. For that, we need to answer four questions:

. What do I want?
. Why do I want it?
. What could go wrong?
. What will I do?

An Example

As we go through the four questions and what to ask with them, I want you to work on one of your goals. To get real value out of it, pick a significant goal, one that could use some traction. Since I’m suggesting that we apply the questions to your big life goals, let’s use an example from one of the biggest, clearest, most famous goals in modern history–landing a man on the Moon in the 1960s.

What Do I Want?

One of the best ways to clearly specify a goal is to make it SMART. My version of this acronym/checklist is:


Here is how President Kennedy laid out the goal for the manned landing on the Moon during an address to Congress on May 25, 1961.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.”

Why Do I Want It?

According to Anthony Robbins, many goals fail because the goal doesn’t have a big enough reason why. Why is the fuel that gets a goal to its destination. If your car breaks down en route to a dinner, you probably call and cancel. If the dinner is for your wedding rehersal, you probably call a cab instead.

Putting why in writing is helpful, but you can make this more powerful with some brainstorming. Here are some techniques that you can try:

Five Whys

Amy four year old knows that why is an endless question. You can ask why you want something, then ask why that’s so, until you get five levels deep. At that point you’re probably close to something significant.

Six Hats

In his book Six a Thinking Hats, Edward DeBono advocates looking from different perspectives (Hats). Some of these can help us identify why we want something.

Red - emotional reasons
Black - avoiding negative consequences
Yellow - positive outcomes
Green - wild success
Blue - business reasons

Positive and Negative Motivation

Any motivation you name will either send you toward something you want or away from something to avoid. We lose weight to go toward fitting in clothes and away from heart disease.

As far as the man to the Moon project, President Kennedy gave the following reasons during a speech at Rice University in 1962.

“We choose to go to the Moon! … We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win …”

What Can Go Wrong?

The more significant a project is, the greater the chance that something will go wrong. By asking in advance what can go wrong, we both reduce the chance that it will and develop contingencies in case they do.

On January 27, 1967, the Apollo 1 spacecraft exploded on the launch pad, killing the three man crew and jeopardizing the entire program. Many things went wrong that asking this question might have svoided.

What Will I Do?

Here we develop and implement the plan, so let’s leave those details for another day. As a final thought, keep in mind that few worthwhile goals can be accomplished by just one person. When thinking about who else to ask, you may need or find some additional motivation.


Blizzards and icy roads are unpredictable and occasionally unavoidable. We can control our preparation and plan for contingencies.

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