These two concepts are well explained in How Will You Measure Your Life by Clay Christensen and his co-authors. The book is an extension of a lecture Clay used to give at the end of his university course. Clay passed away a few years ago. He was however able to finish the book before he died of cancer. The reason this subject interests me is that I think if we don’t act for ourselves things will act upon us. We don’t need to wait till when our death appears to be knocking before we think about things that are important to us. In fact, this is one of my greatest fears- that I would move with the current, till one day, boom, I realize that I never followed the path I dreamt of, never did the things I love, or spent time with people I care deeply about.
And I think it is necessary that we are deliberate about these things. The danger of being passive about such matters is that things that are lethal to our wellbeing may end up creeping into our lives. It’s like a person who realizes one day that he is obese. Or a workaholic who realizes that his marriage has fallen apart. Most things deteriorate from neglect. Doing nothing is a decision. It is often better to do something than nothing. I want to emphasize the importance of being deliberate about life. Meaning, consciously thinking about things that are important. I will discuss how to set goals as a way of being deliberate about how you want your life to turn out, but it will not be exhaustive. I will also talk about emergent properties. To make my point about these two concepts- deliberate and emergent properties- I will use John D. Rockefeller as my specimen.
Before I move on to my illustrations in which I will use Rockefeller, a brief definition of what I mean by deliberate strategies and emergent properties. At the risk of sounding tautological, a deliberate strategy is a plan of action that is arrived at through conscious thinking. An emergent property on the other hand may be an unexpected result of a deliberate strategy. Emergent properties can come by accident. They may be good or bad. My goal in this essay is for us to be able to take advantage of good emergent properties, so that’s what I will be focusing on. A bad emergent property may be a stifling bureaucracy building up in a successful business. As for good emergent properties, many come to mind. It seems to be the source of most innovations. One example is the discovery of penicillin. Another is the discovery of the theory of vaccination. These are discoveries by accident, and therefore serendipitous. Sometimes, it can happen that although the emergent property involves deliberate thinking, it is not what the organisation in which it emerges traditionally does or thinks about. Xerox developed the first graphical user interface (GUI) but didn’t take advantage of it; that job was left to Apple and later Microsoft. Xerox wasn’t into making GUIs. Its core business was photocopiers. My definition of emergent properties is somewhat imperfect because organisations may ignore innovations in their primary business when they realize that the innovations have the potential of bringing about creative destruction. Thus, disrupting their primary business- like Kodak ignoring their invention of the digital camera until a lot later. So in this case what emerges may be what the organisation thinks about, although it was an effect, not the goal of their deliberate thinking. Although my definitions have limits, I think you get the gist of what I am saying.
This is not a place to write the biography of John D. Rockefeller. I forget what the “D” stands for, and I don’t feel like looking it up. I don’t have to present such details to employ him for my goal. Actually, looking it up would have taken less space and time than my qualifications. I don’t know what I am trying to prove. Rockefeller was a business man. He was the founder of Standard Oil, and once upon a time the richest man in world. He was one of the so-called robber barons together with a few wealthy men of his time like JP Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. I admire Rockefeller’s character as presented in a biography by Ron Chernow, titled Titan. What I admire most about Rockefeller was his self restraint. I don’t admire people because they are rich, although wealth is a signal to other virtues. There are a lot of rich but repugnant human beings. I believe in virtues for their own sake. This is why admire Rockefeller’s discipline and legendary self-control. He was stoicism in the flesh.
Rockefeller’s deliberate strategy was to be a book keeper. He got his first job during a recession when jobs were scarce. He would walk around, everyday, in his suit, along with his briefcase, asking if there was vacancy in the few firms that were open. He kept up the discipline till he finally got a job. When he got it, he would get to work early and perform his task with all diligence. From early on, he was thrifty. He would record all his expenses. He continued with this practice even when he was the world’s richest man. To be honest, I don’t know if he kept it up even when he was the world’s richest. But I am aware he persisted with his bean counting when he was wealthy. He would go to work with a lunchbox so he didn’t have to go out to buy food; this is when he was starting out.
Looking at the picture that I have painted about Rockefeller’s beginnings, it would seem that he was on track to become a successful bookkeeper. But as you are aware, that isn’t what happens. He forms acquaintances with two older men. Out of their friendship, they decide to form a partnership to trade in commodities. This is where the emergent comes in. Going into business wasn’t Rockefeller’s fundamental plan, but when the opportunity came up he took advantage of it. Another such opportunity enabled Rockefeller to rid himself of his partners as they started to disagree. He eventually bought them out through an auction of their business. Rockefeller went into the oil business by identifying an opportunity. He knew little about it at first. This reminds me of how Ray Kroc got to meet the McDonald brothers, and establish a company of the same name. If my memory serves me right, Ray Kroc sold mixers. It happened that he kept getting a lot of orders from a place he least expected to make such orders. He asked questions which led him to meet the brothers. The McDonald brothers used the mixers for making milkshakes, and they were selling a great deal of them. The brothers seemed to have perfected a consistent way of cooking great tasting meals. They organized their cooking into an assembly line, therefore there was little variance in taste. Finding this changed Ray Kroc, a salesman into an entrepreneur. Back to Rockefeller. The last major business he went into was steel. I forget how he got into it, but he made a killing.
The point I have been trying to establish is the importance of having clear goals, and adjusting them as opportunities come along. Not just any opportunity. Better ones. We need to have deliberate goals about who we want to be, and the experiences we want to have. Because we don’t have perfect information as we make goals, adjustment may be necessary. I am aware I am sounding repetitive. It’s for emphasis.
When I started this piece I mentioned that without deliberate goals we can wake up one day and feel that things just happened to us. I used getting fat as an example. Another benefit of having clear goals is that you always have an inkling of where you are going. There’s little time for indecision. You just get work done, if you actually get around doing the work required. I promised that I would discuss how to set goals. I would do that quickly. Imagine what your ideal life will look like. Ok you were in heaven. Back to earth. Now think of the specific things you can do to realize that ideal life.
The emergent is what life throws at you. They are gifts from God. But how does one take advantage of them? Or how does one take advantage of opportunities? It seems to me that the best answer is to start small. Take little risks so that when things don’t work out you wouldn’t have bet the whole farm.
The major problem with this write-up is that it is difficult to answer the question why should I be deliberate when the most important stuff appear to emerge or happen by chance? Well, sometimes nothing will emerge. You have to depend on your own calculation. Another way of avoiding the idea of deliberate goals will be to do your best at everything till you find something worthwhile. Since we don’t live forever, this strategy will also involve discrimination, because you can’t try out everything, which goes back to being deliberate. You see what I am trying to do? I am trying to convince you that the best thing is to be deliberate.
Thank you for reading.