Anatomy of a Quest

“The most unlikely of people, in the most improbable of circumstances, can become extraordinary…”

My Mum used to repeat that mantra to me as a fat, bookish, physically indolent child growing up in Stockport – a place that even people from the North of England need to look up.

She never added the essential last part of the mantra when she spoke: “…but not alone.”

I think that’s because I grew up in a family of prolific readers and my Mum knew that every book I read finished her sentence for her.

Every great story I consumed from the age of seven, from The Never-ending Story and The Chronicles of Narnia through the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars sagas, had a quest – a journey of unimaginable ambition against seemingly insurmountable odds – and of course a key, unique and astonishing character around which the story revolves – even if that character often only understood their uniqueness late in the story.

However, a cursory understanding of the great quest stories from the Iliad to one of my childhood favourites, The Last Legionary series by Douglas Hill shows you that even when the title alludes to their being only one important character, the story reveals – amongst other things, that every hero needs companions to ultimately be successful in their quest.

Over the years, I have examined great teams in sports, politics and business and while it is nearly always the case that one character dominates public recognition, I would find it near impossible to say with any confidence that any one person – no matter their individual gifts – could have achieved alone, what they accomplished with their less-fêted companions.

At this time of the often near pointless New Year’s resolutions, I wanted to share some of the steps I have learned from my exploration of successful people not-to-mention by virtue of a life of trying and failing and trying again, to do things that people continuously tell me are impossible.

If you are setting out new ambitions for 2020; hoping to change yourself or your circumstance for the better, I am suggesting that this redefinition of a ‘resolution’ might be useful – from a single bold act or statement made in haste (or under the influence – whether of peer pressure, hubris or alcohol) to something more substantive: 

a purposeful, nuanced and strategic long-term commitment, open to continual refinement and augmentation.

There are very few ‘seven easy steps’ type lists that are worth anything at all. There’s nothing easy about ambition and in order to fulfil it, you will need to spend time considering the implications of the following stages – my Anatomy of a Quest – and how you will respond to them.

Define your ambition (& metrics for measuring goals)
This isn’t just about saying something audacious in the hope of impressing friends, colleagues or jolting your own motivation. Defining your ambition means challenging yourself to a new level of discomfort with something that others may consider impossible, but you recognise as merely improbable. 

Defining this ambition requires time to create something explicit, immutable under pressure and impossible to escape should you decide at some point you just can’t be bothered.

Don’t bother saying you’ll “lose weight” or ‘apply yourself at work or school’ – pick a target that anyone could reasonably see is specific, transparent and if at all possible, measurable. “Lose XX lbs in XX days, by doing X, Y & Z specific thing” or “spend X more hours doing XX specific thing, to deliver Y tangible result over Z amount of time” is more the nature of a well-defined ambition.

Specificity alone is not enough – you must ensure that you have a compelling ‘why’ for your ambition, without that connection to a clear and honest purpose, the moment challenge or adversity raise their heads, the ambition will evaporate.

Identify your skill & competency deficits
The status quo exists because of two parallel and connected elements: 

  • It’s a less energy-expensive way of existing and therefore easier
  • We lack the insights, skills and/or competencies to change the status quo

A lack of will and a lack of skills are how an undesirable status quo remains seemingly immutable. Knowing why things are the way they are is a key element in changing it – and each person who strikes out with a new ambition needs to identify deficits in will and skill – explicitly, specifically and objectively – even if it causes you pain to see how you have contributed to the derailing of your own ambition in the past.

Create a personal & professional development plan (PDP)
It’s essential to work on what you lack. This isn’t just a question of developing everything that’s non-optimal, but rather targeting the key aspects of you that would bring the most ‘bang for the buck’ if you improved them. That aspect of yourself might be something mundane but essential, like committing to getting more and better sleep or be something technical, like gaining some basic project management skills. Either way, listing the development areas by priority for the ambition in question is key and monitoring progress over the year is essential.

Recruit quest partners with complementary skills & influence (not pleasing personalities)
Most of us will reach out for support from our friends when we make a new commitment. At first, we seek validation of our righteousness in our new resolutions and then, when we seemingly inevitably begin to falter, we demand their moral support & permission to capitulate.

Quest partners aren’t just friends, they are people we have sought out because they have skills, networks and perspectives that we require to most effectively reach our goal and that we can’t reasonably gain over the course of a year. They are there to support us broadly, but they do this by holding us accountable to our ambition and our companions, to assist us in devising tactics and strategies, and ensuring we refine our approach when reality bites and we must gather ourselves in the face of setbacks.

Devise (& commit to continual refinement of) your tactics & strategy
I like using the OGSM model for big objectives – an overarching objective (your ambition or resolution), with accompanying measurable goals and strategies for delivering the goals, using transparent measures

Even if this technique is a bit too much for your ambition, you need to consider how you are going to achieve what you have set out and indeed how the companions you recruit are going to best (not most comfortably!) contribute. This strategy needs to be adaptable enough to tolerate contact with the unanticipated potholes and robust enough to hang together even when things are challenging.

Make regular, visible & explicit commitments to your ambition & companions
A major reason why ambition falters is that people have been led to believe that one major pronouncement – at the beginning of a strategy launch in a business or on January 1st amongst cheers of “Happy New Year!” – will manifest its outcome. It is essential that commitments both to the ambition and to those companions who accompany you on your quest are reiterated and reconfirmed ad infinitum.  If you think you’re restating your commitment too much, it’s probably about right!

Devise a mechanism for ongoing, mutual accountability This is essential and really must happen at the creation of any tactics or strategies for success. The temptation is to “just get going” and “work accountability out” as we go along and this how accountability becomes a cumbersome, ill-fitting, ultimately optional, “add-on”. Creating clear lines of accountability to the various elements of the strategy and indeed to your colleagues and companions is key and the time to do that is when defining the strategy, ensuring ownership as actions and deliverables are defined.  Of course, when it’s a more personal goal, a lot of that accountability will be yours alone, but companions will have roles to play and they will need to be clear on their responsibilities, too.

Ensure credit is well-distributed
On your quest, you’ll need a Ron Weasley, a Samwise Gamgee or a 

C-3PO. They’ll be overlooked in your success and potentially blamed for your failures and it’s your job as the protagonist of your story to ensure that your Ron, Sam or C-3PO gets the credit they deserve (and that you proactively rebuke or share any blame they are assigned by strangers).

There is a remarkable quote from Sherlock Holmes to Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles, on which all those attempting the improbable should reflect: “I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.”

Deliver on your promises (& regularly examine the evidence & metrics) This is no “Just Do It” mantra. It’s a recognition that even meagre success lies at a point on a path littered with failure.

You will falter, you will fall, you will fall prey to insecurity and the machinations of those for whom your statement of ambition alone, is a threat to their own mediocrity. 

I will share this nugget of wisdom I heard from a researcher at a British Psychological Society Annual conference some years ago. She said “…never forget that imposter syndrome isn’t an individual pathology…”, in other words, it’s not you that’s somehow “broken” – you are supposed to feel inadequate and uncertain – the very world around you is designed only for certain types of ambition, from certain types of people at specific moments in time. 

Imposter syndrome is a clarion call from the status quo signalling your contravention of an invisible and often denied norm – one that facilitates the maintenance of the status quo itself. Do not let this static interference get in the way of meeting your ambition. Examine the evidence of your progress and development objectively and use your quest partners to help ensure that impartiality. 

When doubt seeps in like an unwelcome draft, wrap yourself in your carefully curated ambition, knowing that what you are seeking to achieve is not whim or bluster, but a clearly defined quest, backed by a bold strategy & bolstered by committed companions… and then deliver on your promises.

There you have it, my Anatomy of a Quest. For those of you sceptics who doubt the utility of any suggestion that cites science fiction as its source material, let me leave you with the words of one of my childhood heroes, Isaac Asimov, who reminds us all that, “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinded critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction, its essence, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.”

Good luck in the New Year, in keeping those promises you make to yourself, your family, friends and colleagues now and all year round.

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