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On the Power of Clarity, Specificity and Persistence

Submitted by on April 21, 2012 – 5:26 am8 Comments

I just read read a fantastic Esquire article about Robert Caro, author of the magisterial, multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson.  Caro, despite being a self-admitted “fast writer” doesn’t begin his writing until he is perfectly clear on his purpose:

“Caro knits together his fingers until he knows what his book is about. Once he is certain, he will write one or two paragraphs — he aims for one, but he usually writes two, a consistent Caro math — that capture his ambitions. Those two paragraphs will be his guide for as long as he’s working on the book. Whenever he feels lost, whenever he finds himself buried in his research or dropping the thread — over the course of ten years, a man can become a different man entirely — he can read those two paragraphs back to himself and find anchor again.”

This is a testament to the power of distilling your goals and ambitions into a crystalline, written statement of purpose – then sticking with it.    Each one of these steps is critical; (1) getting clear on exactly what your purpose is in any endeavor, (2) committing that purpose succinctly to writing and (3) coming back to it often for direction.   Caro’s books are enormous and their creation spans a decade on average but their production is guided by one or two paragraphs.

I have been meditating for some time on the power of seeking clarity before taking action.    So often we are permitted to go forward with flabby, ill defined statements of purpose.  We set strategic aims and then lose the patience to be guided by them.  We end meetings with general agreements but no specific actions.  Often we allow ourselves to pass off hackneyed phrases for “insights” that will drive our business.

Why?

Because achieving clarity of purpose is painstaking work.  I think we lack the discipline to demand it before setting things in motion (I am often as guilty as the rest).  Just as often we lack the permission.  We are driven by timetables that thoroughly erase the time for contemplation as individuals and collaboration in groups.   We are measured by daily deliverables summed up in bullet point.   Caro is a welcome reminder of what we stand to gain by seeking clarity, being specific and sticking with it..

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8 Comments »

  • Alex Bowles says:

    David Brooks echoes the “discipline is not what you think it is” thought nicely.  

    “Think about the traits that creative people possess. Creative people don’t follow the crowds; they seek out the blank spots on the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows…Now think about the competitive environment that confronts the most fortunate people today and how it undermines those mind-sets.”
    He goes on to note that competitive and creative environments are fundamentally different, and opting for one usually means opting out of the other. Caro has clearly chosen creative. But more importantly, he does what he does because he can.

    The discipline is in resisting the astonishing pressure our hyper-competative society places on doing things the wrong way long enough and successfully enough to find your own feet. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04

  • joshuamross says:

    This is a fantastic addition Alex – I had not seen the Brooks article.   I also agree with you; it is the discipline to find your own path that is key.

  • Ted Herman says:

    Once, as an experiment, I tried this discipline in a chess tournament.  Before making a move, get to a mental state of clarity, with a holistic appreciation of the position and strategic plan.  It was a catastrophe!  Yes, Mozart was reputed to have everything thought out well, before putting the composition to paper.  Yet who does not appreciate Beethoven,  who in places has pasted corrections up to seven layers on the original.  We're in the storm of “Data Science”, but without any real clarity of what it means.  Action seems, however, unavoidable.  There are some situations where “Wu-Wei” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W… — waiting for the turbidity to settle — just isn't the right path.

  • joshuamross says:

    @b94a7457e23cc4f3cf07c0d6d9dd50e7:disqus as a Chinese Studies major you struck a chord with Wu Wei (though your link was bollixed by the gods of the Internet:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W

    I think the distinction here is that I am not suggesting waiting until one has a clear picture of the world outside as much as I am suggesting that having clarity of purpose from within that helps you take action despite a turbid and confusing world.   

    That said, I know how difficult this can be in the context of modern business.   I am under no illusions also that this is far simpler for the single author of large, research-based book than it is for large teams of people operating within an institution that demands results – even if those results are more optical than substantive.

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  • Vuve.Co.Uk says:

    If travel writing is in your future, good luck.

  • Stewart says:

    We’ve chosen the next nation for you.

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