Subba’s Serendipitous moments

August 17, 2010

Commitments precede choices

Filed under: Business,Learning,Motivation,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 4:16 pm
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Clayton Christenson’s address to the graduating class of HBS 2010 had pearls of timeless wisdom. I summarized his address with some comments in my blog post here.

All his wisdom is predicated on one simple and basic premise – that we all know our life’s purpose is known to us apriori. Once that life purpose is known, allocating resources and making trade-off decisions should come about systematically. That’s a well planned life.

But what about situations and people when we do not have enough clarity on the life’s purpose. There is an alternative approach as David Brooks seems to write in this wonderful piece. Thanks to Anand Srinivasan who brought this to my attention.

The starting point here is that life cannot be planned and there are too many unknowns. It is an unknowable landscape with all its interesting twists and turns. Sometimes the life purpose eludes many of us. David calls this the Summoned Life approach.

Here commitments precede choices. Commitments to family, nation, faith, cause etc. These defy many of the standard business metrics like returns, cost-benefit analysis and so on. While we are a product of choices, our deep commitments serve as a useful compass to make the choices.

The person leading the Summoned Life starts with a very concrete situation and most times it starts off with a rude wakeup call.

“At this moment in my life, I am confronted with specific job opportunities and specific options. The important questions are: What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?

These are questions answered primarily by sensitive observation and situational awareness, not calculation and long-range planning.”

David puts this eloquently when he says: “For the person leading the Summoned Life, the individual is small and the context is large. Life comes to a point not when the individual project is complete but when the self dissolves into a larger purpose and cause.”

In the lives that I have observed, both the Well Planned life and the Summoned Life can co-exist peacefully but there is bound to be a creative tension between the two. In my own personal life, the Well Planned life helped me to stay on course and avoid distractions. It gave me anchor and rooted me in values and principles. Trade-off decisions came to me naturally and quickly and I rarely felt paralyzed. But occasionally the Summoned Life due to the situational awareness helped me fine tune the choices based on some of the deep commitments that I myself didn’t know that existed in my consciousness.

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2 Comments »

  1. The part open to debate is: “we all know our life’s purpose is known to us a priori”. Is it a case of “do we really know” or that “we think we know”? It also says nothing about whether the purpose is a laudable one or not. How does one determine this? As in many things in life, the truth probably lies somewhere in between a Summoned and Well Planned Life.

    Comment by Foong — August 17, 2010 @ 5:18 pm | Reply

  2. It is about fining the balance being open and accepting enough to the opportunities from serendipity; and actively purposefully directing our life’s course.

    Too much control and “effort” causes stress and anxiety – life is uncontrollable despite our collective illusions. Too much passive acceptance leads to apathy. Is it possible to be completely open to the ebb and flow that life presents us with, without becoming reactive and directionless?

    Is this where my life’s purpose comes into play? If I know my purpose, and I hold true to my principles, and I focus on my internal state of flow and happiness – then I will automatically make the right choices, take on the right opportunities, and inevitably contribute the right outcomes…

    Comment by Zern — August 28, 2010 @ 5:48 pm | Reply


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