There’s a kind of no man’s land between ideas and action. It’s the place where we get stuck waiting, as though half asleep, for something to happen to us. All of us know how to dream. Most of us know the importance of planning. But there’s a war zone between these two fields; where our apathy faces off against our initiative. From my perspective, there are two things holding us in the trenches. The first one is that we don’t feel our dreams are doable so we never actually plan to make them happen. The second anchor is that we’re often living under the expectations of others, and so don’t have the energy to plan our way out. We end up cycling between daydreaming and reacting to other peoples’ opportunities.
...now that we have a story—one that’s actually based on our identity—we should have the grace, energy, and authority to put these ideas into actions. And this is the main difference between the sleeper and those who’ve excelled in their lives. The people who know their own story put the day’s energy into making that story happen. They see a world, for instance, in which building after-market Harleys would be the best way to spend their time, and put their waking hours into creating a small business like West Coast Choppers, which ain’t so small anymore. Or they see children being left to die in the hospitals of Kampala as an opportunity to create a better world for them, so my friend Annie gets on a plane and creates that world. And so with you, if you have a real story, or a story made real by your identity, you’ll have real energy, grace, and authority to make that story happen.
It seems to me that turning my ideas into plans and actually doing my plans are two very different things. And require very different skill sets/ character traits. I think there is a place for planning and I find it helpful to come up with a strategic plan for how I might practically accomplish a concrete, short-term goal (say anything up to 2 years ahead). This might be a specific art project, business idea, or collaborative community venture... tangible ideas that fit with my longer term stories. Perhaps one of the biggest upshots of this kind of planning is that it helps me think through ahead of time any potential problems or risks and how I can either mitigate them at the outset or address them en route. It also helps me to set realistic time-frames and come to a decision on whether an initial idea is in fact really doable (or how I might enlist the help of others to make it so, or put my creativity to work in brainstorming other outta-the-box options). All these things give me a better chance of actually achieving my goal, which gives momentum to the journey of making larger ideas a reality over a lifetime.
But I also find I can have the best laid plans and still get horribly stuck. And that this
is always a cue to re-engage more deeply with the two areas I mentioned above. It’s
a process, but I’ve been able to overcome even the most seemingly insurmountable roadblocks by choosing yet again to press into the truth about my unique identity, as well as the pertinent details of my context and its effects. At some of the harder junctures of my life it’s been invaluable to have someone help me do this. I’ve also needed to give myself permission in certain seasons to take the time and space required to really wrestle this stuff through without the external pressures of having to produce something amazing too. It’s work, for sure, but then what’s a bit of intentional hard yakka if it means being able to live the incredible adventure of my very own bohemian dream?!
... is simply converting your story into time-frames and choices so you can turn it into a reality day by month by year. At its core, planning is about defining the necessary steps to move your story forward. Reasonable steps that take you from where you are today to where you could be in say, ten years. Turning your ideas into doable steps is a very powerful force against the inertia of a reactive life. It takes all those fears of the future and forces them to deal with what you can actually do today, revealing what you’re truly capable of. Planning shows you a glimpse of the road ahead so you can create an appropriate pace for yourself. Turning your story into milestones, goals, and day to day actions keeps you from racing ahead too fast, or walking too slowly. Here are some tips to set that pace.
Matthew Impola's story from identity stories to implementation (so far)
Tip #1 - Destinations define beginnings
One great thing about stories is that they describe a destination. This destination— whether it’s a five year milestone or a long-term lifestyle you’d like to achieve— naturally defines the steps needed to get there. For instance, if my story’s destination is about developing a community living-room kind of cafe where my family, friends, and neighbors can all benefit from an artistic, nutritious environment... then all I have to do is break down the steps needed to make this happen. These steps become my plan. If my identity defines my place in this story as the manager, or the chef, or the environmental designer... then I look at what I need to learn and develop in order to make that happen. Knowing my place sets out a series of natural steps to take and choices to make. Those choices also form a natural order which have to happen first, second, and third... And the coolest thing is once I outline all those steps, I now know what I need to do first—which might be an education choice, or business plan seminar. I don’t have to run the cafe tomorrow. Each step I take slowly but surely turns my story into reality.
These steps don’t become clear unless the destination is clear, or clear enough. If, for instance, I want to work in hospitality or education, then I need to clarify my story so I can better define the path to get there. Even ‘being a teacher’ is way too general a destination to know what I’m shooting for. Your destination comes from all the stuff we’ve done so far; a clear sense of identity, a rich brainstorming process, and an adequate experimentation period to settle on a story you’re fully committed to. Once you have a story worth living for, my assumption is that this story will naturally define the steps needed to make it real. If it doesn’t, write me. Also, there are a lot of different ways to realize / plan out your story as long as you have a destination. The main thing is to plan and act so you don’t get sidelined by inactivity.
Another aspect of having a destination is that it moors your life to long-term cause and effect. Connecting your story to where and how you’ll, live for instance, anchors you to the land (home, place, neighborhood) which makes you think differently about how you’re living today. Knowing what your work and creativity could look like in ten years helps you consider how to live a sustainable lifestyle now. Describing the kind of community you want to end up with gives you a sense of what you can be doing immediately to develop these kinds of relationships. All these aspects have
a settling effect. They give us a sense of potential belonging and help us wrestle with our typical tourist mentalities. This is super important for a generation weaned on short-term thinking where flexibility has become a badge, when in reality, and over the long-term, it’s a stressful liability.
Tip # 3 - Five natural seasons of planning
Over the years, I’ve observed thousands of people walking out the plans of their lives. I’ve found that for myself, and for many others, there are usually five distinct seasons - or five phases - that help people move from their initial idea to a mature reality. Understanding these seasons gives us grace on a number of different levels: A grace that knows where things are going and where we're at in the unfolding. A knowing of approximately where we're at in these seasons as the years roll on so we can keep moving when things are slow. A knowing of how to pace ourselves when things seem like they’re moving too fast. Knowing these seasons also gives us a patience which we can share with our tribe, so we all have a sense of what we’re capable of over time. This will keep us from judging ourselves based solely on what’s happening today. Finally, having a sense of seasons allows us to transform our time perspective from present hedonistic to future creative. We desperately need this grace and perspective to help us out of the short-term cycles.
These seasons look something like this:
1. The season of experimentation...
...helps you to sort out priorities by testing the waters of your story with intentional trials. Taking a three-month course, or taking a camera with you each day gives you time to see if your identity, passion, and timing is lining up before you make a longer term commitment. This naturally leads to...
2. The season of education...
...where you commit to learn the things you need to know in order to make your story happen. It’s where you educate your raw identity statements (like ‘I am hospitable’) into knowledgeable talents (‘I understand creme brûlée’) which you can build on through...
3. The season of apprenticeship...
...where you turn your education into practice. Finding key people who are amazing in the fields you're pursuing so you can learn and practice along side them. Over time, this will mature your story into...
4. The season of production...
...where you are now hitting your pace and creating, doing what you envisaged years prior. Where you have the knowledge, practice, and means to be consistent in fulfilling your story. Over time, you will be able to share this in...
5. The season of multiplication / mentoring...
...where I’m able to branch out, share with others, and co-create with even more people. Having learned so many lessons, I’m now ready to share with those who are just starting out. I can also build on this platform to break out and express other parts of my identity and write whole new chapters in my story.
Tip # 4 - MILESTONES
To start the planning process we need to break down your story into milestones, or the key places you want to get to in the unfolding of your story. When you combine your milestones with the seasons mentioned above, you create a plausible way to make your overall story happen. Your story already has at least one milestone, that is, the place you want to arrive at. But using the seasons above, you can break down at least five milestones, each one a doable place to arrive at every few years in your journey. For me, some ‘destination milestones’ in my story would be:
• design a home where I could live and create from the heart
• collaborate with my neighbors in the region to share our lives and gifts with the broader world
• become a better cook, photographer and writer and bring these skills into profitability
• constantly improve as a father, partner and friend
All of these tie into my larger story, but knowing these destinations helps me to break down possible paths that’ll get me there.
These milestones have useful details embedded in my identity that help me know what I’m really shooting for. For instance, instead of just being a good photographer, I want to learn how to capture people and their spaces in such a way that it shows the identity of say a chef, or someones home on Airbnb. Or, instead of just having kids, I want to be a world-class father / coach who helps his family discover their path in life... These details give me clarity when it comes to making plans, and then the choices within those plans. Like, if my photographic destination is about capturing human interactions, I may look at studying photojournalism or anthropology instead of fine art photography, or both if that’s where my milestone leads me. So the milestone predicts the kind of details my path requires.
• If I want to become a rite of passage photographer
• who captures amazing stories in a photo-journalistic style
• by visually connecting with real people and their deep stories
...create a detailed path
• so I look for opportunities that will train me to see human nature
• that teach me the craft and ability to capture that nature
• and practice each day, looking for pro-bono or paid projects in birth photography, weddings, or whatever.
These milestones are derived from a mixture of my ‘I am’ statements and the creative ways I choose to put them together. This ties into my passion and my heart for responding to the world around me in a loving way. This final bit (the place of our neighbors in our stories) is essential to creating meaningful connections between identity and the real world. My experience has been that fulfillment often happens when I’m using my gifts in a beneficial way with my neighbors. Which I’ve seen mirrored in the lives of today’s great photographers like James Nachtwey and Yann Arthus-Bertrand. Their gift becomes a challenging and inspirational way to see the world differently, and an attempt to heal its pain. I want to be like that when my photography grows up.
Tip # 2 - CREATING TRIBAL BUY-IN
Once you have a simple plan / outline of what needs doing (which we’ll leave room for at the end of this section) you can start sharing it with the right people. People who will hear you, encourage, and champion your ideas. People who will challenge you in a proactive way. As you connect with the right supporters, the ideas and steps in your plan start to gain some feedback. As ideas emerge from your friends and you synthesize them with their plans... you’re no longer going it alone. After a while, the network effect kicks in, like a friend who knows a friend who can give you an internship in a similar business or art guild... Your plans should give others a sense of their place / context in your life, which creates a team over time. This team will support the longer-term process of achieving your overall story.
This comes back to the idea we’ve mentioned before about finding your tribe. Your family, close friends, and those you want to collaborate with professionally are the basis of this tribe. Your story and plans give each person in that tribe an opportunity to connect with you in a healthy way. Instead of your family repeating the ‘get a job’ mantra, they may now know what kind of work they can support. Instead of your friends hanging about without a purpose, you guys now have something to do or learn together. Instead of workmates complaining in the lunch room about their lives, you can plan and brainstorm with them to constantly push your story further.
Plans give everyone in the tribe a better way to connect - which should result in you being more intentional in their lives and their stories. As you gain this community effect (not by waiting around for it, but by giving people something to work with) and start acting on the first few steps in your plan, you start to see the power of being yourself in a group. This builds strength and a sense of momentum, which gives you grace to deal with the larger challenges your plan may present. Even if things don’t work out as you want, you’ll have enough momentum to work around the hurdles.
Your story and plans also help define the extended story and plans of the entire tribe - its people, locations, and community models. As your plans, and thus your tribe, unfolds you slowly forge into a committed group. This community has the potential to scale your initial story into something larger than originally imagined. There may be some compromises needed in order to achieve these larger plans together, but as your crew unfolds, you’ll find your natural place and pace within this bigger story. I’ve often struggled with this bigger story dynamic, probably because I’m a bit of a rebel. I’ve always wanted to move faster than the group around me, but I’ve found that my rushed pace was usually based on a lack of patience. When I’ve moved at the pace of the group, I learned a lot more about my self and got a lot further in my plans than I could have working on my own. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t pioneer or explore where others may not want to go, it’s just that we should know the difference between true pioneering and impatience.
Tip # 5 - Authority v. Confidence
As your story develops into plans, you start to gain a kind of faith. Not a blind faith about being a superstar musician while having no real musical talent, but a grounded belief that you can achieve being your true self. This grounding allows you to see the authority you possess, based on what you can truly do with your identity. You get comfortable with not having any real confidence as you start out, because confidence happens once you’ve achieved certain milestones. You can’t wait around for this, and need to move forward on faith, a faith based on what exists in your soul, and so you act...
When I started writing, I knew I was going to be less than average and had no
real confidence. But I did have a sense of faith that the glimpses I saw in my soul (communicator, wordsmith, intuitive, theatrical) could be formed into expertise over time. So I called out a milestone and started working towards it. Eventually, I will gain confidence but I don’t need that to have a go, to learn my craft, and put in my 10,000 hours. For that, all I need is the authority to be myself. Plans give me a positive way to turn those glimpses into action and that authority into confidence.
An example of a story made into plans
So yeah, that's the theory. Let’s try putting this together for you. Using all the tips listed above and especially this idea of understanding life’s seasons, I’ll map out a story-to-plan scenario so you can see what I mean. Then I’d like you to do the same for your story in your journal. We'll put all this together in 3 steps:
1. Look over your story for natural milestones and highlight them.
In 15 years I will be married with three kids living in Toronto. . My life will revolve around my home where neighbors and their stories become the basis for my photography business. My political activity, my connection with the local artists, and my families ties will provide a living education for my camera to learn from. I will shoot anything and everything but focus on those human stories that show the changing nature of life. Births, birthdays, marriages, more births... will form the platform for my rite-of-passage expertise. I will join or form a photo-tellers guild where other artists in the area will have a forum to grow and collaborate with. I will have a good grip on traditional and recent photographic tools-as will my kids-so that I can contribute to a larger discussion via training programs I will develop for local youth of all ages. When this story is going strong, I will build on this family business platform and start envisaging the next 20 years. Sweet.
2. Sketch out how these milestones may fit into the 5 seasons mentioned above:
The First Season
Testing my talent -assist at a wedding or graduation shoot, try some photo-journalism courses on line.
The Second Season
Learning the craft personal curriculum formal education or non- formal education? 4 years? Create a reading list and find a few local workshops to attend.
The Third Season
Apprentice with a local professional, do some pro bono work. Travel and try other locations to experience rites of passage in other cultures
The Forth Season
Start up my own business. Grow steadily, focus on quality, start the photo guild, build community and reputation
The Third Season
Hire other people to work with me. Teach workshops in local schools or wherever. Write a blog and teach my kids how to take pictures of their own passages
3. Create some detailed plans for the first couple of years - or major steps:
1. Work hard, save and get the best camera I can afford for now.
2. Find people that are doing what I want and ask if I can tag along.
3. Look online for blogs or courses I can take, books I can be reading.
4. Share with my friends and family what I'm trying to learn/do.
5. Find or create opportunities to shoot birthdays, weddings, births...
6. Get a mentor to help me track progress and stay focused.
Finally, leaning into your future
You can make a number of different plans until you settle on the one you really want to follow. This is just to get you started. Once you have the plan and decide to move forward, maybe you should have a rite of passage party to formalize the commitment? Describe the perfect party / ceremony where you gather the key people in your life, explain the quest, and ask people to join you in this journey. We do this for weddings and big birthdays, why not for life planning?
At the end of the day, your stories and plans give you a sense of direction. It isn’t fortune telling and you’re not predicting everything about the future. There are some things you have no control over what so ever. But there’s a lot you do have a choice about and these plans could help you see the difference. As you lean into your plans, you’ll have real ideas to work with which will lead to other ideas, and the plan may change... Getting you moving in the right direction is the most crucial thing at this point, so don’t worry if your plans are a bit messy or are overly detailed. Once you get moving, you can refine your plans as long as they’re consistent with your identity. And as you take action on these plans, you’ll want some extraordinary people, ideas, and wisdom to come along side your process. They're out there and now that you're moving you'll probably find them. If you run into a wall, check out the next section.
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The Next Steps...
• Having written the story based on your identity map (or re-writing it a couple of times after these exercises)
• Having had a look at milestones in your story which help you mark the bigger steps in your journey
• Having broken placed those milestones into the natural seasons of experimentation, education... (by the way, you may have other natural seasons which suit you, mine are just personal observations)
• Having created some detailed plans which gives you a sense of what the next couple of years could look like...
Have a look at these questions:
1. What should you commit to first?
Do you need to experiment more before committing to any of this? Watch out for procrastination but what would experimenting look like (be specific about the experiment, give it some objectives and time frames)?
2. How can you involve your friends and family?
Who are the real stakeholders in your life and how can they crowd-fund, crowd-encourage and partner with you in making your identity your job and life?
3. What do you do today to prepare for this journey?
What prep needs to happen in terms of communication with others? Education? Money and other resources needed?
patrick at patrickdodson dot net