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Answering Big Questions

Red and white nametag – Hello my success is …

My son recently celebrated his 18th birthday. With his high school graduation coming up just around the corner, he is now considered a legal adult.

When you turn 18, everyone wants to know what’s next, as if this milestone birthday imparts wisdom previously beyond your grasp. For someone who has already lived a lifetime or two, the possibilities for a newly-minted adult can seem limitless compared to their own.

But how do you answer that question: What’s next?

Surely, they don’t want to know your plans for the next few days or even weeks. We’re talking big picture. Where will you be in the fall? Will you be taking the on-ramp to the traditional, societally-approved conveyor belt to success?

Seek a better definition

About ten years ago, we worked with the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF) on a branding and student recruitment campaign.

Located in the fastest growing region of the state and bordering a major metropolitan area, UWRF was little known outside of its tightly-knit campus community. Our charge was to develop a research-based integrated marketing campaign that gave students clear reasons to choose the school.

We live in a society where kids (and parents) are obsessed with the status of early achievement, getting into the “best” colleges, and landing an amazing job at a well-known company.

What we discovered at UWRF was a university that produced great teachers, scientists, business owners, police officers, and nurses – the salt-of-the-earth neighbors and community leaders that make a region flourish. While the academic profile of its students was every bit the equal of more highly-touted schools in the Twin Cities, River Falls was a great fit for those content to define success on their own terms.

Be willing to dream

One of the first questions I ask a client as we embark on a new project is: “What does success look like? How will we know when we have been successful?” Until one has the audacity to describe a desired future state, there is no way to aim yourself in that direction.

Surprisingly, people often have a hard time answering the question. We usually have to circle the prey from different angles, sometimes over the course of a few meetings to get to a useful description.

Why is it so hard to imagine a successful outcome? If everything was going great, there’s no reason for us to be meeting. I think it’s because the idea of “success” seems so big that it’s hard to wrap one’s arms around. And the safest answer is to describe something completely uninspiring – do what everyone else is doing.

Also, in my experience, when people are asked to define success, they are more likely to think of tactics than strategy. Make a prescription before the diagnosis. First, we need to understand the gap between the way things are and the way you would like them to be.

One of my favorite conversation starters: Let’s say we’re having a beer three years from now and you’re really happy with the way things are going at your business. What has happened in the last three years to make you so happy?

Make your own measure

A common mistake is trying to measure up to someone else’s expectations. The things that make us different – those are our superpowers. Your path and timeline to success should not – and likely will not – look the same as anyone else. And it won’t be a straight line.

Most of what I know, I’ve learned by falling and getting back up. The ground has taught me more about flight than clouds ever could. – Rudy Francisco

I told my 18-year-old that being a parent is an ongoing lesson in falling and getting back up. You do the best you can, get over yourself, and try again.

Whether you’re choosing a college, seeking your fame and fortune, or redesigning a website, it’s best to approach conventional wisdom with a healthy dose of skepticism. Don’t ever blindly accept what the world is telling or selling you.

And when you’re asked to describe what success looks like, give yourself the time and space for that answer to evolve. Then get back up and try again.

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