Excellence University Blog

Possibility vs. Desirability: Picking The Right Swiss Army Knife

by Dr. Brian J. Mistler

February 17th, 2008

The Ultimate Swiss Army Knife

Do you own a swiss army knife or know someone who does?  They’re a great tool, because they can do lots and lots of things.  Check out this swiss army kife. How neat is this?!#@  It’s fun just thinking about all the things this can do.  I love the newest electronic inventions and cool contraptions.   My friends would tell you the name Brian Mistler may actually be Latin “lover-of-gadgets”.  Maybe you share my affection for new toys and power tools.   And maybe, if you had a chance to pick up one of these, you would jump at it, and throw your little 9 feature knife away in a heartbeat…?  But, that could be a big a mistake.

Swiss Army Knife

Imagine having the “perfect tool” for any problem that could possible arrive.  You’d be the hero in the office, and the savior around home…. whatever comes up, you’re prepared.NOW…. imagine what that tool would look like, and imagine carrying this thing around in your pocket all day.  There’s no way, right? I mean… I suppose there IS  a way.  All those success seminars taught me to respond to “that’s impossible” with “anything is possible”.  In fact, sometimes I see really well trained success-seminar graduates respond “anything is possible” without thinking.  But, it’s not a question of possibility… it’s a question of desirability.  Sure I can, but do I want to?

Purposeful Doing requires Purposeful Choosing

I was about to write pages about all the implications of and kinds of “purposeful choosing” there is — about all the decisions in life where it’s important to make a purposeful decision. But, I decided against it for a reason — I purposefully chose not to. My reason is that if I had listed 100 examples you probably wouldn’t read them all… and you might even get overwhelmed and not read any (if I’m wrong, e-mail me and I’ll send you a few more examples!). Or, going for a 100, I may never have finished it. An article in the hand is worth 10 great half-finished ones on my hard-drive. Here’s another cliché I love, “killing two Birds with one stone.” It’s a great idea. Killing 100 Birds with one stone isn’t a cliché for good reason — because the stone would have to be SO huge, it becomes impractical. Or, the moment so perfect, you and I will never see it.

Don’t Diworsify

I believe it was mutual fund manager Peter Lynch who used to talk about portfolio “Diworsification”. People get so excited by so many different things — or so afraid of risk — that they add more and more things to their portfolio until all of their knowledge and insight has been diluted. Mathematically this is almost certain to end in regression to the mean — that is, in mediocrity in the middle. By all means, try them out, and make sure you know what you’re getting! This is purposeful choosing. And, when you’re ready, buy one. When I buy a 7 feature pocket knife, I’m saying, “THESE are the 7 features that are important to me,” and at the same time “all these others are less important”. This is purposeful choosing — both deciding AND BUYING AND PUTTING IN MY POCKET (or your purse if you prefer). You see, if had said, “these 7 are important… but, so are those 10… and that other knife that does a different 7 things”…. I would either have ended up leaving them all in the store because I couldn’t pick one “the paralysis of analysis” Dr. King used to call it, OR, I would have bought them all… if I buy them all, I can’t carry them all everyday unless I want to be EXHAUSTED (and I know many leaders who are exhausted for this reason). So, I pick one one day and one another. When I problem comes up, I hope I have the right one in my pocket… but, I have to remember which one I have and probably remember how to use it, and chances are I’ll have the wrong one the wrong day, etc. etc. You get my point? You’ve got to pick a knife, buy it, and put it in your pocket. This is commitment.

Commitment: Rethinking Won’t and Can’t

Once it’s in your pocket, amazing things start to happen. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “at the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you.” And, this is not too hard to understand. You’ve got one knife that you’ve chosen well. It can’t do everything, but what it does do it does well. And, you’ve made friends with it — you’ve committed to carrying it each day, and so when it’s needed you’re ready. You’re an expert at its use, and you’re full of energy because you don’t have a pocket full of metal.

When someone asks for a flip out size 3 light bulb remover, or a Russian to Pilipino currency converter, you say “I don’t have that — I can’t”. And, you go back to the business of doing what you do have — what you love, what you’re good at, and what you have energy for. Not being able to do certain things is the flip side of commitment (just as, in marriage, restrictions on outside dating come with the vows). If you’re married, and someone asks you on a date, you say, “I can’t”. I can’t is “I won’t” taken to the level of commitment.

For people who are stuck, mindlessly caught in a commitment they need to get out of, helping them to go from “I can’t” to “I won’t” (realizing it’s a choice) frees them up. For people caught in diworsification — in under commitment and frenzied doing, “I can’t” can offer the same freedom. I can’t can be a sign of purposeful choice.

Commitment, Creativity, and Flexibility

I’ve seen mission statements that have way too many implicit objectives. When an employees asks, which do I work on?”, the leader says, “do it all”. That’s unreasonable, I think, and I’ve never seen it work. I can’t give you a magic number (here my commitment to accuracy prevents me from saying X # of core objectives is IDEAL). You see, that number varies for people, and depending on how much the objectives overlap. A knife that has a beer bottle opener and a soda bottle opener is easier to manage than one that has a wine opener and a shovel.

Dr. Brian Higley and I often suggest leaders start with 1-5 objectives, then move on to 1-5 more when the first 1-5 are going well. This seems like a reasonable number to start with to me. The bottom-line secret is to choose — set a clear mission statement and objectives (so you’re not playing whack-a-mole the whole time — see this article), commit to it, and then develop goals aligned with those objectives (see this article) your team can agree on, and then execute goals according to your priorities. Sure you can be ready for change. But, change is half of it. The key to preparedness for change is stability. In order to be ready for change, you have to have clear priorities about what you want to keep the same. Be creative in implementation, but don’t sacrifice commitment.

The 1000 feature knife represents a classic dream for many people — in many ways it’s part of The American Dream — having it all! I want a boat in the Virgin Islands, and an apartment in New York… I’d also like a house in Maine, and maybe a cottage in Northern Itlay…  who doesn’t, right? But, once I’ve got all these things, where will I spend my holiday? I might be able to have it all, but I can’t have it all right now. I’ve got to prioritize.   And, when values are at odds, I’ve got to get the priorities right.   Of course, I can’t tell you what your priorities should be… I don’t always know what mine are.  But, when I take the time to get clear about by priorities, and make sure my goals and actions are in alignment with my priorities, things work best.   You can have almost ANYTHING you want. You just can’t have EVERYTHING you want. Prioritize.   Be purposeful. Pick the tool (and the career, and the life) you love, execute with excellence, and get BAD at all the other stuff.   You can pick more than one thing for sure, but you can’t pick TOO many things. Multi-function tools are great because they offer flexibility and creativity.  And, they’re an even BETTER tool because they CAN’T do everything. That’s right, CAN’T is more than a 4 letter word… developing priorities, and committing to them is the secret of filling your pockets with money and success instead of oversized multi-function tools.

Article Filed under: IV. Miscelaneous

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rick Maurer  |  February 20th, 2008 at 7:36 am

    I love the ultimate Swiss Army Knife – in fact, I want one. I agree with you that “can’t” is an important word to keep in mind. Not “can’t” in terms of “this will never work” pessimism, but “can’t” as it applies to setting priorities and saying “no” to distractions. If I were to say yes to all the bright shiny objects that want to seduce my time, I would accomplish very little. I admit I do give in to many temptations – that extra hour of TV, reading a mystery instead of War and Peace, starting projects that never go very far. But I do better when I set priorities and put a few of the Swiss Army Knife tools away.

    Rick Maurer

  • 2. Martin Heesacker  |  January 29th, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    I really enjoyed this piece, which, despite all my years of involvement with Excellence University, I am not sure I read–really read–before today. It reminds me of a quote from St. Francis, which I may have partially misremembered, but goes something like this: “If you want to live free, take your time, go slowly, do few things, but do them well. Simple joys are holy. ” Actually, I just got curious and checked on the web. It is sort of from St. Francis. It is really from a song written by Donovan for a movie about St. Francis, called Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Regardless, that quote has stuck with me for decades and I think the reason is the same reason that Brian wrote the Swiss Army Knife piece. There is a critical and enduring truth about the importance of choosing what you value (and most importantly, what you value less and don’t value at all) and living what you choose. As Brian said, you can do almost anything, but you can’t do everything. This is a lesson I need to keep in the forefront of my thinking as I live my life.

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