I once read that part of the reason people get lost in the woods is because we have a natural tendency to veer ever so slightly to the right or left when we walk. It’s so slight we don’t notice it, and we think we’re walking in a straight line, but we’re not. And this leads us to walk in big circles, winding up right back where we started time after time. The way to combat this is to pick a landmark in a specific direction (north, south, etc…), walk toward it, and once you reach it, select another landmark in the same direction. Repeat until you reach civilization.
This is a great metaphor for life, too. When we don’t have a clear vision or goal that we’re working toward, or don’t keep it in sight, we tend to go in circles, living the same year over and over again. Kind of like the movie Groundhog Day, but not as funny. Because we want our lives to be different. We want to feel like we’re going somewhere, that we’re making progress, that we have a purpose. We don’t want to be lost in the proverbial woods.
I know it’s been true in my life. The times when I’ve made the most forward progress – getting into grad school, switching to a writing career, starting a coaching business – I’ve had a compelling vision that kept me focused despite obstacles and detours and delays. I knew what I was working toward. I knew how to channel my energy. The vision guided my steps and my choices.
And those times when I haven’t had a clear vision of what I wanted? Or when I had plenty of goals, but they changed priority daily? I floundered. I kept myself busy, sometimes even overwhelmingly busy with multi-page to-do lists. I was getting things done, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was spinning my wheels furiously in a big puddle of mud.
According to Terry Orlick, PhD (In Pursuit of Excellence), focus is the core of excellence, the center around which all of the other components revolve. It’s impossible to develop excellence or achieve anything meaningful without consistent directed effort, and that means having a goal or vision to work toward. When that vision becomes our North Star, we start making consistent forward progress. Even when we’re pulled away by distractions, or we have to make our way around obstacles, our North Star stays in front and guides us back to our course.
So how do we develop the kind of focus that inspires us to become our best and commit to the effort excellence requires?
Three Steps for Creating a Powerful North Star
1. Identify Your North Star
The pursuit of excellence is a marathon. It requires passion. You need a goal or a vision that excites you, that makes your heart sing, or that holds deeper meaning. Something worth pursuing even when there are obstacles, when progress seems slow or maybe even in reverse. Something where the journey, the steps toward the end goal, are as meaningful and rewarding as the final achievement.
Your North Star could be a dream that calls to you, or maybe an area of your life that bothers or worries you, like your health. I have one of each in my Excellence Experiment this year – a career dream and long-neglected self-care. It may be the North Star for your life, or maybe just for a season. Most importantly, your North Star needs to come from within your own heart – it can’t be something society or your family and friends want you to want. The motivation needs to be internal.
Maybe you already know your North Star. But if you’re not sure, here are a few questions to help you get some clarity:
- What dream keeps bubbling up no matter how many times you try to push it to the back of your mind?
- What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
- What gets you fired up? What keeps you up at night? What worries you? What breaks your heart?
- What brings you joy? When do you feel most alive? What are you naturally good at?
2. Create a Compelling Vision or Goal
Our level of commitment and motivation has a lot to do with how we “frame” or describe our vision.
Let’s look at something as seemingly mundane as home improvement. Which of these two descriptions is more likely to generate long-term commitment and inspire the creativity to create something extraordinary?
- Clean and declutter and redecorate.
- Create a peaceful, warm, relaxing sanctuary where I can recharge, one that energizes me and supports me in pursuing my other goals.
When I started my home renovation project two years ago, I started with the first description. Needless to say, I ran out of steam pretty quickly, as soon as the worst of the clutter had been cleared away. But my living space still drained my energy and dragged me down. When I changed the frame to the second description, my inspiration and motivation returned. Now, I’m a lot more enthusiastic about putting in the effort needed to create my ideal living space, and it’s finally beginning to take shape.
You get the idea – whatever area of your life you want to improve or excel in, create a vision of what the ideal would look like to you, a vision that excites and energizes you.
3. Keep Your North Star Visible
Just like the sun and stars can’t help our lost hiker if they’re covered by clouds, our North Star can’t help us if we create it and forget about it.
Did you know that people who write down their goals and dreams will earn 9 times as much over the course of their lives compared with people who don’t? (1) Only four percent (!!) of Americans have actually written down their dreams and goals, and fewer than one percent of them review and update them regularly. You dramatically increase your odds of breaking into the top one percent just by putting your dreams and goals into words, and looking at them on a regular basis.
Writing down your vision or goal and putting it somewhere that you can see it is one way of keeping your North Star visible. If you’re more visual, try creating a vision board that represent your dream. Or get even more creative – I love how actor Jim Carrey wrote himself a check for ten million dollars for ‘Acting services rendered’ when he was broke and unknown. Conrad Hilton kept a picture of the Waldorf Astoria on his desk for eighteen years before his dream of owning it came to pass. Those objects represented their North Stars, visible reminders of their dreams.
Identify your North Star. Make it exciting and compelling. Keep it visible. And follow it for the adventure of your life!
1. Dan Zadra. 5: Where Will You be Five Years From Today? (Seattle: Compendium, Inc., 2009), 9.