Gretzky, the world’s best hockey player ever, knows what separates the good from the great. He worked with many good hockey players, but few earned the title of “Great” hockey players. What set them apart? What did they do differently?
“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” ~ Wayne Gretzky
I was listening to a podcast recently where Gretzky’s quote came up. In the podcast, the podcasters reveled how they became complacent in their business, content on playing the game where they were and not looking where the industry was going. Eventually, they were able to recognize their failure and change their business to remain competitive and profitable. But this same process is necessary for any individual striving for success in their life.
Knowing where you are in your life is an important, yet challenging endeavor. Being able to clearly identify what is going on around you, the reality of the world and the reality of your context, are essential for action. You must be able to think, to observe, to cut through your own biases and to discover essential insights. Once a clear understanding of the world around you is perceived, you can make decisions and judgments necessary to move forward. Identifying and living by rational principles is absolutely critical for this. If you want great success in your own life, this is the first step.
But it’s only the first step to success. To be great, you need to not only know where things are, but be able to predict where the trends are going so as to prepare yourself for that future. This requires a vision, a massive integration of all things that exist plus how they are changing. It includes answering a whole host of questions. Which trend is most important? Is the trend sustainable? Are there feedback loops, negative or positive, that will impact the trend? Etc.
Because of the difficulties in this identification, many, many people fail to become great. It certainly is not easy to see all the trends in your industry, in your profession, in your country, or in the world. While you have a fair amount of control in adapting and changing to this conditions, a little preparatory work will go a long way to ensuring that you don’t start building a “whip business” after cars have been invented.
Let me share with you one of my dilemmas. I currently work in academia. If I choose to focus on my immediate context, it would be very clear how I can secure my career. There are three things I would have to do – 1) research, 2) teaching, and 3) service. If I do those three things, publish sufficiently, teach well, and serve on committees, I could consistently earn a nice paycheck. Fortunately, I do these things well, love doing them in fact, and hope to continue doing them for as long as I am able. That certainly sounds like a good life. But will it be great?
I have been observing trends that have me struggling with my long-term vision. Universities, an 800-year-old system for education, have solidified into a cultural phenomena. But under this huge cultural force is a potential disruptive innovation that could cast the academic world into chaos. What is the potential disruptive innovation? Online education. Not just small groups educated online, but education on a massive scale enlisting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of students – sometimes simultaneously, sometimes on an ad hoc basis. This can be as simple as a series of YouTube lectures like Khan academy or my own eCommerce series, to iTunes University, all the way to Massive Open Online Classes such as Coursera and edX. While there are still many successful online businesses selling this education, much of it is now offered for free. Priced at, well, nothing, certain begs the question – will students stop attending expensive schools and take advantage of this free material. Will my job be around in 20 years?
There is a counter cultural phenomena holding back this disruption. Not to be indelicate, but many students like hand-holding. This is particularly true of younger students who thrive on structured environments. They like having a regular schedule – a set time to come to class, a set time to turn in homework, and set breaks and semesters. They have not yet learned how to manage their own time well and depend (for better or worse) on external time management systems. This trend does not seem to be going away. If anything, it is becoming stronger, suggesting that structured classroom environments will remain a big part of our education system into the foreseeable future.
What do these trends mean for me? I don’t have all the answers at this point, but I am actively working out a solution that can best position me for which ever trend dominates. Maybe I’ll create a killer online lecture series. Maybe I’ll master training students in time management. Maybe I’ll figure out a way to combine my face-to-face classes with massive online classes for deep, meaningful learning for all involved. Here’s the important part… I will succeed because I realize that I’m in control of my life. By observing, thinking, adapting, and acting, I set myself up for success. I have no idea if I’ll be a great success, but I do know that if I don’t try, it won’t happen.
You may have heard the old sports cliché “Be the puck (or ball).” I take slightly different spin. Your life is the puck. This puts Gretzky’s quote into context of this post. A person with a good life knows where their life is. A person with a great life knows where their life is going to be. Be the visionary of your own life. Look for the trends, predict where they are headed, build a vision for your life around that prediction, and act to make it a reality. Only then, can success be yours.