Progress Through Process
And don't count on accountability.
And welcome to edition 307 — here’s the Thirlstone:
Progress Through Process
Or: Everything I Thought Was Working Wasn’t
Eager readers among you will remember that, in 2021, I vowed to accomplish and then did indeed accomplish 100 ‘Days of Adventure’.
The experiment, then, was a success: the stated objective, to have ‘a lot more’ adventures, was achieved.
But getting outside more isn’t what made the experiment a success. What made the experiment a success was the success of the experimental method.
(Last week, a friend and reader said that he was never quite sure whether he understood my emails: with sentences like the preceding, I concede his point.)
Let me explain.
In 1747, the ship’s doctor of HMS Salisbury, James Lind, decided to compare six different treatments of scurvy, the bloody scourge of sailors long at sea. Some were given cider, some were given sulfuric acid. Some were given oranges and lemons.
In the process, Lind learned how to cure scurvy (it wasn’t the cider, sad face). That was useful, sure, but not nearly as useful as simultaneously proving the efficacy of a well-conducted clinical trial.
I’m not saying that 100 Days of Adventure was a well-conducted clinical trial, but it was a trial with a positive outcome and, like James Lind’s scientific successors, I can work backwards to isolate the elements of the trial that supported its happy ending.
Based on my reading of immortal business management truisms, two contenders for contributing elements of success spring to mind:
Public accountability thanks to this newsletter
Working with a well-defined and measurable goal
On closer reading, I’ve learned that both might well have done more harm than good.
1. Go public — but not too public
I’d assumed that, by talking about my goal in this newsletter, I was being held to account by nearly 300 discerning humans. And I thought that this was a good thing that would help me reach my goal.
Turns out that I was probably wrong.
A 1998 management study found that, while conditions of ‘low accountability’ improve goal performance, conditions of ‘high accountability’ merely encourage people to massage their public image, with no improvement in performance.
In other words: with the eyes of the world upon you, you’re more likely to hide the failures and emphasise the positives.
But is this newsletter helpful low accountability or damaging high accountability? Well, it’s hard to say for sure because I don’t have access to the paywalled academic papers…
But perhaps what this newsletter was helping me with was not accountability at all, but commitment.
Thanks to this newsletter, every week last year, I sat down with my calendar and counted up how many Days of Adventure I’d had in the past seven days. On the equinox and solstices, with the changing of every season, I also delved a little deeper and wrote a little more, reflecting on my progress towards my goal through the year.
Perhaps it was this regular commitment to the process that was helping me, rather than the sense that you lot were standing over me, tapping your rulers on the desk, waiting to punish or reward me.
This is certainly what I’ve found in the opening months of 2022. There was no fanfare at the end of 2021: there were no fireworks to celebrate my achievement. All that happened was that I moved onto a new page on my spreadsheet and started again from zero (now on nine).
Goals come and go, but the process endures.
2. Not so SMART
Some of you business types will immediately jump up and tell me why my process was successful: it was because I created a SMART goal.
The 100 Days of Adventure project was:
Specific. 100. Days. Adventure.
Measurable. A day either is or is not adventurous and when I hit 100, I’d hit my target.
Achievable. Before starting, I counted that I’d done 67 the year before, so 100 didn’t seem like too much of a stretch (as long as Covid played along).
Relevant. 100 Days of Adventure was totally aligned with my personal and professional values and priorities.
Time-bound. I knew exactly when to begin (1 January 2021) and when to end (31 December 2021).
But what if 100 Days of Adventure succeeded despite the smartness of the SMART acronym? After all, how specific was my definition of a Day of Adventure?
Not very, as it turns out.
My original definition is that a Day of Adventure is a day when I could answer the following question in the affirmative: ‘Did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure?’
I immediately followed up this definition with a weasly confession:
‘Outside’ is deliberately wide open because I’m a firm believer that adventure can be found anywhere. ‘Significant chunk’ and ‘an adventure’ are both deliberately relative because DOA is a simple binary measure that should work for everyone.
This definition did mature over the course of the year. At some point, I decided that three hours was unequivocally significant, but I still maintained that great adventures could be had in less and several, particularly as the end-of-year deadline drew closer, were more like two hours.
Compare this to the stringent requirements of the forty practice hikes that I have to log before I can take my professional Hill and Moorland Leader assessment. These require me to do at least four hours of walking time. No ambiguity there — particularly not when all my hikes are timed and logged automatically by GPS.
The lack of wiggle room in this qualification metric means that I missed the deadline for taking my assessment next week. I’ve been out on far more than forty hikes in the hills and moorlands of England, but, analysing the data, I fall six days short.
Although I’ve enjoyed every single practice hike that I’ve done, the reality is that, by the SMART goal measure, I have failed. And that failure makes me feel a bit crap.
But my deliberately, ostentatiously vague definition of a Day of Adventure meant that there was plenty of flexibility in my 2021 goal and — surprise, surprise — I completed the challenge and that made me feel bloody marvellous. What an accomplished human being I am, pat on the back for me!
Two outdoor challenges: one I can put down as a triump, the other I’m forced to consider a failure.
But here’s the thing: the two challenges were identical. By definition, any day that qualified as one of forty practice days for my Hill and Moorland Leader assessment was also one of my 100 Days of Adventure.
They were identical in every detail bar one: one of the goals wasn’t so SMART. And, confusingly, sometimes smart goals aren’t SMART goals.
Suppose I’d only managed 99 Days of Adventure in 2021. What would I have gained from that year of abject failure? Yes, that’s right — a whole heck of a lot!
Similarly, what have I gained so far from only completing 34 of 40 logged hikes for my Hill and Moorland assessment? Yes, that’s also right — a whole heck of a lot!
The flexibility of my definition of Days of Adventure encourages me to go outside and try something new.
The inflexibility of the professional definition of a Hill and Moorland qualifying hike means that I won’t go outside until I can guarantee at least four hours walking.
Last time I was on Dartmoor, I arrived extremely tired. I’d meant to do a four-hour hike that afternoon, but only managed a couple of hours before I quit.
The pressure of an inflexible goal kept me going longer than I should have and, when I got back to the bunkhouse, knowing that the deadline loomed, I went back over the past few years of hiking, desperately massaging the numbers, trying to convince myself that I was ready for assessment.
I was doing exactly what the literature told me I would do. Instead of improving my performance, this condition of high accountability was making me manipulate my public image — I was being lured into lying!
So I stopped scrolling through my hike logbook and went to bed instead.
A couple of quality hikes later, walking off Dartmoor, through the woods on the edge of Fernworthy reservoir, the sun jumping from leaf to leaf through the trees, the chill air plucking at the hair on my bare arms, I realised that I didn’t want this to end; I didn’t want to qualify; I didn’t want to finish my training.
SMART goals are time-bound. SMART goals end.
What more would I accomplish by rushing to accomplish this goal? Nothing. Nothing, no assessment, no qualification could top what the process consistently delivers: these moments of serenity in the woods and on the moors.
There will be no fanfare, no fireworks. All that must happen is to move onto a new page and start again from zero.
Goals come and go, but the process endures.
So, sitting in the car, the chewy scent of mud in my nostrils, I opened up my email and wrote to my assessor, telling him of my gleeful decision to cancel…
Writerly Questions With An Obvious Solution Once You Write Them Down
Part 1: Which Should I Worry About More — My ‘Grand Theme’ Or Whether The Audience Laughs?
This is a short addendum to last week’s piece on The Adventurer’s Journey. One of the things that I was quite careful not to say was that adventures were stories and stories were lessons and, thusly, adventures were lessons.
There is an academic passion for analysing stories for grand themes and universal morals, summed up by the question: what does this story have to say about the human experience?
It’s a forensic approach that has been translated wholesale into the dozen or more ‘how to write’ books that fill my own bookshelves.
Books as diverse as Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder and Story by Robert McKee all have the same underlying logic: find your theme and you’ll find your story.
But I’ve just finished reading an excellent book that takes the complete opposite approach to story analysis — and therefore implies a wholly different logic for creative writing.
Rather than mining the library shelves for themes, meanings and lessons, Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks examines the psychological effect that different stories have on the reader.
It’s a disarmingly naive method, inspired by Aristotle’s Poetics, that can be crudely summed up by the question: who gives a crap about theme when my readers are gripped by catharsis, shaken with wonder, bawling their eyes out and lolling their heads off.
Fletcher’s 400-page thesis is a little repetitive and certainly misses out a huge chunk of what makes certain stories so effective, but it’s a potent corrective to a tendency that I have as a spreadsheet-driven writer, when an obsession with structure blocks a clear view of how the story will land in the mind of the audience, with tears and laughter.
That’s it. Apologies for any typos: it’s late and I’m pretty tired of staring at a screen.
Thank you to everyone who’s shared the past seven days with me. You know who you are — it’s been beautiful!
Have a wonderful weekend.