To realize your big ideas, think in cycles

In 2009, I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. I had just left my full-time consulting job and had started teaching part-time at a local university. It was the first time in a long while that I had some spare time to pursue side projects. One of my business ideas was to develop a web application that would allow small to medium-sized organizations to easily measure and reduce their carbon footprint. I knew the methods involved in carbon accounting from my consulting practice, but I needed help to create the technology platform. Tapping into my network, I reached out to two colleagues, who owned and operated an agency in Vancouver that developed slick web-based applications and tools. They agreed to partner on the idea, and in late 2009 we started an online software company called Gobi.

It took us a year to develop and launch Gobi. Over the next few years, we released several new versions of the software, executed our marketing and business development strategy, and built up our customer base. It was a lot of work, but it was satisfying to develop a company from the ground up. Then, in late 2013, I got a phone call that changed our trajectory. The CEO of a consulting firm called me up and asked if we’d consider selling Gobi. Recently, they had started to develop their own carbon accounting software, but decided they could get to market and scale up much faster if they acquired an existing system rather than building their own. After a few months of negotiation, we sold Gobi and cashed out — roughly five years after I had dreamed up the original idea.

Five years. I’ve found that often, this is how long it takes to realize a big dream — to take an idea from concept to fruition. Whether my ambition has been to complete a university degree, start up a business or charity, or write and publish a book, I expect it to take about five years to complete. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll walk away from the venture after five years, like we did with Gobi, but the project can often stand on its own after that length of time. Of course, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Some ideas will take less time to bring to life; others will take more. For some people, five years might seem like a daunting amount of time, for others, not enough. You might find you tend to operate on two-year cycles, or 10. The point is that when you’re considering your biggest future aspirations, it’s useful to break those projects down into manageable (and realistic) chunks of time. Thinking this way helps to prioritize what you want to accomplish in life, and it can motivate you to get out there and make it happen.

For me, the value of thinking in five-year increments is that it breaks down my grand vision into doable chunks. It’s much easier and less daunting if I split it up into five-year periods. To use my example, let’s say you are 30 years old and you’re envisioning your future in 40 years. In this scenario, you have eight five-year cycles ahead of you. Sure, 40 years is a long time, but eight is not a big number. Here are those cycles expressed visually:

x x x x x x x x

That’s it. More or less, that’s the number of large-scale projects you have time to pursue. Barring a scientific breakthrough in human longevity, you only have so many shots to realize your big ideas and create something special. Don’t waste them. There’s a quote by David Allen that goes: “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” Thinking in terms of discrete cycles helps to bring this point home. Your potential is almost unlimited, but the time available to make your mark is not. Don’t let this thought scare you — use it to motivate you. Life is precious. Focus your time on the things that count and tune out the things that don’t.

The power of positivity: Three lessons from the military

In his book, Leadership: 50 Points of Wisdom For Today’s Leaders, General Rick Hillier shares his insights on leadership, gleaned from over 30 years of service in the Canadian Forces. General Hillier was appointed Commander of the Army in 2003 and promoted to Chief of the Defence Staff in 2005. He stepped down in 2008.

When I read the book, I was especially inspired by the General’s views on positivity. In the midst of dangerous operations in military hot-spots like Afghanistan, Hillier emphasized the importance of staying positive and sharing that positive outlook with his team. “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier,” General Hillier says. “Your job, your responsibility as a leader, is to be optimistic and to communicate that optimism to those who follow you as part of enabling them to be successful.”

When leaders exhibit optimism, even in times of crisis, they serve as a source of empowerment for the people they lead. According to Hillier, “At a cost of nothing, [the leader] is empowering with energy, confidence and passion everyone around her, and empowering them as a group to achieve an effect out of all proportion to the numbers.”

Being positive is a simple yet effective way to lift up people around you. While most of us will never be responsible for keeping troop morale high in war-torn parts of the world, we can still learn from General Hillier’s wisdom and experiences. Here are three easy ways to adopt “perpetual optimism” in your own life and work.

The Power of a Smile

One way to share positivity with others is to smile. Even in the most unlikely situations, a smile can be a force of goodwill. In the book, General Hillier talks about the disarming power of smiling at people he encountered during operations, particularly during his time in Afghanistan. He almost always got a positive response in return, even from complete strangers.

A smile is a remarkable thing. Not only does smiling help to make others feel good, it is good for you too. Studies have shown that smiling on a regular basis can reduce stress, boost your mood and improve your overall well-being. It can also make you appear more likeable and competent to others. There’s even evidence that smiling is linked to a longer life expectancy. To learn more about the hidden powers of smiling, check out this TED Talks presentation by Ron Gutman. According to Gutman, one smile produces the equivalent brain stimulation as eating 2,000 bars of chocolate or receiving $25,000 in cash.

One of the best things about a smile is it’s contagious. When you smile at someone, they tend to smile too. So by smiling, you are effectively passing its benefits to the other person. What a kind gift to give.

It’s no surprise that leaders, like General Hillier, have learned to tap into the remarkable power of smiling – it’s a good way to nurture a healthier, more positive disposition amongst a team. If it can work for a battle-hardened General in a place like Afghanistan, there’s no reason it cannot work for you.

Show Respect

One of General Hillier’s mantras is to always treat people with respect and he expected his troops to do the same, even with the enemy. “Never demean, insult or belittle your people, even in jest,” he says. “Instead, build up their pride by showing them that each and every one of them is a respected, mature and responsible adult.”

What does this mean for you? One way to show respect to others is to use positive, affirming language rather than negative words in your communications. Acknowledge people and express gratitude for their accomplishments, and offer words of encouragement where appropriate. Give compliments to people, no matter if they are in front of you or not. Indeed, one of the best ways to show respect to others is to speak highly of them when they are not present in a conversation – imagine that you’re their personal champion. One simple rule of thumb is to only speak about people in a way you’d like others to speak about you. Being positive in your communications, both verbal and written, is a wonderful way to show respect, build strong relationships, and inspire others to do the same.

Be Playful

General Hillier also talks about using humour as a way to share positivity with others. He states: “What we remember from past experiences is how we felt at the time, and humour helps to mark those experiences in our memory in the most positive way.” Even in the most challenging times, Hillier found that humour was a helpful way to relieve stress and build positive, shared experiences amongst his troops. Whether you’re leading a group in the midst of a crisis, or just engaging in conversation with friends or family, humour is a powerful tool for sharing positivity with others, so long as it’s not used to belittle or demean people. So remember to be playful – and play nice.

The High Road: How to find your purpose and live it out loud

The telephone rang shortly after 6 a.m., brusquely waking me from a deep, dreamless sleep. It was a Tuesday morning in September, and I did not have to be up and out of bed for at least another hour.

“Who the heck is calling me so early?” I thought, as I drowsily cursed the telephone perched on my nightstand.

“Joey, are you awake?”

I was still half-asleep, but recognized the voice immediately. I knew only one person who called me Joey, and that person spoke with a distinctive Galician accent. Iñaki was calling me from his transplanted home in Stockholm. Seeing that I live in Vancouver, ordinarily I might have been alarmed by a 6 a.m. phone call from someone who lives nine time zones away. On this particular morning, however, the call was not entirely unexpected.

The next day I was scheduled to fly to Stockholm for a two-week holiday. I had planned to stay with my old university buddy, and together we were going to check out the city and some of the islands in the Stockholm archipelago. I figured that Iñaki was calling me to sort out some last-minute travel details, and innocently misjudged the time difference between Vancouver and Stockholm. That, or he had mistakenly assumed I was a morning person.

“Hey Iñaki, yeah I’m up. How are you?” I replied, groggily trying out my voice for the first time that day.

“Have you heard the news?” he said, rather abruptly.

“Um, no, what’s up?”

“New York has been bombed. Turn on your television.”

Certain historic events have such gravity that the exact moment you hear about them becomes forever crystalized in your memory: the assassination of President Kennedy; the first manned mission to land on the moon; the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; the fall of the Berlin Wall; and the death of Princess Diana are some notable examples. Depending on your age, you may be able to recall with astonishing clarity where you were and what you were doing when you first heard about them.

Unquestionably, one of the biggest “where were you when” moments in recent history is the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States that occurred on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. My own memory of that fateful day will be forever linked to an early-morning wake-up call from Stockholm, and those surreal words delivered in a familiar Galician accent: “New York has been bombed. Turn on your television.”

The airspaces of the United States and Canada were closed for three days following 9/11, which grounded my flight. Once air travel resumed, I thought it prudent to postpone my trip for a while. I did not know it then, but a whole year would pass before I made it over to Sweden. And by then, the events of 9/11 had already started a ripple effect that would shape the rest of my life; one that was triggered by a relatively minor inconvenience on that Tuesday morning — I did not have a television to turn on.

Television has never been a big vice of mine. By choice, I went through most of my 20s and 30s without owning a TV. On September 11, 2001, not only did I not have a television at home, I didn’t seek one out either. In fact, two weeks would pass before I watched any television coverage of 9/11. This was unintentional; I wasn’t trying to cocoon myself from the horrific details of that day. It just so happened that I got the news through other means: I listened to the radio and read the newspaper, and shared information with family, friends and colleagues.

Going without television meant that I didn’t see any video broadcasts of the planes crashing into the sides of the twin towers, the plumes of black smoke billowing into the clear blue sky, or the two giant edifices collapsing to the ground in a mountain of ash and rubble. During those two weeks, my only visual experience of these events was through photographs that appeared in newspaper stories and magazine articles. These images made an indelible mark on me — one that quite possibly was amplified by my abstinence from TV.

One photo that I found especially haunting is now considered to be one of the most iconic images from 9/11. Taken by Richard Drew, The Falling Man shows an unidentified man falling from the upper levels of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The photo gives the impression the man is in a rigid headfirst dive, with one leg slightly bent, and his body in near-perfect symmetry with the stark skyscraper behind him (a series of other photos reveals that he is actually tumbling through the air). The photograph is difficult to look at. It is bleak and disturbing. However, it is also somehow cathartic. Its harsh imagery is the very thing that lets you connect, on a purely visceral level, with the horrors of that day.

I was fascinated by the capacity of photographs like The Falling Man to visually communicate the raw human emotions associated with 9/11. Not only were they able to convey emotion to me, but elicit it in me as well. Moreover, if they had evoked such strong emotion in me, then surely they had affected others too. A short time later, these thoughts provided the spark for an idea: why not use the power of photography to evoke more positive emotions in others? I was curious if photography could serve as a force for good by spreading love and kindness outward into the world. I made it my mission to find out.

This is an excerpt from the introduction to The High Road, a series of lessons on how to find your purpose and live it out loud. Download the complete introduction for free here. In it, you will learn what it means to live with purpose – and how doing so can transform your life.