COVID-19 has been very good to me. There, I said it. Of course there have been dark clouds too, but like many other people, I’ve found a silver lining. For me personally, the timing of the pandemic was fortuitous, but my ability to confidently retire from patient care earlier than anticipated and move on to the next phase in my life was also due to years of planning and preparation. As Thomas Edison famously said, “Good fortune is what happens when opportunity meets planning.” The COVID-19 lockdown forced the vast majority of us to take a break from our normal daily routines. After the initial shock and the scramble to devise personal and business plans for the “new normal”, even most business owners had more time (and perhaps more reason) to reconsider what is truly important in their lives. The consequences of “the great resignation” are difficult, however I believe our stay-at-home period caused an alarming number of people to realize that they had their ladder up against the wrong wall. I commend those who used that time for introspection and had the courage to redirect their lives. Unfortunately, some also acted rashly and may be unprepared for the consequences.
As I reflect on my pandemic experience along with the realization that so many people either were or still are unhappy with the path they are on, I’m inspired to explain why big picture thinking is critical to success and share some methods to help you develop your own unique vision of what success looks like.
What Is The Big Picture (TBP)?
There is more than one way to define TBP. For the purposes of this discussion, what I’m referring to is your personal, individual vision of what you want your life to look like at some point in the future. It’s your life, designed and created by you. TBP does not include minutiae. It encompasses only those few things that are your top priorities. In other words, it’s dependent upon what you value most in life. TBP is not about keeping up with others. Life presents many different means to many different ends, but to arrive in a happy place you must be in touch with your unique priorities rather than copy others’. TBP is also not static; it is constantly evolving. The younger you are, the broader the strokes you should paint your picture with and the more you can reasonably aspire to. Each decade, the picture becomes a bit clearer and the options for altering it diminish somewhat. Personally, I would describe the current state of my big picture as “ideal meets practical”.
Why Do You Need To Envision Your Big Picture?
Once you commit to high level forward thinking, many benefits follow. Right from the beginning, there’s a mental health benefit. You become less stressed about daily details. You’re less likely to suffer occupational burnout because your motivation has been supercharged by actively thinking about what is possible in the future. It’s been said that the pandemic has downgraded work as the centerpiece of one’s identity. TBP is an answer to the question “What else is there besides work?”
Spending time creating your unique vision also acts as a guidepost when making some of the bigger decisions in life. You’ll be less likely to waste time straying down a path that is not likely to lead you to those things that you value most in life. On the flip side, you’ll have the confidence to act upon those things that align with your ultimate goals. In my case, big picture thinking was behind one of the biggest and best decisions of my life – purchasing and renovating a building for my practice. Not only did this allow me more control and flexibility while I was practicing, it also provides an income stream for me in retirement.
Previsualization can also be a tool for turning obstacles into opportunities. Life frequently dishes out surprises for us. When challenged by something unforeseen and potentially negative, asking yourself, “How can I get around this problem in a way that keeps me on my path?”, can sometimes result in a very positive outcome as a result of the unexpected. Such was the case for me regarding COVID-19. However, it was the steps I had taken toward bringing focus to my once fuzzy picture of the future (adopting a medical model of practice in my 30’s, solidifying an exit strategy in my 40’s, completing the sale of my practice in my 50’s, etc) that allowed me to take advantage of the pandemic-fueled increase in real estate values, sell my home in NY, move to my home in FL and retire from patient care earlier than I had previously anticipated.
When Should You Start Working On Your Big Picture?
It’s never too early to begin formulating an image of what you want your life to look like in the future. Remember, it’s expected that your big picture will evolve over time, but the longer you go without some deep thought about where you want to end up, the longer it will take to get there. If you start early, you can do most of the heavy lifting necessary toward your idea of fulfillment while you’re younger and have more energy. Once you begin the process, you’ll also be less likely to make decisions which result in putting the things you value most in jeopardy. Early in my career, I knew several “successful” professionals who worked long hours into their 60’s, took on partners very late in their careers and either died or became ill shortly after retiring. Their stories helped shape my personal big picture.
Although the pandemic was and is a dramatic obstacle (and opportunity) for many people, being locked-down was unique and there was plenty of time to contemplate with minimal distraction. Most of the time, taking advantage of opportunities that arise involves acting somewhat expeditiously while the pace of everyday life continues. Being cognizant of your intentions for the future helps you make good choices in these situations.
Developing Your Own Big Picture
Getting in the right frame of mind to work on your big picture can be a challenge given the pace of most of our lives, therefore the most important step is to actually schedule time for the process. Plan to spend time in a setting where you’ll be uninterrupted. Be there during the time of day when you’re naturally most creative and productive. Depending on where you are in the process, it can be as simple as a couple of hours at a coffee shop or as involved as a weekend retreat. Personally, some of my best big picture thinking comes during workouts and hikes in nature.
Since the process is largely about identifying and planning for what is truly important to you, it may help to ponder questions such as: What would you do if you had 6 months to live? Who do you admire most and why? If you had no other commitments, what would you do with the rest of your life? Who are the most important people in your life? What would your perfect day look like? What else do you want out of life in addition to what you’ve already experienced? Open-ended questions such as these will help you build a framework for your future intentions, which will help you prioritize what you do today in preparation for tomorrow.
Once you have at least a notion of what your big picture looks like, write down a short list of the things that are most important to you going forward. Update this list as circumstances change and revisit the process regularly. If you have a spouse or significant other, it makes sense to share your vision with them as well.
Making It Happen
Now that you know which peak you’d like to climb, it’s time to plan the most efficient route to the top. In my opinion, there are several important components to this project. The first is prioritizing. Being mindful of those things that you now know are most important to you, prioritize your daily tasks. One simple way to do this is to ask yourself, “How will this item matter to me in 3 days, 3 years, a decade?” A more involved method has been proposed by author Stephen Covey and is called Covey Quadrants. Essentially, it involves separating tasks according to their importance and urgency, then doing all in your power to spend as much time as possible on those things that are important and not urgent while spending as little time as possible on unimportant matters. This is another instance where putting pen to paper helps. Write down even your shorter term priorities. I’d also recommend generating a target timeline for major stepping stones you foresee along your journey. Writing things down helps you be specific and uncovers any flaws in your thinking. It also acts as a reference for modifications and tracking.
A second element in achieving your goals is to learn as much as you can to make your process more effective and efficient. There are many sources for this information. Well-respected professional advisors are worth every penny in this matter. Your advisor team should include at least an accountant, a practice consultant, a financial advisor and a lawyer. You can also advance by attending meetings and joining business groups. Don’t forget that your vendors often have information and resources that could benefit you as well. Lastly, try to learn from the daily events in your life and your practice. Reflect on what happened today and extract takeaways.
Another critical aspect of efficient progress is leadership/delegation. Enlisting the right people, then communicating, educating, motivating, empowering and rewarding them can allow you to reach your intentions much quicker and easier.
We live in a fast-paced world of details and specialization. While that affords us many opportunities and objects that most of us didn’t even dream of as children, it can also be all-consuming. The pandemic has been a wakeup call for many of us. While I fully embrace the philosophy that there’s more to life than work, being an ECP is a great way to spend your working years and achieve your ultimate personal goals. Make time now to step back and take advantage of this unprecedented time in our lives to get in touch with what is truly important to you. No matter what stage of the climb you’re in, you’ll reach the correct summit for your desired view sooner if you do.