Building Your Personal Development Plan I

The Personal Development Plan

Up to this point we have just focused on all the steps necessary to Know Thyself.  Here is one of our early mock-ups of a profile page that summarizes all of the self-awareness work done so far:


There is still quite a bit of UX work required before we have something that we would like to get out to the world but this does show all of the critical elements of the personal development plan.  We talked about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) which is shown in the portrait and under the profile name.  Under that we have our character strengths that comes directly from Seligman’s Character Strengths and Virtues.  Next to that we have our Love languages and our skills and passions.  Finally, we have the scorecard and big rocks which is what makes up the majority of our personal development plan.  How we develop our personal scorecard will be the topic of the next several blogs.

Gamification, Data Gathering & Happiness

As for some of the other elements on the page that don’t look familiar, we’ll dive into those in much greater detail in future posts.  I’ll summarize quickly here.  The happiness hub is a tool that we use that will promote habits that increase overall happiness over time.  We will use a lot of the learnings gathered from Shawn Achor’s research.  You can read more about those here.  One of the central tenants of his research is that contrary to conventional wisdom, happiness is a precursor to success, not the other way around.  We want to use all of the tools at our disposal to give you the best chance at success for your personal development plan and happiness will be a big part of that.

The experience bar is an archetype of gaming.  We plan on utilizing gamification to make the process as fun as possible.  For those of you not interested in gaming the experience we will have the ability to turn this off.  Finally, we have an example poll to the right.  Data gathering will be a big part of the experience.  This is a way for us to test a lot of the paradigms of Know Thyself.  In here we will ask all sorts of questions about life, from the inane: who is your favorite superhero? – to the far more serious: have you ever gone through a divorce?  We will then aggregate and anonymize that data to share it with our users.

Setting goals and finding purpose

One of the problems with setting personal goals is that they often feel arbitrary.  When we are setting goals at work, we can normally tie those goals to corporate strategy or to a specific client or to some other marker that the business is trying to hit.  There are a ton of businesses that do this poorly but the good ones give you a sense of why you are striving to hit certain targets.

This gets a lot harder on the personal level because how do you set these targets for your life?  What is your why?  That’s going to be the ultimate goal of any personal development plan, figuring out your why.  Figuring out your authentic sense of purpose.  Those folks that you run across in life that have that mystical quality of contentment typically have a really good sense of purpose.  They know, on some intrinsic level, what they are striving for and why.

Finding your purpose is not going to happen overnight.  It certainly isn’t going to happen by taking an online quiz or by going to a couple of seminars.  This is going to take some work.  There aren’t going to be any shortcuts to this but there is a process that makes the question of – what is my purpose? – seem a whole lot less overwhelming.

The Intersection of Skills and Character Strengths

We went into great depth on skills and character strengths in previous posts of the know thyself variety.  Skills are one of the primary building blocks of our development plan.  When we build out our goals, we will be trying to hit targets.  To hit those targets will require a blend of skills and character strengths.  Knowing which goals to set is not always easy.  Often we take approaches where we try to boil the ocean and set a ton of unrealistic goals or we just build a laundry list of to dos that is super uninspiring.  These approaches just set us up for disappointment and failure.

We take a different approach.  We don’t start by randomly assigning goals.  We start with skills.  Over time, you will build out your full skill list but the first question we ask is: what are the skills that you want to work on in the next two years?  We then ask you to add your mastery level of these skills then rank how important they are for you to develop over the next two years.  This will be a combination of hard skills and soft skills.  In answering the question, you will end up with a list that looks something like this:


From there, we then ask you to narrow down that list to the eight (8) skills that you want to work on in the next three months.  We again ask you to break down how important these skills are to you but now over the next three months.  We also ask how easy you think it will be to improve those skills.  Next, we ask you to break those skills down by what category they fit in using the four pillars of: health, work, play and love.  Importance and ease are multiplied to give you an index of those skills where you will have the best chance of improving.  Finally, we ask you to add the character strengths you think are required to successfully improve that skill.  This gives you the opportunity to work on certain character strengths where you may have ranked a little lower.

The final step we’ll talk about here is narrowing this down to just four skills that you are going to work on in the next three months.  We recommend that you try to pick one skill from each of the four pillars of : health, work, play and love, but we don’t require it.  I’ve been working with folks that often pick two work skills or two health skills over picking a play or love skill.  This approach is ok but should be taken with caution.  We are trying to develop our whole person, not just certain aspects of our person.

Here’s an example of my three month skill breakout:


Next up, we’ll continue building our plan by utilizing WOOP to build out the critical few objectives of our scorecard.

Book Reviews

The Happiness Advantage

Happiness and Positive Psychology

I first heard about Achor’s work through his brilliant Ted Talk.  The thing that struck me about the Ted Talk was how funny  it was and how obviously delighted the speaker was about the work he was doing.  He clearly practices what he preached because Shawn Achor looks and sounds like a very happy man.  This, more than anything, sold me on the book.  Just like choosing a personal trainer who looks fit him or herself over some overweight alternative, you want your happiness expert to be a happy guy.  Not only is Achor happy, as a Harvard researcher he also has the credentials.  In this book he is presenting a fair amount of his own research as opposed to just taking you through one man’s personal experience.  The book is written with a fun, anecdotal and playful tone but backed by some hard data, as Mark Watney would say, ‘he scienced the shit out of this thing.”

Achor’s primary thesis is that due to the data gathered from the cutting edge science of positive psychology, “we now know that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result.  And that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement – giving us the competitive edge that I call the Happiness Advantage.”  He starts by getting into the sad reality that most of us are very unhappy with our jobs and the work we do.  In fact, “A Conference Board survey release in January of 2010 found that only 45% of workers surveyed were happy with their jobs, the lowest in 22 years of polling.  Depression rates today are ten times higher than they were in 1960.”  This is an unhappiness epidemic.  The good news is that we can do something about it.  As he and other researchers have discovered, “Once our brains were discovered to have such built-in plasticity, our potential for intellectual and personal growth suddenly became equally malleable. … studies have found numerous ways we can rewire our brains to be more positive, creative, resilient, and productive – to see more possibility where we look.”

Happiness Definition

Before he takes us into the detail of how we get closer to happiness, he does us the favor of defining it first: “Happiness implies a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future.  Martin Seligman, pioneer in positive psychology, has broken it down to three, measurable components: pleasure, engagement, and meaning.”  After that definition he pounds home the point again that, “based on the wealth of data they compiled, they found that happiness causes success and achievement, not the opposite.”  In short, if you want to be successful work on being happy first.

Happiness tools and methods

What I loved about the book is that he didn’t stop there.  He then takes us into some real life, helpful tips about how to get us to our happy place.  Here are the biggies:

  • Meditate.  Meditation takes practice, but it’s one of the most powerful happiness interventions.  I highly recommend Buddhify if you haven’t tried it.
  • Find something to look forward to.  One study found that people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27%.
  • Commit conscious acts of kindness.  The important note here is that they need to be conscious, you need to make the intention to commit these acts.
  • Infuse positivity into your surroundings.  Look at the desks of your co-workers that have tons of pictures and memes, those folks are normally the happiest of the group.
  • Exercise.  If you’re not doing this already, it’s time to start.  Not only does exercise pump up the endorphins, it also boosts mood and enhances work performance in many other ways.
  • Spend money (but not on stuff).  “Contrary to the popular saying, money can buy happiness, but only if used to do things as opposed to simply have things.”
  • Exercise a signature strength.  Do the things you are good at every once in a while to boost positivity.

This is a wonderful  DIY road map to getting on the happy train.  I’ve done some of these in the past but have since added several more of these arrows into my quiver.  It is definitely making an impact.

He also covers the concept of the fulcrum and the lever and why that physical principle has an impact on our brains.  Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”  Achor takes this into psychology, “What I realized is that our brains work in precisely the same way.  Our power to minimize our potential is based on two important things: (1) the length of our lever – how much potential power and possibility we believe we have, and (2) the position of our fulcrum – the mindset with which we generate the power to change.”  This is another way of saying that if you look at every task you do with the mindset that you can pull something positive from it, you probably will.  One of the things I liked the most about this approach was when he brought it to our jobs.  “We view our work as a Job, a Career, or a Calling.”  Guess which one will make you the happiest?  In his consulting work, he encourages employees to “rewrite their ‘job descriptions’ into what Tal Ben-Shahar calls a ‘calling description’.”  This highlights the meaning of the work that we do.  When I first read this book, I did this process starting with myself.  I then asked my employees to do the same.  It is incredibly illuminating about what people find important.  The other side of the coin of happiness is bringing it to others.  He dives into the “Pygmalion Effect: when our belief in another person’s potential brings that potential to life.” Another way of saying, pass it on.  He challenges all managers to ask these three questions: “Do I believe that the intelligence and skills of my employees are not fixed, but can be improved by effort?  Do I believe they want to make that effort, just as they want to find meaning and fulfillment in their jobs?  How am I conveying these beliefs in my daily words and actions?”  The world is not fixed, it is relative and we can have a serious impact upon it.

He then dives into what he calls the Tetris effect.  The Tetris effect comes about when people spend tons of time playing the game to the point that everything looks like a block to be arranged somewhere.  Most of us fall into the negative Tetris effect where all we see are problems.  If everything looks like a problem it is very difficult to find happiness.  Achor encourages us to rewire this into the “Positive Tetris Effect: Instead of creating a cognitive pattern that looks for negatives and blocks success, it trains our brains to scan the world for opportunities and ideas that allow our success rate to grow.”  If you are constantly scanning and focusing on the positive, you end up with a lot more happiness, gratitude and optimism.”  The road map here is: “start making a daily list of the good things in your job, your career and your life.”  At the very least, start by covering the three good things that happened today.

His next section was about Falling Up instead of Falling Down.  “Study after study shows that if we are able to conceive of failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth…the people who can most successfully get themselves up off the mat are those who define themselves not by what happened to them, but by what they can make out of what has happened.”  I found this personally true after getting broadsided with cancer and thankfully beating it.  Many years after the experience, I am grateful for the disease because it helped mold me into who I am today.

The next principle he covers is what he calls the Zorro Circle or as Covey has called it your circle of influence.  “Feeling that we are in control, that we are masters of our fate at work and at home, is one of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance. …these kinds of gains in productivity, happiness, and health have less to do with how much control we actually have and more with how much control we think we have.”  Back to the lever and the fulcrum, we have a lot of power by using our mindset of how we look at control in our own lives.  The only way to find this control is to start small.  Recognize the little things that you have absolute control over, own it, then start to expand upon it.  Don’t play the victim, take responsibility.  One way to do this is to make two lists, the first of the things that you do that are within your control, the second is those things that you don’t control.  It is always surprising how many things fall in the first list.

Principle #6 is the 20 second rule.  In countless studies we have found that we have a finite bucket of willpower and that “our willpower weakens the more we use it.”  I loved this quote, “Inactivity is simply the easiest option.  Unfortunately, we don’t enjoy it nearly as much as we think we do.  In general, Americans actually find free time more difficult to enjoy than work.  If that sounds ridiculous, consider this: for the most part, our jobs require us to use our skills, engage our minds, and pursue our goals – all things that have been shown to contribute to happiness.”  He also goes on to show that we are drawn to what is easy even when we know that active leisure is much more enjoyable than sitting on your ass.  The problem is that it takes action to be active, where sitting on the couch doesn’t.  His advice is, “Lower the activation energy for the habits you want to adopt and raise it for habits you want to avoid.”  His example is that he pulled the batteries out of his remote and instead put books in his living room.  When he did this, it became much easier to read a book then getting up, grabbing the batteries to the remote and turning on the TV.

The final principle he covers is social investment.  He starts off with a very powerful piece of data, “researchers have found that social support has as much effect on life expectancy as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and regular physical activity.”  These relationship, especially at work, are your lifeline to being happy or not.  “When over a thousand highly successful professional men and women interviewed as they approached retirement and asked what had motivated them the most, overwhelmingly they placed work friendships above both financial gain and individual status.”  One of the most important relationships at work is the boss to employee relationship and it is critical to get this right.  One of the ways to get this right is to share positive news and react with authentic positivity to those that share positive news with you.  If you are a boss, master this.  It seriously impacts the happiness of your employees.  Finally, gratitude and sharing that gratitude with your employees is also critical to their success.  Do it often and do it publicly.

What a great book.  It’s rare to find such clear direction around something as murky as happiness.  Definitely worth the read.

Book Reviews, Methodologies



I was listening to Shankar Vedantam’s amazing Podcast, Hidden Brain, the other day.  If you haven’t checked this out yet, give it a listen, it’s worth your time.  Shankar does an in-depth analysis on pretty much anything cognitive.  His guests are almost always interesting and he’s got a penetrating interview style that keeps you riveted for a half hour a week.  In this particular podcast, I was listening to You 2.0: WOOP, There it is!

His guest for this show was psychologist Gabriele Oettingen.  Dr. Oettingen recently authored the book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside The New Science Of Motivation.  In the podcast, she discusses how positive thinking can often have a negative effect.  She spent many years studying folks looking for jobs, trying to lose weight, recovering from injury or striving to reach some other goal.  What she found was counter-intuitive, at least to the current social wisdom.  She found that those people that have stronger, more positive fantasies (positive thinking) about hitting their goals were less likely to achieve them.  These folks got fewer job offers, lost less weight and recovered slower.

Interesting.  When you dive a little deeper though, the reasoning becomes a lot more obvious.  Most of these folks are doing just the positive thinking part.  They’re dreamers that aren’t getting off their asses and doing the work.  No wonder they aren’t hitting their goals.

Oettingen offers a very cool, very simple process to help realize your goals.  It is an acronym called WOOP.  WOOP stands for Wish-Objective-Obstacle-Plan.  The idea is that we think about the most important goal we wish to accomplish in the next finite period of time.  We then think about the best possible outcome if this wish is fulfilled.  She asks that we really get into it, really feel as if the outcome has already happened.  We then start to think about the obstacles within us that could prevent us from accomplishing this goal.  The important part of that statement is within us.  We still have very little control over a lot of external factors, but we certainly have control over the fears and weaknesses inside of us.  She asks us again to really feel it, then define and acknowledge these obstacles.  Finally, we build a plan.  The plan is an If – then statement right out of Comp Sci 101.  If obstacle, then plan.

Mental Contrasting

This idea of thinking about the obstacles that get in our way when trying to accomplish a goal is based off of a technique Dr. Oettingen calls mental contrasting.  Mental contrasting is very similar to a technique I’ve been using in business for years called the pre-mortem.  Everyone is familiar with the post-mortem in business.  This is where you analyze how a project went, then start working through all of the lessons you learned from the project so that these lessons can be disseminated through the organization so others can learn from the mistakes and successes of the project.  The pre-mortem is different.  This is a strategy where the folks about to start on the project or organization get together and look into the future and imagine that the project has failed.  They then work their way back from the failure to the present day and try to unearth all of the reasons why the project has failed.  This is a great way to do a risk assessment.

I have learned to use this technique sparingly.  Certain teams react very negatively to this approach.  You most often find this negative reaction with teams that are new to working together or they don’t have a ton of buy-in to the project in the first place.  In these scenarios, it can cause a serious lack of confidence in the project and may bring on the dreaded ‘Chicken Little’ effect.  In strong teams, it is incredibly effective because it brings a much needed dose of reality.  If you’ve ever built software you know that most coders default to thinking they can do the impossible by tomorrow.  This overconfidence has sunk many ships.  This risk along with many other obstacles get quickly exposed in the pre-mortem.

I’d assume the same is true for mental contrasting.  In doing some quick research, it is fair to say this approach is not for those that lack confidence.  Those that lack confidence should spend most of their time in the WOOP exercise on the Wish and Objective phase and only token time on the Obstacle and Plan phase.  A lack of confidence could prevent you from even starting on the goal in the first place if you get totally hung up on the Obstacles.

The idea behind mental contrasting is interesting and loops back to a lot of what Harari said in his book Sapiens that I reviewed previously.  Most visualization that we undertake is of the positive-future imagery flavor.  Our brains have the wonderful capacity to create fictions of the future.  The fact that we can visualize a positive-future imagery tricks our brains into assuming that this visualization is real and attainable.  That’s why it works.  The fiction convinces your brain that the desired future is likely to come true.

However, if you are already a very confident person, this positive-future imagery can burn you.  Your brain starts to assume that the goal is a lot easier to acquire than it actually is.  With that scrambled logic, your brain starts to allocate less energy to the goal and you end up not doing the work.  An interesting tangent to this – this seems eerily similar to why smart kids get so frustrated when they can’t solve something quickly.  They expect it to be easy and are not familiar with the concept of stretching the brain and doing the work.  Their brain is not used to allocating that energy and they get depressed and give up.  This is why it’s important to praise kids for ‘hard work’ over being ‘smart’.  End tangent. To combat this problem of allocating less energy and not doing the work, we developed mental contrasting.

Mental contrasting works because your subconscious mind is a lazy 4-yr old.  It can’t think past a couple of minutes.  This is why long term goals are so hard to hit, your subconscious doesn’t give a damn.  All it wants is for you to be happy and healthy in the now.  It doesn’t understand why exercising is a good idea – all it sees is that running on a treadmill is a pointless waste of time.  Mental contrasting is training for your subconscious.  It connects the dots of future reward with obstacles in the now.  Your conscious mind understands that running and dieting is a good idea but your subconscious mind just wants to finish the whole damn roll of thin mints.  The subconscious speaks in images which is why mental contrasting is so effective.

One note of caution if you are interested in further research on the topic.  I can’t recommend the book.  I would recommend that you just listen to the Hidden Brain podcast.  I thought the book was somewhat poorly written even though the idea of WOOP is a great one.  She has obviously done a ton of research and should be lauded for it.  The presentation of that research in the book however, was not done very objectively.  In all of the great scientific books I’ve read, the results of a study are shown then conclusions are drawn from those results.  Here, I felt like the conclusion was made ahead of time and then the results were shown to support the conclusion.  I’m not making any claims that this is bad science, because I don’t think that’s the case at all, just that the presentation of the science was weak.

I also believe that both the character lab site using WOOP and the Woopmylife site are both excellent and deserve a look.

Personal Improvement Plan

So how does this all tie back into the personal improvement plan?  I talked about SMART goals in a previous post.  The WOOP approach will complement SMART goals very nicely.  This is how we will get from knowing thyself to a scorecard.  I’ll start with some examples of this in my next blog on the process.