Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, keeps a list of ideas he once believed in but no longer does.
His list itself is worth your time, but so is the habit of listing. Adams calls it a "maintenance system" for the mind that he uses to "remind myself of things I used to be sure about and later discovered to be untrue."
How Priorities Change, With Age
As you might imagine, Adam's priorities have changed as he's gotten older. It's a picture of a man moving away from self-centeredness and toward a larger awareness.
In his 20s, Adams stopped believing that "any college is as good as any other," that "looks don't matter," and that "wealth doesn't make you more attractive."
In his 30s, he stopped believing that "you can do anything you set your mind to" and that "hard work is almost always rewarded."
In his 40s, he stopped believing in free will, and he stopped believing that "solving your problems can bring you lasting happiness."
To his credit, Adams admits that his list is organized "by the approximate ages at which I realized my errors. A healthy rational mind needs regular doses of humility."
The Power of Making Lists
Adams' list reminded me of a technique that serial entrepreneur Rick Stierwalt uses as a maintenance system. After selling his first company, Concord Holding Corporation, in 1996, Stierwalt began returning weekly to his native Indianapolis to train as a race car driver.
He was 40 at the time and realized that it was "now or never" to pursue an ambition he'd first hatched as an eight-year-old. Stierwalt chose to race because it was the next thing on a list of ambitions that he has maintained since childhood. That may seem like too simple a description, but it's not. For many entrepreneurs, figuring out what their next project should be is a major struggle.
Decision making, in terms of life's big picture, is new to them.
Stierwalt, by maintaining a list, was well prepared to move on after selling his company. Based on the categories he saw in a goals list for AOL founder Ted Leonsis, Stierwalt reclassified his own list of ambitions into categories such as "personal," "charitable," "travel," "financial," and "egotistical."
How Lists Can Help You
What's the best way to create a list that can help you with your life and business goals? The best way to start is with a refresher on how to create an effective list. In his classic book on the subject, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande offers three key tips:
1. Use simple sentence structure and basic langauge. It's a checklist for a reason. You want it handy for fast scanning, not detailed analysis.
2. Have a timetable for future review and revision of the list. You won't know your list works until you try using it. Throughout his life, Stierwalt has modified his list to meet his evolving priorities. The list is the documentation of an iterative process, not the codification of fixed ends. It's a palimpsest, not a constitution.
3. Use a title that reflects the list's objectives. Stierwalt's title is "100 Goals for Life." The point is, you want your list to be a cheat sheet. It should be something you can find and browse at a moment's notice. It should be something someone else can find and browse at a moment's notice. A title like "100 Goals for Life" leaves no doubt, no wiggle room, about topic and objectives.
Stierwalt can take one quick look, and know exactly what he needs to do next.