Have you ever felt overwhelmed by a blizzard of conflicting priorities at home and the office? Who hasn't? As a founding partner with Richard Branson of the Entrepreneurship Centres, I'm amazed at the billionaire's uncanny talent for juggling 350 companies in the Virgin Group while also leading a dozen initiatives aimed at saving the planet through his Virgin Unite foundation. With so many commitments, he's still the most generous mentor anyone has ever had. His example has taught me a very personal lesson about the struggle we face as human beings: Our primal need to be creatively engaged and have meaningful impact when distractions and chaos conspire to unravel our best-laid plans.
When Branson's house burst into flames during a hurricane two years ago, Kate Winslet and her family, along with Branson's 90-year-old mom, Eve, fled to safety. Branson himself had been sleeping down near the beach in a guest cottage when he heard lightning strike his hilltop home. He sprinted out the door buck naked and straight into a cactus. "No one felt sorry for me," he joked, "as everyone had more important issues to contend with." Nobody was hurt, but Branson felt a deep moment of loss. He'd raised his family in that house, and the setback gave him insight into how to weigh what's important.
1. Burn the House Down. If you lost everything tomorrow, would you rebuild your home exactly the same way? Would you fill it with all the same stuff? If your business were incinerated and you were given the opportunity to start over, would you go about it the exact same way? Would you create all the same products and services? Would you hire all the same people back? Probably not. "I'd not wish it on anyone," Branson told me, "but sometimes the best way to get clear about what matters is to imagine starting over from scratch!"
Before you set a course for the new year, consider what it would be like to start over. Maybe it's time to throw a few things out that don't really work for you, or perhaps you should take more time to be grateful for whom and what you'd miss if you lost it. It's a stunning, new way to think about your New Year's resolutions. There can be many benefits: Branson's new house is bolder and more beautiful in ways that better reflect who he is today.
2. Track Your Insights. The biggest heartbreak about the blaze for Branson was losing his prize notebooks. He's scribbled ideas, insights, and to-do's in a set of bound blank books in almost every meeting I've ever attended with him. He's been doing that for decades. "You need to have some way to capture what matters, what you're learning, and what you might find important later."
3. Don't Take the Bait. Our primal brains are hard-wired by fight-or-flight urges, which means that we're easily seduced by anything that feels remotely like a crisis rather those less exciting things that have longer-term strategic impact. "We're too easily driven by instant gratification," Branson told me, "in good things and bad." It's too easy for those of us who are busy to respond like Pavlov's dog, leaping at anything that shows immediate threats or rewards. Be wary of urgent things that trump long-term commitments.
4. Pick Who, Not Just What. No one builds a great house or business alone. Success depends on the people you recruit to share your vision. Branson was once recognized as one of the world's most remarkable thought leaders by Thinkers50 founders Des Dearlove and Stuart Crainer. When I asked him about honors like that, he's always given credit to others "who make each dream possible." He feels "grateful and lucky" to have attracted hundreds of leaders "whose passion is equal" to his own in every single organization that lives under the Virgin brand.
"You have to think about who you will spend your time with based on what you care most about," Richard once said as he stirred the open fire and we sat barefoot on the sandy beach near his home on Necker in the British Virgin Islands. Dark clouds suddenly extinguished the brief Caribbean sunset we had been enjoying, as if to signal another storm on its way. "Life is short. Embrace the people who make you a better person," he mentored. Consider someone a friend when he or she helps you become who you aspire to be, and help them do the same. "You need fewer of those people who zap energy and you need more of the kind who help you stay on track--true friends who help you find joy and meaning."