Two Ways in Which Strategy = Life

I’ve been reading a lot about strategy lately. Strategic principles are mixing together with my brain’s incessant pondering of life the same way chocolate whey protein, banana, peanut butter powder (a god-send) and almond milk do in my blender every other morning. I’ve come to realize: there’s no use in trying to parse out the difference between business strategy and life strategy, as their core principles are mostly one in the same.

There are two specific principles that are equally pertinent to business and life:

1.Choosing what not to do

It is obvious that we must make decisions in life. Life ultimately boils down to three main stages:

· Birth

· Choices

· Death

Focusing on this middle stage, which encompasses 99.99 or more percent of our lives, it’s obvious you can’t do everything and you can’t be everything or everywhere for everyone. This holds true in business and life. In the day-to-day, we’re often pulled in hundreds of different directions and it takes conscious effort and discipline to say no.

Some of our choices in life are big — like what career path to choose or who to marry, and some small — like what to eat for lunch or whether to exercise after work. Either way, who you are is a direct reflection of the choices you make. Sometimes, that choice is to choose not to do something. I liken this to what Miles Davis said when describing the key to playing jazz, “don’t play what’s there; play what’s not there.” We’re shaped just as much by the things we don’t do as much as the things we do. In business, choosing what not to do is essential to developing a sustainable strategic position; one that is unlikely to be matched by competitors. In life, choosing what not to do is essential to trimming out our unproductive or unhealthy tendencies, allowing us to be our best versions of ourselves.

2.Understanding that trade-offs are inevitable

In life, as in business strategy, the choice to do something is guaranteed to result in trade-offs.

In business, trade-offs occur because a product or series of activities a company executes provides value in a certain way, but not in any other way. For example, McDonalds provides value — although, Morgan Spurlock may disagree — to customers seeking quick, low-cost meals. Because of that business model, McDonalds must keep their costs low, resulting in trade-off’s consisting of standardized ingredients, minimum wage and no training for employees. If McDonalds were paying their employees $20/hr and there were extensive training periods, McDonalds would have higher prices and thus wouldn’t be providing their same value to customers.

In life, individual trade-offs are faced all the time. Malcolm Gladwell, famous author, explains in his book Outliers, that it takes 10,000 hours of commitment to become an expert in something. On one end of the extreme, every 10,000 hours an individual spends perfecting their craft is 10,000 hours (or 417 full days, or 5 hours/day for 5.5 years) he/she is not spending on doing something — anything — else.

I personally experienced these unavoidable trade-offs on the lesser end of the extreme last semester when I was dedicating 40+ hours/week preparing for a student case competition on top of school, work, and interview prep. We placed 2nd nationally, but it came at a significant cost, as I was physically and mentally drained from trading off exercise, healthy eating and adequate sleep. I botched a few job interviews, let my grades slip, and got lost in a deep fog of stress-induced anxiety.

It’s important to remember that trade-offs in life are necessary, just as they are in business, but the key is to not take on too much that you’re spreading your scarce resources (time, energy, focus) too thin.