“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”

-John F. Kennedy

A Strange Loop

A strange loop is a concept developed by the polymath Douglas Hofstadter to explain processes where you see things changing, but then end up back in a situation that looks remarkably similar to where you started out at. It’s not the same, because, as Heraclitus (an ancient Greek sage) said: “you can’t step into the same river twice” (i.e., life goes on), but you do feel like you’ve been there before.

These loops are exemplified in the fugues of J.S. Bach and the woodcuts and lithographs of M.C. Escher. If you’ve never listened to Bach or looked at the slightly weird, but very wonderful, world of Escher, take some time out to do so.

Strange loops are also things that happen in life. Just before I sat down to write this — I actually sat down with the intention of writing something else — I found myself looking at the occurrence of one such loop.

Over the past few weeks I’ve moved what some laughingly refer to as my career to a whole different place. I’ve moved out of 34 years of comfort as an employee to the world of self-employment. Yes, it was deliberate. No, I wasn’t pushed. Yes, I’m mildly terrified.

I’ve entered the world of Thought Leadership under the guidance of Matt Church, Peter Cook and their wonderful faculty at the Thought Leaders Business School. As one is required to, but should do anyway, I’ve diligently worked through their curriculum churning out IP vignettes, identifying clusters (combinations of message (the vignettes), market, method), developing my pitch (green sheets and then positioning myself against this. And then … and then out into the world.

I’ve had some success. I think I’ll have more. I’m out of my comfort zone and enjoying it, most of the time.

Most of the time? There’s still that nagging voice in the back of my head. I didn’t realise what it was until I spotted the loop.

Let me explain. But first you need some background.

Finding Purpose

In mentoring and coaching clients, one of the first and most important tasks I have them undertake is the development of a personal values, vision and mission statement. This is my version of the late great Stephen Covey’s ‘begin with the end in mind’.

Values are what you stand for and stand by.

Your vision is what you aspire to be as the very best version of yourself.

Your mission is what you do to get there … to your vision.

There are many different ways of establishing a statement, and I’ll visit those on another occasion. But, what matters is to develop one. It’ll change. Like any ‘plan’, your statement will only survive until you engage in life. So, if it’s so transitory, why develop one?


It. Defines. Your. Purpose.

Why is it important to have purpose? Lacking purpose makes it difficult to set shorter-term goals. Lacking purpose makes it difficult to orientate your life. And lacking purpose is one of many routes to anxiety. Worse yet, unfortunately anxiety is one road to depression.

The Importance of Structure in Staying on Purpose

Personal experience and that of others demonstrates the importance of a daily structure or routine in offsetting anxiety and worse. A well-structured day enables us to set and achieve short-term goals, and progress on these keeps us on purpose.

What sort of structure am I talking about? Everyone is different, but it will have most or all of a key set of components.


The adage ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’ is true. It doesn’t matter how you do it. Starting out from your vision and mission, planning is vital. It doesn’t have to be complex. Write your to-do list down. Look at it frequently. Find something that works for you.

Prioritise. Plan daily. Plan weekly. Plan monthly, Plan yearly.

Set objectives, daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually.

Then? Just. Do. It.


30 mins a day minimum of getting out of breath nourishes mind and body. This is fact. Morning or afternoon.

Planned Nutrition

Six small meals a day. Lots of veg and fruit. A little carbohydrate earlier in the day rather than later. A little protein with each meal. Look for good fats. Look at using vitamins and supplements. Organic and unprocessed is best. Drink purified water, preferably out of the tap, not bottled spring water. Go easy on the dairy. Limit the booze. Cut the sugar. Anything fizzy should be a treat not habitual.

You are what you eat; I know.


10 or more minutes a day of putting yourself in the present — being mindful — is proven to be beneficial. Anytime is good. I find morning is best.


Keeping a journal is not just about remembering important things that you think about and want to keep for later. A good journal is itself structured, and you should revisit it at key points during the day. For me the cycle begins in the evening.

Once you’ve downed tools, first write down three things that went well during your day and their causes. Over time this will increase your growth mind set.

Then reflect on your vision, your number one goal. What key event happened today? How does it relate to your vision? What made this event memorable from a personal or professional viewpoint? How might you deal with it next time?

Then draw a line under ‘today’ and start ‘tomorrow’. Simply list your top three priorities for the following day.

In the morning, reflect again on your number one goal. It’s surprising what your dreams achieve!

Then review your personal values, vision and mission statement. It draws you back to purpose.

Once a week you should critically evaluate your statement. Does it still hold true? If it doesn’t, what do you need to do? Or what do you need to do to the statement itself?

Exercise Your Brain

As we get older our brain becomes less ‘plastic’. We can fight that through reading and through ‘neuroplastic’ games.

Variety in reading is vital.

Seek out inspirational books that interest you. Seek out books that make you uncomfortable. READ. A book a week should be your minimum.

Read newspapers from all parts of the political spectrum.


Try and do crosswords or word puzzles regularly. Try Sudoku or similar numerical puzzles.

Best of all, in my experience, join Lumosity or something similar. Play the games — five or ten minutes a day keeps you sharp.

Looping the Loop

Which brings me back to my strange loop.

For a couple of weeks, I’ve felt lost. I’ve felt anxious. More than once I’ve said to myself “what have I done?”

What I HAD done is to lose my structure. I had lost sight of my purpose. In the rush to assure success in my new venture, I lost sight of what I was trying to do. I had stopped journaling.

So, I started again. I started following my to-do list. I put the structure back.

In reflecting on my number one goal (being a respected Thought Leader), I started to write about where the world of work is going and what impact artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to have. In one of those rare moments of clarity, I thought “hang on, I’ve read that before”. And instead of paying lip service to the task of reviewing my personal values, vision and mission statement, I found it (it’s now glued inside the front of my journal), and read it:

My vision is to be a respected thought leader in education and professional development for the changing world of work, and from that position, coach colleagues and clients as they tackle leadership in organizations of all kinds.

I’m not back where I started, but I’m pretty close, and I feel good about it. It’s where I want to be.

Are you where you want to be?

Effort and Courage Need Purpose and Direction

Working hard and being brave is foundational to success, but we all need a purpose to steer towards. Without it we can become lost. Structured execution is the key to staying the course.