By Kevin Meyer
On the long series of flights back home from Bhutan and Nepal last weekend I came across an article on CNN on Mark Zuckerberg's Bizarre New Self-Improvement Goal. I haven't really been a fan of the arrogant wonderkind, and the article didn't change that much, but this particular aspect of Zuckerberg did resonate – and the fact that CNN's Heather Kelly would call it "bizarre" perplexed me.
Every year, the Facebook CEO sets some sort of challenge for himself. In 2010, he tried to learn Mandarin. In 2009, he vowed to wear a tie to work every day to show he was serious about Facebook's growth (and possibly get a break from the signature T-shirt and hoodie he wears to every public event).
The annual challenges sometimes make headlines, most famously in 2011 when Zuck vowed to eat animals only if he had killed them himself. That pronouncement led to a mixture of backlash and praise from animal-rights activists.
This year, the famously introverted Zuckerberg is seeking out more conversations with actual humans.
That does seem a bit odd until you realize the world that the young founder of Facebook lives in – a rarified air of groupies, yes-men, analysts, and press types. Interacting with "actual humans" is probably a challenge. Why is that bizarre? I applaud him for it.
And a key outcome is that he learned something new, and often unexpected. Trying to learn Mandarin taught him that he didn't listen well and a year of killing animals made him become more vegetarian. This year's goal, which he is achieving by giving face-to-face chats at schools, helped him understand the personal side of problems with immigration.
The reason Zuckerberg's "bizarre" goals resonate is because I have had similar goals for well over twenty years. At first it wasn't a true goal – just something fun to do. But for the last decade or more it has been formal, with a process for identifying and executing and reviewing progress. This "do something different" annual goal is coupled with another goal my wife and I have had for the past decade: visit two new countries each year. We've sort of blown that one out of the box – averaging three new countries each year, including five so far in 2013.
Over the past couple decades I've learned to scuba dive and windsurf, hard code HTML, written a book, rebuilt a car (a yellow 1973 Triumph Spitfire!), explored and became vegetarian (ok, "pescaterian") myself, skied five countries in six days (Germany, Italy, France. Switzerland, Austria), started this blog, and ran a full marathon.
Last year my goal was to leave a great job as president of a great medical device company to become more in control of my life. I notified the board in January, executed a transition plan for myself and the company, and like a skydiver jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, left full-time secure employment on December 31st. I'm loving it, and as positive secondary effects a great new lean leader was developed and the company got a fresh infusion of lean energy.
This year my goal is to learn about and understand Buddhism, something I'd bumped into during my many trips to Asia and yes, even living in California. So I've read books, talked to a lot of people, and in a sense gone to the gemba by just spending a couple weeks in Bhutan and Nepal. I've learned about the history, how it evolved and split into the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, how Mahayana then evolved into Pure Land, Tibetan, and the Zen tradition that's increasingly popular in the West. I didn't realize how little I knew, and how different reality is from popular western perception.
As with each goal, the annual exploration takes me me down some interesting and often unexpected paths – thought, knowledge, or activity. I didn't know that there are an increasing number of practicing Catholic priests that also consider themselves Buddhist, since most Buddhist traditions are not deity-based and technically not a conflicting religion. Or how much the Bible has changed – in content, context, and even wording – especially during the 3rd and 5th century as the Catholic church sought to increase control by managing the message. And how the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, including texts written closer to the time of Jesus but discarded by the Church in the 5th century, creates some interesting mismatches with current evolved interpretation. Some of those "missing" texts bear a remarkable resemblance to Buddhist sutras, which themselves have likely evolved and changed since for a couple of centuries they were passed down verbally by memorization. Telephone game anyone? Something to think about when people mention "unerring scriptures" – be they Christian or Buddhist. Buddhism's inter-being concept is very similar to Christianity's Trinity. There's a fascinating book, Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Buddhist monk, with contributions by religion scholars and Catholic priests, on how similar Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam actually are when you get past the blinders of evolved narrow dogma and go back to the origins.
Have I become Buddhist? No, I can't say that, although the Zen tradition and aesthetic appeals to me. But I've learned what it is really about, I've incorporated many parts of the dharma that make sense to me spiritually (which is actually a core concept of Buddhism itself), and my eyes have been opened to some unexpected issues with traditional Christianity – which has actually strengthened my faith in the original message while lessening it with current dogma. It's been an interesting journey – and I still have a few months left.
But that discussion is not the point – it just serves to support my point.
The point is that many people say they "think outside the box" but how many actually "explore outside the box?" How many do it with an open mind? And how many create goals around that concept, and then put processes and hansei in place to ensure it happens?
Zuckerberg apparently does. I sort of fell into doing it – I can't claim credit for knowingly doing it, especially initially. And at the midpoint of my current life (!), it has broadened my perspectives by challenging perceptions and beliefs, deepened my understanding of the world we live in, and taken me to interesting places – physical and spiritual – I previously wasn't even aware of. Toward the end of each year I identify something different, unique, or challenging, and develop a plan to dive into it. During the year I execute, reflect, and adjust.
How will you explore out of the box next year? Perhaps more importantly, how will you ensure you actually do it, and why?