Graduating? Retiring? Starting a new company? Changing jobs or industries? Interviewing?
Regardless, if you’ve got even twenty minutes, zero dollars, and have admitted your life is not worth spending even one hour doing things you don’t love — you too can prioritize your professional time or ambition the way thousands of my CXO clients and graduate students have found purpose: the 20-10-10 Exercise.
It’s an approach to finding focus that I’ve become a lifelong advocate for (completing the exercise myself about every 3-6 months) whether training executives, teaching in a Carnegie Mellon lecture hall, or questioning myself what I should next do with my time and resources. Purpose is powerful. Powerful to you as an individual and powerful to organizations BUT filtering what you are just passionate or curious about from what you are deeply and intrinsically motivated to execute on every day is no small task. Finding and aligning to your core purpose will make you more effective as an operator, founder, hiring manager, candidate, or virtually any other situation you find yourself in.
The 20-10-10 exercise prompts critical and actionable thinking under the umbrella of continuous personal development and tells you, beyond intuition or bias, what you are organically motivated to put time, energy, or resources in to (it also helps you avoid tempting but superficially interesting and very distracting pursuits):
Ready to start? All you need is some comfortable headspace and means of writing or typing down your thoughts. Let’s get started:
Undoubtedly, there are a number of products or services in your life which you hold dear, find utterly indispensable, or think everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy. Digital or physical, tangible or experiential — whatever form they take, you cherish them and feel a connection that transcends the transaction.
Now, we want to whittle that population of products down to a core group of 20 you evangelize. Two key filters make this process much easier than it sounds:
The value of this exercise is hopefully now becoming clearer: it doesn’t matter that you value the product; it matters that you can successfully indoctrinate that value into the minds of others. Leadership requires you to be effective, not just put in the effort. This is the first step in also starting to leave items off the list, items that you may like but not love or that you have tried but not repeated. Don’t put things that are “good enough” on the list, even if you fall short of the 20 to start.
I’ll offer up a few from my list of 20 Products:
Even your most loved products have gaps. Think about the recurring moments in life where you find yourself reaching frustration to the point of resolve: “someone should really do something about this!” Whether those problems are unique to you or shared across the world, it is your innate ability to observe those problems (and to recognize that a better future is possible) which makes you the right person to work on them.
To understand which 10 Problems define the burdens you’re willing to bear in pursuit of a better future, let’s apply these filters:
Problem identification and analysis are core talents of leaders, and the drive to address problems with thoughtful solutions illustrates the commitment which separates trusted leaders from cynics. You should also keep in mind that problems don’t have to be about undefined spaces or issues and may actually just be gaps left unserved by the products you already listed in the previous section.
Here are a few problems I’ve committed to:
Now, take a few minutes to create your own list, be as specific to the moment that bothers you as possible. Feeling stuck? Look for gaps or ways you are being underserved by your first list of 20 products, services, or experiences to start.
A noble cause, be it local or global, will always offer the opportunity to commit with passion. Knowing that your ability to commit is finite, it’s important to prioritize your time, talent, and money so that participating in these causes actually effects change.
To ensure you’re willing and able to advance the missions of these 10 Causes, apply the following filters:
Championing a cause demands both tangible and recurring commitment. If it’s not on this list, you should immediately start to question whether it’s deserving of your resources, knowing you have these ten priorities in need of the same limited resources.
Here are a few of the causes I champion:
Now, take a few minutes now to create your own list appreciating this may not be a list you are comfortable sharing out in the open given the nature of personal connections to causes.
So, you have your 20-10-10 list… now what? Think on it. For at least a day, let your choices percolate and adjust to taste. After a few days, you’ll have your foundational list ready to bounce off of friends, coworkers, and loved ones. Ask them to review it, and challenge them to think through the products, problems, and causes they see as fueling your passion & purpose (or you knowingly or not suckered them into buying, donating, or advocating for).
With a properly vetted list, you’ll emerge more focused on bringing intention to everything you do, providing genuine support to those around you, and effecting positive change with every ounce of your available resources. You will be believable and inspiring and not just qualified for the job or good enough to receive an investor check, you will be differentiated.
Don’t be surprised to find that everything you consequently say no to quickly falls away because it never really mattered, or is taken up by someone else whose commitment takes it far further than you ever could. You’ll have a WHY you are right for a job or investor check and not just the ability to explain how you could do the WHAT that is asked from a generic job description. At a certain point in your career, especially in elite roles, it’s rarely just about doing the job (anyone can develop a skill given enough resources and time) but rather your passion, energy, and commitment to growth that get you the gig. Leadership roles require that you bring character, not just capability.
What’s crucial to remember about 20-10-10 is that it doesn’t cement you to a permanent path. The discipline of the framework is what grounds you, while the answers themselves progress over time. For guidance, I replay this exercise every three to six months at a minimum, as that’s how often I find my answers change based on all of life’s influential factors and opportunities.
I can’t wait to hear about your results, the 20-10-10 exercise is built to help you bring into focus the things you love and are effective at advocating for, and if we are lucky you’ll find your path forward with the most alignment and ease you have felt in a while - good luck!
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