There’s nothing like sifting through a 600-page book to reference a 60-year-old definition of a sociopath, but I’m always looking for a good reason to talk about my favorite book – John Steinbeck’s (1952) classic, East of Eden. Plot aside, Steinbeck’s sociopath is a natural-born strategic planner whose method of achieving goals deserves a brief mention if not some bit of admiration. He likens her to a monster.
And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul? (p. 72)
When reading about Catherine Ames (aka Cathy, aka Kate), you root for her downfall, but at one point Steinbeck uses the character as a contrast to human tendency to falter on the course of our goals out of anxiety, hurry, or fear. He almost seems to pause to give readers a life lesson before returning to the flow of action.
If one were properly to perform a difficult and subtle act, he should first inspect the end to be achieved and then, once he had accepted the end as desirable, he should forget it completely and concentrate solely on the means. (p. 240)
The author notes that while “very few people learn this,” Kate’s one good quality was that she was able to form a plan and patiently work it to completion.
She thought to the end very quickly and then put it out of her mind. She set herself to work on the method. She built a structure and attacked it, and if it showed the slightest shakiness she tore it down and started fresh. (p. 240)
I’m currently building a strategic communications plan for PR Concepts & Strategy, and it occurred to me that the process is similar to the one used by Steinbeck’s villain. Textbook authors Laurie Wilson and Joseph Ogden guide students through a planning matrix that breaks down the classic public relations RACE model – research, action planning, communications, and evaluation. In the action planning phase, would-be strategic planners are instructed to begin with a goal, or “the end to be achieved.” Only after we have clearly identified what we want to accomplish do we begin constructing the method and identifying the means that will lead to success. It is not an easy task.
The goal setting part of the process is fairly simple. I compare it to that old Seinfeld episode where car the rental company tells Jerry that they’ve run out of cars despite him having made a reservation. To paraphrase, he complains to the agent that anyone can take a reservation, but it was the holding of the reservation that the company didn’t seem to understand. Similarly, I often think that anyone can set a goal, but it’s in the process of achieving the goal where so many people fall off. A well-constructed strategic plan is the bridge between starting out and reaching the finish line, but if you’ve spent at least 10 minutes in the marketing realm, that’s not big news.
The challenging part about strategic planning – and the lesson from our sociopath – is to emotionally remove ourselves from the end goal so that we can focus on the specific tasks and daily minutiae that are required to reach the goal. What’s great about corporate strategy is that the process is often spread out between upper-level planning and lower-level execution. In our own business and personal ambitions, however, we’re solely responsible to form the plan and work the plan. This means that we have to stop daydreaming about and brooding over our goals just long enough to be productive and objectively manage the necessary actions along the way.
Lifehack discusses this productivity practice in “How to Practice the Art of Detached Focus to Achieve Your Goals.” Author and Productivity Coach Ciara Conlon states, “And so the secret is to focus intently, but to focus on the path and not on the destination.”
In using Catherine/Cathy/Kate as an example, let’s remember to set aside such sociopathic tendencies as selfishness, manipulation, lack of empathy and evil plotting. Nevertheless, some of our goals could stand to benefit from a thorough strategic plan and an ice-cold determination not subject to emotional derailments, hurried mistakes or irrational fears.
Steinbeck, J. (1952). East of Eden. New York, NY: Penguin Books (reprinted in 1992).