How High is High?
Back again to the subject of Personal Culture. What are the aspects of this beast?
First is Level of Aspiration. “How high are we aiming?”
Last year’s NBA champs were the San Antonio Spurs. Two up-and-coming teams from that season are the L.A. Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. Both squads are young and loaded with stars. The Spurs, on the other hand, are old and creaking. A few days ago the Spurs played the Clippers and the Warriors in back-to-back games. The Spurs thrashed them both.
For San Antonio entering this season, only one outcome is acceptable: they must repeat as champions.
That’s Level of Aspiration.
Among tech giants, in what position does Apple want to finish at the end of this year? In the arena of elite military units, where do the Navy SEALS see themselves?
Level of Aspiration is mental. It’s a mindset. It’s a self-generated and self-reinforced view, not only of our capacity but also of our expectations for ourselves.
Level of Aspiration starts at the top. If you and I are serving as midshipmen on H.M.S. Victory in early October 1805 and we see our commander, Admiral Horatio Nelson, stride aboard, how will we feel about our chances in the upcoming Battle of Trafalgar? Will we expect to win? To what standards of excellence and self-sacrifice will we now hold ourselves?
And Nelson doesn’t have to say a word. He steps aboard missing one leg and one eye. He is the victor at Cape St. Vincent, at the Battle of the Nile, and the Battle of Copenhagen. His presence alone elevates our level of aspiration—and with it our self-conception, our willingness to sacrifice, and our performance. When Lord Nelson’s silver-buckled slipper steps onto the quarterdeck, we are transformed and so is every lubber in the crew.
Of course the situation isn’t quite as simple as that. In fact the gunners, sail lieutenants, and foretopmen (in fact every man jack in the crew) has been hand-picked by Nelson and his officers. Sailors have bribed their way aboard, pulled strings, called in favors, so desirous are they to serve under a commander as illustrious as Nelson.
That’s Level of Aspiration in an institutional culture. The same principles apply, of course, to you and me in our personal cultures.
As artists and entrepreneurs, we are our own Admiral Nelson. The content of our personal culture starts with us. We set the level of aspiration. The crew—meaning ourselves—follows us.
At age thirty my all-consuming object as a writer was simply to complete a manuscript. Publication? Beyond my wildest dreams. Just finish, baby. I would die happy if I could only do that.
Over time, however, it became clear that it was possible for one to raise his sights. Nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Nelson in 1777 could not have led the British fleet against the French and Spanish at Trafalgar. But Lord Nelson, twenty-eight years later, could.
Last year in the NBA, the Clippers and the Warriors gave lip service to their aspirations to win a championship. But in their hearts they believed they weren’t yet ready. Level of aspiration is often self-fulfilling.
The questions for you and me are:
1. Are we aware of our Level of Aspiration?
2. What is that level? Is it realistic? If not, why not?
3. Do we wish to raise our Level of Aspiration? What steps must we take to make this elevated level realistic?
4. What’s stopping us?