Russell Bishop Blog

#4 What do you want – Symbols vs. Experience

Cycle of Improvement

As we dive into the various concepts that will be key to self improvement, let me first take you through an overview of the Cycle of Improvement. The cycle suggests an order or flow of events leading to improvement. While there may be numerous ways to view the process of improvement, many of which will be at least as useful as this one, I have tried to keep the process pretty simple. As noted earlier, the basic cycle looks like this:

Cycle of Improvement

Pretty simple, to be sure. As we will note many times to come, simple and easy are not the same. In fact, something can be simple in concept and difficult in application. If you find yourself stumbling with this process from time to time, welcome to my world!

For those of you with really sharp minds, it might be tempting to dismiss this Cycle as simplistic. If so, I would counsel caution. While the model is a long way from exhaustive, I think you may find it sufficient to be of value in just about any circumstance where improvement is desired.

We could start just about anywhere in the Cycle, and I have purposely chosen not to number the elements of the cycle. Said differently, you can pick up on the Cycle from just about any element and find yourself in its rhythm. In some ways, this is a bit like the old chicken and the egg story.

Intended Outcome

Just to be slightly contradictory to my own self, there is a way to start out on this path with a sense of “correct order.” If only life were so neat and clean. For most of us, pieces of the puzzle show up much like a jigsaw puzzle, rarely in perfect order. Trying to make sense out of what appear to be random pieces can be a challenge. Putting the puzzle together can be especially difficult if you don’t have a picture of the finished puzzle to begin with. Fortunately, most puzzles come with pictures. If only it were so with the puzzle of life.

In some ways, “Intended Outcome” is the puzzle picture on the outside of the box.

A friend and mentor of mine many years ago watched me struggle with making sense out of my life. I had been dabbling in various life experiments (work, education, career, meaning of life, etc) and only found myself being frustrated. One day, Ernie asked me to consider an old country cliché: “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will do.”

Now that’s a pretty interesting, if simple, concept to think about. What could this mean on a day to day basis? To me, this has become central to making effective choices in life. If I don’t know where I’m going, and I come to a fork in the road, how do I know which fork to take?

Oh well, it doesn’t matter, just pick one. And so I pick one. And a bit later I come to another fork in the road. Which one? Doesn’t matter. And so I pick one. Sooner or later, this series of choices about which fork to take leads me somewhere. Do I like where I find myself or do I bemoan my circumstances? If you are at all like me, you have probably spent some time bemoaning circumstances.

“Why me?” “How did this happen?” “Where did this come from?” These are the kinds of questions people bemoan of themselves when they fail to realize that they are the ones who made the choices at each fork in the road.

After all, if you don’t know where you are going, any road will do. What we seldom realize is that along with this notion of any road will do, we also will discover, sooner or later, that every road leads somewhere. If I don’t like where the road lead, who do I blame? The road, of course!

So, let’s back up a bit. Let’s imagine that we do know where we are going. We have a destination in mind. We find ourselves moving down life’s path when we come to a fork. Which one should I take? Does it matter? The only time it doesn’t matter is when you have no idea where you are heading. In this instance, we do have a destination or outcome in mind.

Now we stand at the fork and ask ourselves, “If I am trying to get to this outcome, which fork seems more likely to get me there?” With that little bit of guidance, we now make a somewhat more informed Choice.

Does this mean that I have chosen correctly? By no means! However, having chosen toward a Desired Outcome, I can now observe more clearly what happens next. If data appear along the way, indicating that I have chosen incorrectly, what can I do?

One choice (there’s that choice word again), would be to back up to the previous fork in the road, and try the other one. Another choice would be to notice where I am now, and look for other, more immediate choices that might help me get back on track.

Any of these options are possible and potentially effective. The key element is knowing where I am going, where I am now, and what is my Desired Outcome.


The more I know about my intended outcome, the more I will be able to identify experiences along the way that help me know whether I am on course or off course.

So, what do I mean by experience? The best way to answer this one is to digress a bit to another topic we will address in more depth later on. The topic has to do with what do you want (out of life).

I have asked literally thousands of people the “what do you want” question. For the most part, people can list all kinds of things they want. Cars, houses, money, and toys of all sorts frequently come to mind. Relationships, kids, travel, adventure, and good health also make the most frequently cited list.

Consider completing the left hand column of the table which follows. I have labeled the left hand column “symbols” to represent the things people often focus on in their life pursuits. “If only I had (a certain amount of) money.” Or the right house, new car, better job, etc. The point here is to delineate as truthfully as you can, that which you find yourself focusing on in life, those things you want or want more of. These things go in the left hand column.

Symbols Experience
Toys (golf clubs, boat, etc)
Perfect Relationship

From here, spend a little time in reflection on the question, “why do I want those things?” “What do I hope will be true if I have the (job, money, house, etc)?” A slightly more refined question would be, “what experience am I looking for” if I only had the right car, house, money, etc.”

Let’s take the money question for a moment. Most people I have worked with say they want more money. When I ask them why, or what more money would do for them, I usually hear about what they could do with more money. Buy the house, car, etc frequently come out. However, I then ask them to think a bit more deeply on the question of experience. “What positive experience or experiences would you associate with having more money?”

From here, the answers become more interesting. “If I had more money, then I would experience . . .” Greater Freedom? Security? Peace of mind? Sense of power or success?

If you were to answer the question yourself, what answers would you find? If you then place those experiences that you are seeking in the right hand column, it might look something like this:

Symbols Experience
Money Freedom
House Security
Car Peace of mind
Toys (golf clubs, boat, etc) Success
Travel Happiness
Perfect Relationship etc

In the example here, money is one answer to the question “What do you want?” If underneath money, we find that the person wants greater freedom, security and peace of mind, we can then ask the following question. “Do you know anyone with a lot of money who doesn’t have much freedom, security or peace of mind?” Howard Hughes would be a classic example of having loads of cash and not much freedom, security or peace of mind.

Of course, you can always ask the question the other way around. “Do you know anyone who does not have much money and yet experiences freedom, security and peace of mind?” Mother Theresa could be an example.

And, just to keep it real, there are people with lots of money who are free, secure and at peace and those without money who are anything but free, secure and at peace. So the question becomes one of how do I produce that which I want?

Eric Hoffer, the longshoremanphilospher is often quoted as having said: “You can never get enough of what you don’t really need to make you happy.”  Sometimes he is quoted as saying:  “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.”  Same thing, really.

If I am after the experience of being secure, free and at peace, is there any amount of money (or house, or car, or perfect relationship) that will produce the experiences I seek?

The obvious implication here is “NO!”

So, how do I produce what I truly want? Is it the symbols of life that I truly want or is it more likely to be the experiences found in the right hand column?

If you are like me, the answer is “BOTH!”

So, play with this a little. If what you want is freedom, peace of mind, security, a sense of fullness or completion, and you have freedom, peace of mind, security, and a sense of fullness or completion in your life, would it matter how much money you have?

Wait a minute. Is this a trick question?

Well, yes and no. What I have found is that the more I focus on the positive experiences I want out of life, not only do I tend to produce those more frequently, but also the easier it is to produce the “things” found on the left hand side of the equation. Strangely, focusing on money hasn’t made me any more secure or free, yet focusing on producing freedom and security has made it easier to create material success to go along with those inner qualities of success.

Now we can return to the cycle of improvement and how to make better choices along the pathways of life. What happens when I come to one of those forks in the road? If I don’t know where I’m going, any road will do.

If my focus on what I want is more on the left hand column, then I at least have some guidance about how to choose: which fork is more likely to lead to the job, house, car, or money? However, if what I truly want is found in the right hand column, I may make great choices in terms of the car, house, job or money focus and still wind up somewhere between dissatisfied and miserable.

Again, have you ever really, really wanted something, focused hard on getting it, got it and then wondered why you ever wanted it in the first place? If so, my suggestion would be to think more about the right hand column. After all, can you ever get enough of what you don’t really want?

So here we are at the fork again. How should I choose? How about choosing toward the experiences you seek? Which fork is more likely to lead to freedom, security, fun or whatever experiences you truly are seeking?

Ok, but how do I know if I have chosen correctly. Great question!
Read on.

Life can be pulled by goals just as surely as it can be pushed by drives.

– Victor Frankl, Mans’ Search for Meaning

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