“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”  ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In 1985 Coca-Cola, facing increasing competition from Pepsi, decided to reformulate their classic soft drink making it slightly sweeter in order to better appeal to Pepsi drinkers.  The new product, called “New Coke” was a disaster.  It is frequently cited as one of the greatest marketing fiascos in history.

Consultant Michael Kami, an expert in strategy, advised Coke during this time. When working with Coke’s executives on the New Coke strategy they told Michael that the mainspring and driving force of their business was great taste.  They had conducted numerous taste tests with the new formula and found that the subjects preferred it to the original formulation.  After the disaster that followed New Coke’s market debut they called Kami back for another session.

“You must have put the wrong word in the box,” he told them.  “Huh,” they asked.  He explained that what is in the box is the most important thing.  He told them  that they had put taste in the box.  After several hours of discussion they found the one thing that belonged in the box, “American tradition.” The executives began to realize that pulling the original Coke product from the market was akin to tampering with an American institution like motherhood or apple pie.   

A true priority is the one thing you put in the box.

In my last post I talked about the discipline of using your time wisely and made reference to the importance of knowing your priority, your one big thing.  The thing you put “in the box.” In this post we will look at this subject in more detail.

The word priority first entered the English language in the 14th century.  Its origins lie in the Medieval Latin word prioritatem or prioritas, which mean “first.” Management guru Peter Drucker once pointed out that the plural form of the word priority, priorities, didn’t come into use until the early 20th century.  The idea of having several “first things” is an invention of our modern times.

In a study of fifty people over the age of fifty-nine, the subjects were asked a single question: “if you could live your life over again, what would you do differently?” It was an open-ended question, but three answers dominated the results:

–           If I had it to do over again I would reflect more;

–           If I had it to do over again, I would risk more;

–           If I had it to do over again, I would do more things that would live on after I am dead.

Notice that there is nothing here about money, fame, career or status. We each have the power to establish the priority that will ultimately direct our life. Allow me to use a deeply personal story to illustrate.

I was born and raised in the rural south.  I grew up picking cotton, bailing hay and all of the other chores that went with rural life.  Places like Washington DC, New York or Europe were exotic destinations I could only dream about.  And dream I did. I can recall laying in bed late at night with a little Silvertone transistor radio under my pillow listening to clear channel AM radio stations from such far away places as Chicago (WLS), Cincinnati (WCKY) and Pittsburg (KDKA) and dozens of other places. I dreamed of these places and realized that I wanted to see the world.  I decided that getting an education was the way out.  That became my priority.  Until two years ago I was the only member of my family to complete college. I went to graduate school getting a masters and a doctorate and eventually went to work for one of the world’s most successful corporations where I steadily made my way up the ladder.  By the 1990s I was running a global operation with staff in the US and Europe. The company leased an apartment for me in London that served as a second home.  My travel, which was almost continuous, was either first class or aboard one of the company’s several Gulfstream G4 jets. I was leading a life beyond anything I had ever imagined.

My wife Rita and I were never able to have children the old fashioned way so over the course of three years we adopted two beautiful infant boys from Korea.  I loved fatherhood but I also loved the job and the lifestyle that came with it. I will never forget hearing my youngest son Paul telling one of his kindergarten buddies, “My dad works at the airport.”  In that moment I realized that I had to make a choice between the idealized life I was leading and the serious and lifelong responsibilities of fatherhood.

William Hinson wrote:

He who seeks one thing, and but one,

May hope to achieve it before life is done.

But he who seeks all things wherever he goes,

Must reap around him in whatever he sows,

A harvest of barren regret.

Sometimes in life we climb the ladder and reach the top only to find that it is leaning against the wrong building!  I had to choose my priority.  Did I want to continue the life of a jet-setting global executive or did I want to answer the call of fatherhood?

A short time later, upon returning from one of my whirlwind trips abroad, I returned a call from an executive recruiter inquiring about my interest in a job with a much smaller company in New Jersey. I went through the interview process and was offered the job.  It was much less glamorous, required a major relocation but required much less travel.

You may have several priorities but generally one takes precedence over all of the others.  This “big thing” is the one that will shape your life and determine whether you enter old age with the satisfaction of a life well lived or with bitterness and regret because of the decisions you made, or didn’t make,  along the way.

Here are five things to consider.

First, a priority is consciously chosen. We all have a priority, the real question is did we choose it or have we allowed others, circumstances, convenience or the lure of popular culture to choose it for us? Your priority should be determined on the basis of reflection and a decision about what kind of life you want to have lived. Psychologist Carl Jung once said, “The world will ask you who you are, and if you do not know, the world will tell you.”

Second, a priority gives your life purpose, direction and meaning. A person with priorities has a sense of direction and grows and develops as a result. A life without a priority may be aimless. A lion tamer carries a whip and perhaps even a pistol with him when he enters the cage with a lion.  But his most important tool is the stool that he carries.  When the lion tamer holds the stool by the seat and thrusts the four legs of the stool into the animal’s face, the lion attempts to focus on all four legs at once and becomes confused and almost paralyzed. When we attempt to focus on too many things at once, the same thing happens to us.

Third, a priority gives you enthusiasm and motivation. If a priority doesn’t motivate you to grow, it isn’t much of a priority.  Robert McKain said, “The reason most major goals are not achieved is that we spend our time doing second things first.”

Fourth, a priority frees you from the force of circumstance. A priority is like the rudder and keel on a sailboat, it prevents you from being tossed to and fro by every gust of wind or rogue wave that life throws your way.

Finally, a priority is realistic. A priority must be attainable; otherwise it will lead to frustration and disappointment.

As you may have guessed by now, I took the job.  A few months after relocating, my oldest son Tyler, who was a second grader at the time, and I were walking in the front yard of our new home in New Jersey. I asked Tyler if he thought he would like living in New Jersey.  I will never forget his reply.  Without hesitation he stepped in front of me, looked up and said, ‘Dad, the best thing about living in New Jersey is that you come home every night.”

Zig Ziglar once said, “The chief cause of failure and unhappiness is trading what you want most for what you want now.” Don’t make that mistake.

Do you know your priority?  What have you put in the box?  Choose wisely.