Checkbox Mentality

It’s amazing how often we fall into the trap of focusing on process over results.

There’s a long-running inside joke in the corporate sales world (where I spent quite a few years) that sales managers are always focused on “KPIs” (that’s “key performance indicators” for the uninitiated) to such a slavish degree that they’ll ignore the results entirely. You could be the top-producing sales rep in the company, but if you’re not sending enough emails or logging enough site visits or whatever you can still have a pile of unpleasantness roll downhill onto you.

Now, I’m a pretty process-driven guy. I believe in action goals as opposed to pie-in-the-sky vague ambitions. And I think that it’s good to have a plan; a guidebook for decision-making in the here and now. But there’s a world of difference between having a plan and being so obsessed with the process of that plan that you ignore the reason for the plan in the first place.

What I call “checkbox mentality” is when you have some sort of plan (whether of your own creation or handed to you by someone else), complete all the steps in that plan, but then get mad when you don’t necessarily get the result you want.

Want an example? How about someone who got good grades in high school, went to a good college, graduated… and is now unemployed or tragically underemployed, and blames everyone but themselves. They rail against unfairness while doing nothing to improve – or if they do anything, it’s go back to school for a higher degree.

Or how about the person that faithfully shows up to work every day, never late, and performs their job without demerit. They’re nice to everyone, but year after year they’re passed up for a promotion. They start hating their co-workers who move past them, never realizing why.

Or what about the person who can’t get a date, despite the fact that they’re “nice,” and clean, and respectful, and employed, etc. They’re passed up again and again, and start getting bitter.

All of those are examples of “Checkbox Mentality.” The idea that there is a certain set of correct behaviors, and if you check off all the right boxes, you should just get your due reward handed to you. The person with the good grades and college degree thinks they deserve a good job because they “did everything right.” The person who showed up every day thinks they should get promoted and the single guy thinks he should have a girlfriend. Where is their mistake?

It’s a simple one – so simple and so pervasive it’s invisible to many people. The mistake is not realizing this: the so-called ‘checklist’ is just a path towards what you want, not a map to what you want.

To get a job, you don’t need a college degree, or even a high school diploma. You don’t need anything except the ability to demonstrate that you would do well in the job. Because people can’t read minds or predict the future, people in charge of hiring are trying to guess if that’s true about each candidate, and your mission is to give them lots of clues to that effect. A diploma or degree are clues, but they’re not proof. You still have to paint the whole picture; think of a degree (or certification, or prior experience, etc.) as tools in your toolbox – but you still have to build the bridge.

That person that doesn’t get promoted? They don’t realize that getting promoted isn’t about checking off boxes – it’s about demonstrating readiness, ambition, drive, and value. Not showing up on time or being impolite will count against you, but good attendance and attitude are just the minimum requirements to even be considered.

Being nice, respectful and all that are definitely great qualities in a potential mate, but they’re really the barest minimum to even be going on dates, not compelling reasons to attract potential partners.

People with checklist mentality are self-centered and self-absorbed. They’re not focused on the most important question you face every day: “what does the other person want?” Instead, those people are focused only on themselves, believing deep down inside that there’s some arbiter of cosmic justice that will magically reward them for “paying their dues.”

When you realize that 99% of life is just figuring out what the other guy wants and finding a way to provide it in exchange for what you want, you also get a fantastic realization along with it: the checklist isn’t even necessary.

In reality, the big picture is simple: Figure out what you want. Find out who has it. Find out what they want. Give it to them. Do it all with a smile, and the world is yours. The rest is details; action plans and detailed processes can help you get there, but they can only come after you get the big stuff down. Don’t start with the KPIs.

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