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Just a little more than twenty years ago, the city of Shanghai, with nearly thirty million inhabitants, had a problem. Its leaders recognized that a long history of farming and shipping wouldn’t be enough to sustain the city in the future. Shanghai had great possibilities – large shipping lanes, a massive and cheap labor force, an east-coast location and a history of foreign relationships, with both British and French empires. The city had come a long way, since the days of Mao; but the global future was taking shape, threatening to leave the low-docks of PuDong behind. Chinese leaders wanted to turn Shanghai into a model city of their nation’s future.

So they started making plans.

What would it take to transform Shanghai? Planning. Hard work. Persistence. Technology. Money. Support.  Yes: Shanghai had all of these, and more. But like the Chinese society itself, Shanghai was an adolescent: Full of enthusiasm, optimism and resource, at the point where it needed to decide: What would it become?

Shanghai needed a vision.

It’s not much different for each of us. We’ve been exhorted to plan since the days of high school guidance counselors. As adults, we hire therapists or business consultants who tell us, “write it down, keep it handy, and stick to it.” Plans help us organize, keep on track, and benchmark our progress. We’re a nation of planners; a culture of many plans, and significant results, even considering how often we implement half-baked plans, and just go for it.

But what drives great plans? Do you want to grow your sales or learn the violin? Everything you need is more available and more affordable than ever. The internet drives the massive valuations of our silliest ideas. It also puts the master violinist’s techniques at your fingertips. Soon you will matter-replicate a Stradivarius in your own living room. Resources, like plans, are decreasingly a hurdle to accomplishment.

Vision, on the other hand, is increasingly critical. It’s one thing to imagine a future where we are constantly connected to each other and information, then invent a smartphone. It’s another to imagine a society where people walk, bent over, staring at screens all day.

That’s why you need a vision.

Just for yourself. A plan tells you only how to work: Your vision tells you what it will be like to live in the future your work will create. Otherwise, you imagine flying cars, but end up with Twitter.

Even Shanghai, a city with a lot of plans for tallest buildings in the world, challenges its own vision of the future. Transforming the skyline was easy; creating a livable future city remains elusive. The air and water pollution is often unbearable. On some streets, Bentley’s are parked in front of concrete block apartments where laundry flaps in the wind. Plans can create anything; but without vision, you might not like living with the results.

I meet a lot of people searching for a plan to earn more money, grow their business, write a book or take a vacation. What shall we do? is the question of our age. Tell me what to do, perhaps a more dangerous one. My recommendation is to ask a different question: What do you see, for yourself, in the future?

What do you see?

It would be easy to double your business in months; but what do you see, when you envision yourself living and  breathing that level of business? Perhaps you might enjoy living in a reality where you’ve halved it, instead?

Whether it’s a skyline – or a bar graph – great accomplishments are more than spreadsheets and business plans. They  come from with a vision of a future in which you smile or sweat. When you stop leaping from plan to plan, action to action, and start looking where you’re going, you can see a lot farther. That’s when you start to see a vision of yourself, at work, at rest, at play. Better still, it’s where you’ll find the endless energy to implement those plans.

What do you envision, for your future?