Gordon the Guided Missile
The Gordon the Guided Missile philosophy for managing your life.
FeedbackBy Preston Hunt, 01 January 1999

It all started when my friend David Farber told me about an article in Inc Magazine that discussed a life managament philosophy called Gordon the Guided Missile.

Here's the relevant excerpt from the article:

And I didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't know where I wanted to end up. So, instead of trying to determine where I wanted to end up, I sat down and asked myself, "What kind of life do I want to have?" And I thought, "You know, a good life would be one where if I woke up in the morning and suddenly had $20 million in the bank and only 10 years to live, I still wouldn't change how I spent my time." That's the test. (Now it's $200 million and 5 years. You know, inflation and all...)

I call it the "Gordon, the Guided Missile" mechanism. I got the idea from a John Cleese lecture. Gordon doesn't know what he's going to hit. He just gets fired into the air, the way all of us get shot out into life. We don't know who the hell we are or where we're going or what we're going to hit. Nobody gives you a life target; we're as unseeing as Gordon. We just rocket along.

And I thought, "I'm going to be Gordon, the Guided Missile." The way Gordon works, you understand, is that even though he never knows where the target is, he's always responding to some kind of feedback. He gets feedback and shifts--a little high, a little low, a little over. He gets more feedback and shifts again. And eventually he hits the target, which is the only moment he knows what the target is.

"Well," I thought, "I don't know what my target is, either, but if I can build a Gordon, the Guided Missile, mechanism, I'll hit the target, whatever it is." And the $20 million/10 years mechanism is what I came up with. It requires me to keep two lists: one for things that I would continue to do if I woke up tomorrow and discovered I had $20 million and 10 years to live, and another for things that under those circumstances I'd stop doing.

I review the lists over time, and I realize activities on the first list are really neat and I'd like to do more of them. And Gordon, the Guided Missile, shifts to the left. And other things keep showing up on the wrong list, and I realize it's time to quit them. Gordon shifts the other way.

So there's positive feedback and negative feedback; Gordon is getting feedback the whole time. And then whenever you're down, you've hit the target, whatever the target happens to be. Initially, in my own life, the mechanism caused some big sweeps to take place--Gordon was flying east, and I needed to go north. It prompted big changes, like quitting HP. Like deciding I was going to go back and join the academic world at Stanford. I wasn't turning a full 180 degrees, but it was a 90-degree swing. Since then the mechanism has been more iterative, the adjustments closer to the current course.

Either way, it's the perfect example of what I mean by using a mechanism instead of a strategy. I didn't know where I was going to end up. I didn't have a strategy. If somebody were to ask me now where I'm going to be in 10 years, I'd say, "I don't know, but I can tell you this. In 10 years I'll be able to wake up on any morning and say that if I suddenly had $200 million and 5 years to live, I wouldn't change the way I lead my life."

It works.

So go off and make your two lists -- I did, although I think the lists should be private things, so I haven't included them here. Since learning about Gordon, I have also taken the "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" class, in which Stephen Covey advocates a similar list-making concept to help ensure that your life priorities are in order.

One last closing thought from one of my management idols, Andy Grove, who said "you can't manage what you don't measure" (I'm not sure if he coined this phrase, but he has used it in several of his management books). Without writing down what you want out of life, how can you hope to make sure that it happens?

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