Alex Ferguson and Setting Goals

In my imagination he is always shouting. On the touchline, at the training ground, in his office under the ghost of a sign that once said “I’m Frae Govan.” My mental Alex Ferguson lives a life of ceaseless outrage and sprays violent criticism like spit from a Hattersley puppet.

The real man is fierce enough and can lose his temper, but mine is a cardboard mental Alex. The flesh and blood outside-world edition has warmth, intelligence and humour as well. It’s a good thing for my imagined Govanite that he’s no more than firing neurons, because in real life the endless yelling would have killed him before I left school.

About a year ago I was interviewed for an article about whether or not sports stars were good role models for children. You know the kind of thing: do you think Nicole Cooke/”Beccy” Adlington/Claudio Gentile/Robin Friday will inspire our kids for 2012/to get on a bike/to cure the obesity epidemic/to wear plastic breasts. Think BBC Olympic coverage. I said no: too many top sports stars have badly unbalanced personalities, there are the social costs of sport taking over your life, and are you aware just how many sports stars are motivated specifically by grinding their opponents into the dust? And what happens to you, when you can’t hack it anymore?

People like Alex Ferguson worried me. Couldn’t the man let go? And never enjoying the triumphs: always having to go around the same old track again for one more trophy. Wanting to win as much as his players said that he did.

I still don’t think the Beeb are right to bugle over the tomb of the inspired child, or whatever it is they think they’re doing. But since my setbacks of a year ago, I’ve had a lot of time to ponder, and there are three sides to Sir Alex that I’ve changed my mind over.

(I’ve tendencies towards chaos if I don’t watch out, so I’ve trained myself over the years to be fairly well organised. I’m one of these annoying people with written goals, an alphabetized filing system, a 43 folders system, regular GTD review systems and a moleskine notebook that goes me everywhere. For all of this, I apologize).

Aspect 1: the attitude towards pain. I allowed the financial side of my business to drift. I’d never been good at or comfortable with money, and as time went on, the potential discomfort of actually sorting it out grew. What didn’t grow was the potential pain and discomfort of not sorting it out. Then it was too late, and I got both kinds of pain simultaneously and magnified by the impact on my wife of what I’d done.

It turns out that the pain of losing is as bad as Manchester United say. Worse, indeed, than the discomfort involved in doing what you can to avoid it.

In essence, there were aspects to my goals which I ignored because I perceived, incorrectly, that the discomfort involved in sorting them was enough reason to leave sorting them until a tomorrow that never came. I’ve had to become much more sensitive to what I’m avoiding. And more explicit about why and what the consequences might be.

Aspect Two: What has to be “now”? What has to happen? Perhaps this is what Don Fabio has brought to England: the players know that they can perform, that one day they will perform, but under Capello it’s become that they have to perform, in this match, now, today.

Alex Ferguson’s best teams have always had that attitude. The current side have done what Roy Keane’s men of 1999 didn’t do, and carry all of their brio and enthusiasm into the new term. There’s no sense, this time, of “well, we’ve done it now, and we can relax a little.”

That kind of urgency might sound exhausting, but it’s better than ploughing on without it. I’d begun to lose touch with the reasons why I’d started my business, forgotten what I wanted from it. The business became its own reason. But the kind of reason the business stood for wasn’t the kind that I was interested or enthusiastic about. But that shift away from what I really wanted was so quiet that I barely noticed it happening.

I’d lost touch with why I was doing it. Before, I’d do the difficult things, and put in the hours, and scarcely notice. I’d just do them. After the shift, what had to happen, what had to be now? Not much.

Aspect Three: The Belief Thing: No, I don’t mean the ridiculous, overcharged “BELIEF!” thing of the madder self-help tapes: I’m posh and British, for heaven’s sake. And I don’t mean “belief” in the Anglican sense where a set of ancient and superseded propositions survive in a separate mental zone, kept from the wind there for the sake of a hunch. I’m going for the simple idea of what you think is very likely to be true.

Manchester United’s great Ferguson sides always contained a core of players who thought that no game was lost until the final whistle and that it made sense to keep playing to win until there was no time left. That group also thought that it was more than likely that they were either as good as, or better than, their opponents. They thought that as simply as they thought that someone else would wash their car for them.

Ferguson himself has believed, most of the time, that he knows what he’s doing and that he is capable of creating a team capable of winning major titles. He believes that it’s OK for him to take decisions that make or destroy other people’s careers. There are other things that he believes about himself as a manager, which he’ll believe as straightforwardly as you believe that you can turn the light off when you go out.

So far, so straightforward. You go ahead and do what you think you can. It might be the washing up, or something more complicated. United do. But if it’s a matter of setting goals for the future, it’s likely that there’ll be some on your list that you aren’t sure you can do, or simply believe that, as things stand, you can’t.

Money again, in my case. I’ve never earned more than £20k in a year, partly because the kind of work that’s been attractive to me isn’t lucrative. But then again – I’ve been forced to confront the fact that I’ve always handled money badly. I’ve responded to the fact now,  but it suggests to me that there’s more to it than just my choice of job, my attitude or my generic laziness.

Beliefs can layer themselves: assuming for a moment that £20K was a glass ceiling for me –  and that I acted unconsciously to avoid breaking through it –  then that other belief, that I’m not “motivated by money”, starts to look like self-justification. How nice I am, how unmaterialistic..

And in some ways, I’m not, but here’s the value clash: I can’t do a single thing charitably, save give my time, because I haven’t the money to use in that respect. The work I want to support needs my money much more than it needs my time. And how am I supposed to help my parents, when the time comes? Or pursue some of my non-business objectives? I’d like to be able to offer retreats to writers and painters; I’d like to rescue one of the far-too-many old houses going to ruin in the UK. What I believe about myself and money, assuming that I believe £20K to be a ceiling, imply also that I don’t believe I can achieve any of these other things. And I haven’t.

Three things then: pain, urgency, belief. It comes down to awareness, doesn’t it, staying awake to yourself and what’s going on around you. I wouldn’t have expected to have drawn lessons like that from a manager, but there it is. Football, bloody hell.

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