Paradigm Worker

Epic Alignment

Jane McGonigal and Stephen Covey walk into a bar...

June 1, 2020

By: Jonee Kulman Brigham

The May column from Paradigm Worker, a place for monthly reflections on how we think about things, and why it matters.

I am a fan of big thinkers and I like to imagine them in conversation with each other, perhaps in a bar over drinks or coffee. I would be sitting nearby, taking notes and enjoying the alchemy of intersecting approaches. Recently I have turned to two favorite thinkers (via their books) regarding this question: Can we ever really get all the way “there?” To that someday when we are living in full integrity with our highest values? If so, how?

Stephen Covey, most famous for his 1989 book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” lays a foundation for character and principle centered leadership. His idea of coherence is that “there is harmony, unity, and integrity between your vision and mission, your roles and goals, your priorities and plans, and your desires and discipline.” For myself, I call this desired state “alignment.” I never achieve it, and even if I did, there is no guarantee it would last, because what it means to be in alignment changes every time the context does. If a loved one is sick, more time needs to be spent there. If a new problem or opportunity occurs at work, more time may need to be spent there.

But Covey doesn’t mean that we should be bounced about by circumstance, though some of that is inevitable. He introduces a tool for planning our most effective response called the Time Management Matrix – often referred to as the four quadrants. For those that have read Covey this is a familiar language about the dynamics of urgency versus importance. For those that haven’t here’s a short summary.

In the matrix, the two rows across the top (Quadrants 1 and 2) are those important things that help you align your life with your mission and values. The two below (Quadrants 3 and 4) might have some value to others, but they are generally not important to your mission. The first column of Quadrants 1 and 3 are those things that are urgent – this is where crisis lives, whether it is really important to address that crisis (Quadrant 1) or not (Quadrant 3). The second column of Quadrants 2 and 4 are not urgent. Quadrant 2 is where effectiveness lies – preparation, planning, and values-supporting activities that often take initiative. Quadrant 4 is goofing off. Okay, that’s the basics. This is all very rational, and serious and takes some discipline and sometimes better-than-human nature, but it is worth it if one wants to live a life of alignment with their values.

But I wonder, could this be any easier? More playful and fun? Could the search for effectiveness, be more effective? Enter, Jane McGonigal. Her book, Superbetter, along with its web application has been getting more attention lately as an effective strategy for coping successfully with the pandemic. Using research on games, she and her team suggest that people can find more success by envisioning their big goal or their “Epic Win” as something you pursue through a series of quests, supported by power-ups, allies, the acknowledgement of “bad guys” to battle, and encouraged by recognizing progress. Allies in the game are usually other real people, such as the player’s friends. But just as bad guys are often an inner voice that is unhelpful, I like to find my inner allies too. Players can download pre-made “powerpacks” that contain many of the elements above, or you can make your own.

Inspired by Jane and Stephen and by the ailments of the overconnected social media age, I’ve been planning my own powerpack, aiming for the Epic Win of Alignment with my values and goals. Let me introduce you to my goal and a rough sketch of imaginary characters from my note book.

Epic Win: The “grail of alignment.” The grail is not won and done. It appears and shines to the degree I’m aligned and only for the duration of that alignment.

FOMO: According to Wikipedia, FOMO (or fear of missing out) “…refers to the apprehension that one is either not in-the-know or is out of touch with social events, experiences, and interactions.” FOMO is a dual villain… FOMO looks furtively around herself, to see what others are doing. [I’ve feminized the bad guys and allies so I can better recognize my own shadows and strengths.] FOMO’s bio-wired for norming with desirable groups - groups that look like alignment. For example, she cares about the environment – hey so do they… See what they are doing? Better go do that too so you don’t miss out (MO). “MO” is scary to her. That’s why she’s “fear of” missing out (FOMO). She doesn’t want to be left behind. She uses a gap map. It shows all the places she’s not. Her compass is magnetically attracted to MO - to what’s missing. She’s dangerous to follow. She means well, but she’s always in trouble because she’s always chasing “away”… which means she never arrives. She can’t help it. She’s got bad tools and a broken paradigm. Sure, it is good to be where and with people whose values align with yours. Once in a while she’s helpful and she takes you to a place where you find your people and new opportunities. But she’s not the only one who can take you there. And her sometimes-success has two problems. 1. It makes you trust her more, and as I’ve said, she’s a flawed guide, actually endangering your quest for alignment. And 2. No sooner will she take you to a good place, than she’ll take you away from it because her compass is set to find gaps- no alignment. Therefore, she can’t recognize alignment once she’s arrived, only gaps.

Unfortunately, you can’t get rid of her. She’s in your lizard brain. Your norming mind. The way to fight her- or really fight her influence, (have compassion after all) is to just see her stuckness, her broken paradigm, and calm her. For example, show her the alignment you do have. Tell her she can rest. Perhaps give her something to do – like scan event emails for opportunities and put them in a “maybe” folder. She is good at scanning for potential value. But she’s not good at staying with that value. She’ll distract you from Quad 2 work.

Triquad: Triquad lives in Quadrant 3 with FOMO and they share similarities. They’ll both lead you astray. Triquad has her eyes on the clock and the calendar. Triquad is “busy,” and has a “deadline.” Triquad’s map is a calendar and her compass is set to deadlines. She doesn’t want to be late. She is fixated. Her fatal flaw is that she has importance-blindness. Her vision is “time-sighted.” She needs corrective lenses, but she never has enough time to look into it.

Sometimes she is useful, helping to meet deadlines and respond to email. But this can fool you and its not the only way to be on time. More often than not, she’ll distract you with deadlines that don’t matter. Both FOMO and Triquad are importance-blind but they have different vision. FOMO has very strong who-vision (who’s doing it) - she’s a normer. Whereas Triquad has very strong when-vision, she’s a rusher. Together they get you in a lot of trouble.

FOMO: “Follow that crowd!”

Triquad: “And Hurry!!”

Smedn: Smedn, who is also importance-blind, is named after Social MEDia and News. Smedn is a watcher and an addict. She thinks she can just have one post, and it feels good doesn’t it? Then more. She’s got time-blindness too. The news, she argues, is good for you. Don’t you want to know what’s going on? And don’t you deserve some social media entertainment? And don’t you want to stay connected? It’s not that social media and news are bad in moderation. It’s a problem because Smedn is an addict. She can’t hold her media, and spirals out of perspective.

Fourquad: Fourquad, who lives in quadrant 4, is tired. Tired of Triquad’s busyness. Tired of FOMO’s crowd-chasing. Tired, tired, tired. She just can’t make effort any more. So, even though Centra who we’ll meet later fights for quadrant 2 and knows that rest is important, Fourquad can’t stand to hang out with her. She can’t be reminded of what matters. She’s too tired to go to bed.

Is Fourquad importance-blind? Kind of. She’s importance-confused. She sees Triquad and FOMO seeking alignment (albeit with bad maps), and it wears her out. Of course it does – they never recognize alignment or abundance when they find it, so they never rest. Fourquad could practice good leisure, but she’s so tired she’s just looking for the nearest door out of urgency and the nearest door is not the most aligned. Often it leads to Smedn. Fourquad is a hider. Despite the respit from action, her hiding never really restores her, so she never feels done hiding.

Uniquad & Crisia: These two work on Quadrant I, on a quest to address what is both urgent and important. They both get the job done. But Uniquad is driven by love and balance and learns from the experience. Crisia is driven by stress endorphins and doesn’t learn. When a big, urgent deadline comes up, Crisia drops everything, and puts on her cape. She is laser focused on the Quad 1 crisis. She likes to be a hero, delivering the deadline while hyperventilating. Uniquad sees the crisis in context and can balance importance and urgency. Uniquad will renogiate a deadline if it serves the quest for overall alignment. Uniquad meets a crisis responsibly and is an ally. Crisia meets it blindly and egotistically, she’s not completely a bad guy, but she’s a bad guy enabler: a fixer.

Centra & Discerna: Centra, who defends Quadrant 2, is the most important ally in the quest for the grail of alignment. She is the most effective of all the characters. She has strong importance-vision. And she has strong time-vision. She has a good map and her compass points to love and value across her roles and goals – to alignment. She has balanced powers that allow her to see that it is a combination of who, how, what, and, when that make things work. Centra says “You’re getting sleepy and you’re fighting a cold, so go to bed.” And she says, “Take the time to write down what matters so you don’t lose your way.” She is not invincible, though. She gets trampled by the others. That’s why she calls on Discerna. Discerna is a seer. She examines the situation and compares it to alignment. And she helps Centra make decisions by helping her see clearly.

I have interpreted Jane's and Stephen’s principles with some liberty, so if you want the pure insights, go to their websites or books. Meet them yourself at the bar or coffeeshop to plan your own epic alignment.

Playing a Serious Game

Games are associated with fun. But they can be used in a life that aims to include serious issues. By engaging imagination and characters to create a parallel story about life, I think we can help loosen our grip on the stale or numbing stories we’ve been telling, and see our situation in a new way and with new resilience. With the pandemic and the recently amplified awareness of injustice, what does it mean to be in alignment as our values are re-weighted to correct course?

I’ve been watching the news a lot lately – much more than I would normally do. But these are not normal times. It would be easy to mistake this practice as Smedn’s news addiction, Triquad’s clock-watching of the ever-updated events, FOMO’s crowd-chasing, or Fourquad’s tired resignation washing over me. All of these may be playing some role, but right now, it is Discerna who is listening and seeing. She’s examining the situation and comparing it to alignment. She’s considering how to advise Centra on what actions to take to better align my life with my values. Right now, one of the highest leverage actions may be questioning the nature of what alignment means, what role I play, and how I perceive my circle of influence. The game is growing, the stakes are high. It is time to level up.


Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. 1st Fireside ed, Fireside Book, 1990.

“Fear of Missing Out.” Wikipedia, 31 May 2020. Wikipedia,

McGonigal, Jane. SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient--Powered by the Science of Games. 2015.

©Jonee Kulman Brigham