Feeling Behind? It May Be a Trap

Feeling behind? Have an anxious feeling that others are racing ahead while you’re lagging? This is more common than we think:

  • Feeling behind in school
  • Feeling behind in knowing what we want to major in, or do with our lives
  • Feeling behind in internship or job searches
  • Feeling behind in the prestige of the jobs we take or the organizations we work for, or how quickly we’re climbing the ladder

At the heart of it for many is a pressure to prove something, and needless suffering caused by social comparison and status anxiety. It’s a toxic combination of what author Jonathan Rauch calls the “expectations trap” and the “social-competition treadmill.”

What measuring sticks are we using for our lives? What accounting are we using when we dwell on all the ways we think some others are ahead of us in some aspects of life, work, wealth, relationships, or health?

Panic Choices

Due to this toxic brew of psychological and social influences, it’s easy to panic and choose poorly (e.g., what we’ll do after graduating, or whether to stick it out in a toxic work culture or a career that no longer grips us), based on factors unlikely to hold up well over time.

The unhappy result? A lack of fit between the work we do and who we are and what we want for our lives. (This assumes we have the privilege of being able to provide for our basic needs first, a huge caveat given all the financial insecurity and inequality in the world.)

The flip side is the cognitive dissonance and social tension we experience when going  against the grain of the “life as a race” paradigm. People don’t know what to make of us when we’re not on the conventional path, and we don’t know what to make of ourselves. We feel vulnerable and exposed. So we bail early. We retreat. (And then perhaps regret.)

90,000 Hours

According to Jessica Pryce-Jones in her book, Happiness at Work, workers today spend an average of about 90,000 hours at work in their lifetimes. How many of those hours risk being misspent if we’ve panicked and chosen poorly because of a dubious sense of feeling behind during our socially awkward formative years with all their outside pressures?

What we’re missing in our decision calculus is that our values and priorities tend to shift as we age. We tend to care less about what others think over time. We learn how little it matters what others think of us, and how much it matters what we think of ourselves and our lives.

Our panic-choices when feeling behind wouldn’t be that big of a deal if life were linear and if we all chose wisely when young what we’d do with the rest of our lives and if we didn’t change as we went along. But that’s rubbish.

Life isn’t linear. We do change. So we need to get good at just being, even when we’re not pursuing, achieving, or winning. We need to get good at periodically evaluating our current course. At experimenting with different possibilities. Leaving situations that no longer serve us. Letting go of our former self to meet the new moment and craft a new self.

This is hard. I’ve experienced this many times, for example in transitioning from one industry to another and feeling intimidated by having to start over, and one sector (nonprofit) to another (business). And leaving a growing venture to go out on my own. Moving from the U.S. to Sweden and facing language and cultural barriers and a dramatically new context. And then back again to the U.S. after a decade abroad.

Each time, I gave up some speed and momentum in my career. It felt like stepping off the moving walkway at the airport. But in exchange for those awkward and painful transitions, I got my life back—and big lessons, and wisdom through suffering, and more growth than I would have gotten otherwise. The physics are complicated, changing the trajectory from a straight line to something akin to a swoosh.

Switching Costs

Switching costs are a big problem when it comes to career paths. The cost of changing your career (or degree) can be high, not only financially and in education, training, or certifications that may be needed, but also in terms of identity and social capital. This can make people reluctant to abandon their current path even when it is sub-optimal. So they grind it out. For 90,000 hours.

The short-term costs of switching seem to shout, while the long-term dynamics only whisper, but in the end which matters more? The switching cost problem keeps us bound to a reality that no longer serves us, when what we really need is an ability to let go and move on—to step away and recraft through discovering, sampling, prototyping, and pivoting.

Feeling behind? Here’s the thing: life isn’t race. It may be a common metaphor and mindset, especially among the young and middle-aged, but it’s a trap.

A good life doesn’t come from winning, wealth, fame, power, or outperforming some imaginary rivals. It comes from vitality, connection, contribution, purpose, joy, savoring, acceptance, and love. We’re all different, with different values, aspirations, and experiences, so we should all live our own lives without arbitrary and false comparisons. By languishing in that mental trap, we invite regret.

It’s of course true too that sometimes we do need or want to race, for example a time-sensitive project or a competition with real rivals. I get it. There’s thrill in competition. And there’s strength in testing our mettle in the arena. But viewing life that way will only frame important choices in the wrong light.

One day, we’ll face our own personal reckoning for the choices we’ve made. Feeling behind is a trap. Life isn’t a race.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s new online course on “Crafting Your Life and Work” (limited time only), his manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Choice Overload and Career Transitions

We all face transitions in life and work. The transition from school to work. From one job or career to another. To marriage and family. To a new home. To midlife. To retirement.

So we need to get good at transitions. And that depends on getting good at making choices. Like: What’s next?

Sometimes we get bogged down in choice overload. Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls it the “paradox of choice.” He argues that the freedom to choose is one of the main roots of unhappiness today. Choice overload leads to anxiety and “analysis paralysis,” in which we become frozen in undecidedness. We fear making the wrong choice or fear missing out (FOMO) on the “right” choice.

He cites a fascinating “jam study” in which a store gave shoppers a range of six jams to choose among, and a range of 24 jams to another set of shoppers. The surprising findings: shoppers were ten times more likely to purchase jam from a range of six jams than from the much larger set. Being overloaded with choices can easily lead to not making a choice due to overwhelm.

One of the great inhibitors of good choosing is fear: fear of looking bad, fear of not living up to expectations, fear of failing, and more. Fear of leaving a stable job with a stable income. Fear of striking out on our own.

“Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable.”Janet Wojcicki, professor, anthropologist, and epidemiologist

This fear can lead to inertia: resistance to needed changes in life or work. It can mean sticking with a sub-optimal path, often because it feels easier to stay the current course.

“It takes, on average, three years from the time a person decides to leave the company until the day he or she walks out the door. Those are not good or productive years. For me those years were in limbo.” -Harriet Rubin, publishing executive

So we end up settling: compromising or settling for “good enough” instead of what we really want or deserve.

There’s a flipside danger too. When it comes to making choices, we tend to have dysfunctional beliefs that prevent us from seeing things clearly and accurately, and from taking appropriate action. According to Bill Burnett and Dave Evans from the the Stanford Life Design Lab, here are some of these dysfunctional beliefs:

  • I have to find the one right idea.
  • To be happy, I must make the right choice.
  • I need to comprehensively research all aspects of my plan.

Here we face a dilemma:

It’s a big mistake to focus too much too early on only one idea or possibility.

Why? When we prematurely settle on one idea, we almost always end up with a sub-optimal outcome. Our brains trick us into seeing only the good (the possibilities, the upside) and into ignoring the bad (the risks and downsides). It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s a huge and well researched problem.

What’s more, our lives and our future aren’t an engineering problem or mathematical equation that can be solved by finding “the answer.”

There is no one perfect answer out there. We must craft our lives and work as we go, as intentionally and adaptively as possible.

It’s also a mistake to bring a very large number of options in our consideration set.

That may trap us in choice overload and the paradox of choice problem noted above.

Brainstorm several options and then don’t get trapped in analysis paralysis. Instead have a bias toward action and get moving by learning as much as you can as quickly and cheaply as possible about your options. Talk to people. Try it with a side hustle. Take a course. Build a prototype or a low-cost probe.

Then decide. Once you do, don’t dwell and don’t agonize. Dive into your new reality and make adjustments as you go. Keep learning and testing.

Then, you’ll find yourself at a new set of choices. In the meantime, you’ll start to get good at choosing. And that will help you with everything you do.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s new online course on “Crafting Your Life and Work” (limited time only), his manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”