The Problem with Not Being Clear about Our Purpose

Article Summary: 

Not being clear about our purpose harms us in many ways, affecting our quality of life, relationships, work, leadership, and more.

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Many of us have a general sense of what we want in life but haven’t taken that furhter into a clear sense of purpose—of our deeper why.

Of all the personal and leadership development practices, purpose tends to be the most difficult for many, in part because of all the myths and misconceptions about purpose. Some people feel what’s been called “purpose anxiety”: distress from not knowing our purpose in life or from not living it.

Our purpose is why we’re here, our reason for being. It’s related to but not the same as our values, vision, and passions.

Purpose is important because it gives us a sense of meaning and coherence in our lives, as well as a connection to something larger than ourselves. And it’s hard to live our purpose if we don’t know what it is.

 

The Problems that Come from Lacking Clarity about Purpose

What are the impacts of not knowing our purpose—or from lacking clarity about it? There are many, and some are severe.

When we’re not clear about our purpose, we can suffer from:

  • anxiety
  • stress
  • frustration
  • loss of hope
  • lack of a sense of coherence in our lives
  • lack of fulfillment
  • lack of joy
  • less engagement with family, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and community
  • lower resilience
  • burnout
  • depression
“If we lack purpose, we lose connection with our true nature and become externally driven, generating discontent or even angst. Because purpose can be so elusive, we often duck the big question and look for ways to bury that discontent, most often through ‘busyness,’ distraction, or worse.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives

When we lack clarity about purpose:

  • It can negatively impact our physical health. Researchers have linked purpose to better sleep, fewer heart attacks and strokes, longer life span, and a lower risk of dementia. (See the section below on purpose and health.)
  • We feel that our lives lack a sense of meaning and significance.
  • Our goals and actions can be haphazard, lacking focus and direction.
  • We can lose our motivation to work hard or persist through adversity because there’s no animating aim driving our actions.
  • We can lack a sense of progress because we don’t know what our ultimate aims are.
  • It can keep us from growing because we lack the clarity and motivation that comes from a deep and meaningful why.
  • We can feel that success is unachievable because our efforts seem aimless and scattershot, without lasting redeeming value.
  • We start living from the outside in, conforming to the desires or expectations of others instead of living by our own guiding lights.
  • We tend to turn inward and “cocoon” instead of reaching out to others, causing disconnection and loneliness, two of the leading causes of unhappiness.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Not being clear about our purpose harms us in many ways, affecting our quality of life, relationships, work, leadership, and more.

Of course, the flip side is that knowing our purpose and living it comes with many benefits.

“When we are clear about our purpose, or at least working toward it, our lives come together in powerful ways.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs

For example, McKinsey research during the pandemic found that people who say they’re “living their purpose at work” reported levels of wellbeing five times higher and engagement levels four times higher than people who say they’re not doing so.

According to a recent McKinsey report, purpose can be an important contributor to worker experience, which is linked with employee engagement, organizational commitment, and feelings of wellbeing. Also, those who experience congruence between their purpose and their job are more productive and more likely to outperform their peers.

One CEO cited in that report noted that articulating his purpose helped make him a more observant and empathetic leader:

“I believe I’m more honest with myself and faster to recognize if I might be doing something that’s motivated by my own vanity, fear, or pleasure. I know I’m more open to feedback and criticism. I spend less time talking about weekend or vacation plans and more time exploring what motivates, frustrates, or scares people—the things that really matter. I make faster connections with people now.”

 

Conclusion

When we’re clear about our purpose and building it into our daily lives, we feel authentic, energized, awake, and alive. The key is not just knowing our purpose but living it—intentionally building it into the fabric of our days.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Tools for You

 

 Postscript: Inspirations on Purpose

  • “Many of us are starved for coherence in our lives…. The most effective people know how to carry out daily activities while keeping their eye on a longer-range vision and purpose they want to center their lives around. Purpose has a way of ordering time and energies around itself….” -Richard Leider
  • “Purpose is adaptive, in an evolutionary sense. It helps both individuals and the species to survive.” -Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center
  • “You might do a hundred other things, but if you fail to do the one thing for which you were sent it will be as if you had done nothing.” -Rumi

 

Appendix: Purpose and Health

Research in different domains has found powerful connections between purpose and health. For example:

Longevity: A study of more than 79,000 Japanese people found that those with a strong connection to their sense of purpose tended to live longer. According to researchers in a 2014 study, “having a purpose in life appeared to widely buffer against mortality risk across the adult years.”

Heart disease: A 2008 study of Japanese men found that a lower level of purpose was associated with cardiovascular disease, and another study found that “purpose is a possible protective factor against near-future myocardial infarction among those with coronary heart disease.”

Stroke: Researchers found that people who say they have a sense of purpose are 22 percent less likely to exhibit risk factors for stroke compared to those who say they don’t—and 52 percent less likely to have experienced a stroke.

Alzheimer’s disease: Neuropsychologist Dr. Patricia Boyle found that people with a low sense of life purpose were 2.4 times more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease.

 

References

  • Boyle, P.A., Buchman, A.S., Wilson, R.S., Yu, L., Schneider, J.A., Bennett, D.A. (2012). Effect of purpose in life on the relation between Alzheimer disease pathologic changes on cognitive function in advanced age. Archives of General Psychiatry; 69(5): 499-505.
  • Boyle, P., Buchman, A., Barnes, L., Bennett, D. (2010). Effect of a purpose in life on risk of incident Alzheimer disease and mild cognitive impairment in community-dwelling older persons. Archives of General Psychiatry; 67(3): 304–310.
  • Naina Dhingra, Jonathan Emmett, Andrew Samo, and Bill Schaninger. (2020). Igniting individual purpose in times of crisis. McKinsey Quarterly.
  • Hill PL, Turiano NA. (2014). Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychological science. 25(7): 1482-1486.
  • Koizumi, M., Ito, H., Kaneko, Y., Motohashi, Y. (2008). Effect of having a sense of purpose in life on the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases. Journal of Epidemiology; 18(5): 191-6.
  • Rainey, L. (2014). The search for purpose in life: An exploration of purpose, the search process, and purpose anxiety. University of Pennsylvania Master’s Thesis.
  • Schaefer SM, Morozink Boylan J, van Reekum CM, Lapate RC, Norris CJ, et al. (2013) Purpose in Life Predicts Better Emotional Recovery from Negative Stimuli. PLOS ONE 8(11).

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Problem with Lacking Clarity in Your Life

Article Summary: 

Many people aren’t clear about what they want and where they’re going. Lacking clarity is one of the most damaging traps we can fall into.

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Do you know who you are?

What you want?

Where you’re going and why?

We may have a vague sense of these things but no real clarity. We lack a clear vision that pulls us forward toward its sweet and compelling destination.

Meanwhile, we keep our heads down and stay busy as a form of avoidance. Sometimes this situation continues for a very long time, placing us in an extended state of drifting.

Lacking clarity is one of the most damaging traps we can fall into. Why? Because lacking clarity affects everything, including our quality of life, relationships, work, leadership, and dreams. And because having clarity is a superpower. Life is so much better and richer when we have a clear vision of a better future, anticipation about what it will feel like when we realize it, and conviction about what’s important and meaningful.

 

What We Should Get Clear About

Okay, so clarity is important, but clarity about what? Here are the ten most important things we should get clear about:

  1. purpose: why we’re here; our reason for being
  2. values: the things that are most important to us; what we believe and stand for
  3. vision: what success looks like—a mental picture of what we want to be, do, and contribute in life and with whom
  4. strengths: what we’re good at, including our knowledge, skills, and talents
  5. passions: what we get lost in, consuming us with palpable emotion
  6. goals: what we want to accomplish
  7. priorities: the relative importance of our top aims
  8. strategies: how we’ll achieve our vision and goals and what we’ll focus on given our available time and resources
  9. capabilities: what knowledge and skills we need to develop to realize our vision
  10. service: who we seek to impact and how

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

 

Signs We’re Lacking Clarity

There’s a big price to pay when we don’t have enough clarity about these things. When we lack clarity, we tend to:

  • suffer from anxiety, stress, self-doubt, indecision, and frustration
  • struggle with knowing where to begin
  • question ourselves and our actions
  • procrastinate
  • begin projects without finishing them
  • struggle with minor decision-making
  • feel like we need advice from others before making most decisions
  • feel overwhelmed and burned out
  • agree to too many things
  • feel confused and uncertain about what to do next
  • be more prone to distraction and disorganization
  • keep comparing ourselves with others
  • put in inconsistent effort
  • remain too busy and frazzled to think about and work toward a better future
  • see a decline in motivation and performance
“Lack of clarity is the primary reason for failure in business and personal life.” -Brian Tracy

 

Benefits of Clarity

On the flip side, there are many powerful benefits that flow from having clarity in our lives. For example, having greater clarity:

  • eliminates distractions and helps us focus
  • helps us establish a definitive direction
  • makes it easier to identify actions to take and prioritize them
  • helps us overcome fear and doubt
  • makes it easier for others to help and support us because they have better insights into what we want
  • allows us to put our energy into what we want
  • helps us get things done
  • makes it easier to say no to things that don’t matter to us
  • helps us manage challenges more effectively
  • reduces feelings of overwhelm and helps us manage stress more effectively
  • helps us make better decisions and reduces decision fatigue
  • allows us to set and enforce boundaries
  • helps us save money since we avoid spending it on things that don’t matter
  • helps us feel contentment and happiness
  • provides the serenity that comes from knowing what matters most
  • leads to healthier relationships
  • boosts our confidence
  • facilitates better performance
“…compared with their peers, high performers have more clarity on who they are, what they want, how to get it, and what they find meaningful and fulfilling.” -Brendon Burchard

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

 

How to Get More Clarity

Given all the compelling benefits of achieving greater clarity, the question then becomes how to go about it. What can we do to bring more clarity to our lives? Here are 16 actions we can take:

  1. Eliminate distractions, clear out clutter, and create more white space in our lives. This makes room for self-awareness, pattern-mapping, and new insights.
  2. Do one thing at a time.
  3. Take more action more often. Many people assume they need clarity before acting, but sometimes clarity comes from taking action. Act, assess, learn, and adjust. Then repeat.
  4. Reflect after acting. Step back periodically to see how things are going. What’s emerging and what’s getting in the way?
  5. Talk to others. Share what we’re unclear about and ask for their input. They may be able to see things we can’t from their vantage point. (Consider doing this in small groups.)
  6. Develop a clear vision of what life will be like when we’re living the life we want. Start by defining what success looks like in different areas, including family, relationships, health, work, education, community, and more.
  7. Spend more time thinking about our desired future. Also, engage in planning and actions that move us toward that future. Best to schedule time for it on our calendar.
  8. Journal about what’s going on and what isn’t clear yet. Write freely and let thoughts appear uninhibited.
  9. Start acting like the person we want to become. Bring our desired future into our present.
  10. Turn our purpose, values, and vision into a daily mantra or affirmation.* This will help embed them into our consciousness and build them into the fabric of our days.
  11. Ask what we would do if we had less time. By doing so, we force tough choices about what to focus on.
  12. Reduce exposure to negative influences. They extract a tax on our energy and attention. And they pull us away from our own priorities.
  13. Engage in regular centering activities. Take breaks and go for walks. Try deep breathing or meditation.
  14. Follow a regular, daily routine. Be sure that it includes time for quiet reflection.
  15. Make time for systematic self-care. Don’t neglect good habits of nutrition, hydration, movement, and sleep.
  16. Work with a coach or mentor. Focus on getting more clarity on purpose, values, vision, strengths, passions, goals, priorities, strategies, capabilities, and service opportunities.

 

Related Traps

Lack of clarity is common, and it can be pernicious, affecting so much of how we think and what we do. It’s also accompanied by several associated traps:

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Achieving clarity about who we are, what we want, and where we’re going can be very challenging. But lacking clarity leads to drifting and settling. And having clarity is a superpower that adds energy and richness to all we do.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you clear about who you are, what you want, and where you’re going?
  2. What more will you do, starting today, to achieve greater clarity in your life and work?

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Clarity

  • “Clarity precedes success.” -Robin Sharma
  • “Clarity is essential. Knowing exactly what you want builds your self-confidence immeasurably.” -Brian Tracy
  • “Clarity is the child of careful thought and mindful experimentation.” -Brendon Burchard
  • “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” -Paolo Coelho
  • “As you become more clear about who you really are, you’ll be better able to decide what is best for you—the first time around.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “It is essential to know yourself before you decide what work you want to do.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “People often complain about lack of time when lack of direction is the real problem.” -Zig Ziglar
  • “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.” -Cal Newport
  • “It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.” -Steve Maraboli
  • “Unhappiness is not knowing what we want and killing ourselves to get it.” -Don Herold
  • “…as your inner world becomes more orderly and clear, your actions in the outer world should follow suit.” -Deepak Chopra
  • “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” -Carl Jung
  • “Clarity is the most important thing. I can compare clarity to pruning in gardening…. If you are not clear, nothing is going to happen.” -Diane von Furstenberg
  • “The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.” -Niccolo Machiavelli
  • “…the world’s wisdom traditions offer a valuable secret. They teach that the unsettled mind comes about through one thing only: losing sight of who we really are…. The answer lies in finding out who you really are—a conscious agent who can choose, at any time, to live from the level of the true self.” -Deepak Chopra
  • “We want luminosity—the sense of possibility and promise we feel when we absolutely know that all is well and that we’re doing what we’re meant to be doing, right here, right now. We reach luminosity through a different quality of action—clarity, focus, ease, and grace in action.” -Maria Nemeth
  • “Everyone sees the unseen in proportion to the clarity of his heart, and that depends upon how much he has polished it. Whoever has polished it more sees more—more unseen forms become manifest to him.” -Rumi

* Brendon Burchard recommends choosing three aspirational words that describe our desired future self (e.g., “kind, loving, joyful”) and making them a daily smartphone alarm to keep them top-of-mind.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Discover Your Purpose

Article Summary: 

Many people struggle with finding their purpose. It can be intimidating and confusing. Where to begin? This article clarifies what purpose is and how to discover it.

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Why are you here? (On the planet, that is.) What’s your purpose?

Do you know? Have you thought much about it? Are you living your purpose?

Note that we’re asking here about your purpose in life, not the purpose or meaning of life generally. Asking about your purpose is a practical matter, not a philosophical one.

Many people struggle with purpose. According to a New York Times article, only about a quarter of Americans have a clear sense of purpose. In a Harvard Business Review article, Nick Craig and Scott Snook noted, “we’ve found that fewer than 20 percent of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose. Even fewer can distill their purpose into a concrete statement.” According to an Edward Jones report, 31 percent of new retirees say they’ve struggled to find a sense of purpose in retirement.

A lack of purpose is behind much of the pain and suffering in the world today, including many of our mental health challenges. We can have many good things in our life, including a nice family, a good career, and friends and experiences to enjoy, but we can still feel like something is missing. Often, it’s purpose that’s missing. Lack of purpose is also one of the drivers of the “Great Resignation” and a big driver of disengagement at work.

“The drive to be more purposeful explains much of the momentum behind the massive exodus from mainstream corporate life.” -Aaron Hurst

 

What Is Purpose?

Part of the problem is confusion about what purpose is (and isn’t). Purpose often gets conflated with things like passion, meaning, and calling. (See my article, “The Most Common Myths about Purpose.”)

Our purpose is why we’re here, our reason for being. William Damon, a Stanford University professor and author of The Path to Purpose, defines purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond self.” Note that purpose takes us beyond ourselves, to something greater.

Author Richard Leider distinguishes between two kinds of purpose:

  1. “BIG P” Purpose (a noble cause or something we can dedicate our life to).
  2. “little p” purpose (the day-to-day choices of how we can contribute to others). Note that “little p” actions are just as worthy, and they can compound over time into something powerful.

 

Purpose vs. Passion

Purpose and passion are connected but not equivalent. While purpose is why we’re here, a passion is a compelling or powerful feeling. Our passions are those things that consume us with palpable emotions, the things we love so much that we’re willing to suffer for them. Those are important, but they don’t usually take us all the way to knowing our reason for being.

 

Purpose vs. Meaning

While purpose and meaning are related, they’re not the same. Meaning is a broader concept. According to Dr. Michael Steger of Colorado State University, “Meaning in life refers to the feeling that people have that their lives and experience make sense and matter.” He notes that “Purpose is one facet of a meaningful life.” According to Steger and his fellow researcher, Frank Martela from Aalto University, there are three general facets associated with meaning in life: purpose, coherence, and significance. See the image below.

Image source: Derek Hagen, Money Health Solutions, LLC, “Money and Meaning,” https://www.moneyhealthsolutions.com/post/money-and-meaning Used with permission.
“…when people say that their lives have meaning, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied: they evaluate their lives as significant and worthwhile—as part of something bigger; they believe their lives make sense; and they feel their lives are driven by a sense of purpose.” – Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning

 

Purpose vs. Calling

There’s also confusion about the difference between purpose and calling. While purpose is why we’re here, a calling has been defined as “a strong urge toward a particular way of life or career” (Oxford Dictionary), and also as “a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action, especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence” (Merriam-Webster). So, if we have a clear purpose, it can flow naturally into a calling as a way to express it in the world.

“Everyone has a calling, which is the small, unsettling voice from deep within our souls, an inner urge, which hounds us to live out our purpose in a certain way. A calling is a concern of the spirit. Since a calling implies that someone calls, my belief is that the caller is God.” -Dave Wondra

 

The Benefits of Purpose

There are many benefits to knowing and living our purpose. It can be incredible powerful, flowing through everything we do and how we show up in the world. When we know and live our purpose, it gives us the following:

  • direction
  • coherence
  • energy
  • agency
  • hope
  • health (mental and physical)*
  • connection with others
  • community
  • enjoyment of life
  • happiness
  • fulfillment
  • gratitude

When we have a clear sense of purpose, we can reduce our anxiety and stress (which are fueled by uncertainty and aimlessness) and also focus our efforts in the right areas, boosting our performance, earnings, and impact. Our purpose can also help us clarify which goals to pursue and make us more likely to accomplish those goals.

“When we are clear about our purpose, or at least working toward it, our lives come together in powerful ways.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives

We can also feel a strong relational and spiritual connection, a sense that we’re linked with others, part of the larger scheme of things, and in tune with nature, life, and God.

Finally, those who have lived purposefully tend to experience fewer regrets in life, helping them face and accept death with equanimity.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Discover Our Purpose

So how to discover our purpose? Here are things we can do to help us discover our purpose:

  1. reflect on what kinds of people or groups we feel called to serve and what kinds of issues we feel called to address
  2. notice what energizes us (and what drains us) and what brings us joy
  3. observe what we’re doing when we’re making a difference in someone’s life and loving the process of doing it
  4. reflect on when we’ve felt the most fulfilled, noting what we were doing (and with whom and where and how), then finding patterns across those experiences
  5. ask what we have a fierce commitment to and what we’re willing to sacrifice for because it’s so viscerally important to us (e.g., family, friends, work, colleagues, community, cause), then reflect on how it might inform our reason for being
  6. notice what kinds of pain and suffering (yours or others’) affects us most (what Umair Haque calls our “zone of heartbreak”) and consider ways to turn that hurt into healing or growth
  7. develop our self-awareness, our ability to see ourselves clearly and understand our feelings, motives, desires, and character
  8. mine our story (our personal history), write it down, tell it to others, and find the themes that animate our lives, including what we loved doing when we were young and the meaning we’ve derived from the pivotal moments and adversity we’ve faced
“Purpose often arises from curiosity about your own life. What obstacles have you encountered? What strengths helped you to overcome them? How did other people help you? How did your strengths help make life better for others?” -Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center
  1. read books and articles that feel meaningful to you (researchers have found links between reading things like fiction, poetry, and the Bible and having a stronger sense of purpose)
  2. take a holistic view of our life—thinking about our family, relationships, work, learning, community, beliefs, impact, and more—and noting what’s most important
  3. discover our strengths—the things we’re good at
  4. get clarity on our passions—what we love to do and what consumes us with palpable emotion
  5. pay attention to what we’re doing when we love our work
  6. clarify our personal values and consider instances in which we’ve honored or upheld them and what that suggests about our purpose
  7. try different things (experiences, projects, jobs, careers) and gauge whether they feel meaningful or not
  8. engage more often in “discover mode” (learning about who we are and what we can do in the world) and less in “climbing mode” (focusing so much on advancing up the ladder of success)
  9. take time each evening to reflect on the day that just passed and note the activities or situations that felt most purposeful
  10. think about our “ideal self” (the person we want to be, versus the person we are now) and what that person would be doing—and with and for whom
  11. connect the dots between the needs we see in the world and our strengths, passions, and values
  12. ask those who know us best to share the themes that make us who we are
  13. work with a mentor, coach, or small group to help us uncover our purpose
  14. ask ourselves what our older self or a wise mentor would advise us to focus more on
  15. preserve enough white space and margin in our lives so that clarity can emerge
  16. sit and get quiet with solitude and sanctuary so we’re better able to hear our inner voice
  17. engage in an iterative process of action and reflection, of trying things and then reflecting on their meaning and significance
  18. ask ourselves repeatedly what our purpose is (why we get up in the morning) and listen to what comes up
  19. engage in spiritual seeking, such as prayer, worship, contemplation, yoga, or pilgrimage, in the process seeking clarity about why we’re here
  20. project forward to the end of our lives and consider what we want our legacy to be, what we’d want said about us in a eulogy, or what we’d want to do differently if we had another chance at life (the deathbed test)
  21. consider what life is asking of us now and see if meaningful ideas emerge
  22. connect with experiences of awe, since they can help us feel connected to things larger than ourselves
  23. maintain a sense of gratitude (researchers have found connections between gratitude and our propensity to contribute to others, a key aspect of purpose)
  24. keep serving others (researchers have found connections between things like volunteering or donating to charities and having a greater sense of purpose)

In the process of uncovering our purpose, it’s important to slough off the layers of expectations put upon us by others, including parents, peers, teachers, coaches, colleagues, or society. We need to stop caring so much about what other people think and lean into being ourselves more openly and fully.

“Purpose reveals itself when we stop being afraid and start being ourselves.” -Richard Leider, “An Incomplete Manifesto for Purpose”

 

The Universal Purpose

It’s worth noting that discovering purpose is one of the most challenging personal development practices for many people. It can take time to unfold, like a fine wine.

So, what to do in the meantime? Should we sit on the sidelines and await clarity via revelation? Or “monk out” in a remote mountain cave?

Absolutely not. We must stay engaged with the world. Purpose isn’t about navel-gazing. It’s about knowing our reason for being and bringing it to the world via helping others.

Richard Leider suggests that, beyond our individual purpose, there’s also a universal purpose that animates us all:

“The universal purpose is to grow and give.” -Richard Leider

So, if we’re not yet clear on our personal purpose, we can keep growing and giving. When we do that, good things are bound to happen.

“If there’s just one habit you can create to help you find your purpose, it would be helping others.” -Amy Morin

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

 

Examples of Personal Purpose Statements

Sometimes it’s helpful to see examples of purpose statements for inspiration and context. My own purpose is “to help people lead good lives.” For me, that means helping people lead lives of integrity, service, and purpose—and re-connecting them with what truly matters. I’m most keen on helping people develop their own conception of the good life and then bring it to life.

Here are some other purpose statements:

  • “To love God and serve others.” –Bob Vanourek (my father and co-author)
  • “To inspire and empower people to live their highest vision in the context of love and joy.” -Jack Canfield
  • “To wake you up and have you find that you are home.” -Nick Craig
  • “To help others unlock the power of purpose.” -Richard Leider “Big P” purpose
  • “To make a difference in one person’s life every single day.” -Richard Leider “little p” purpose
  • “To be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.” -Oprah Winfrey

 

Conclusion

In the end, purpose is something we should be doing and not just thinking about. We should be infusing more and more of our home and work life with purpose.

The key is not knowing our purpose but living it. That also means focusing on things that are purposeful and avoiding things that aren’t as purposeful. It takes insight, persistence, and flexibility to figure out how to translate our purpose into effective action in the world.

Discovering our purpose doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to quit our job, change our career, or otherwise alter our lives dramatically. Often, we can creatively find ways to infuse our life and work with more purpose right where we are. (See, for example, Yale School of Management Professor Amy Wrzesniewski’s brilliant work on “job crafting.”) Other times, big changes may be warranted.

Discovering our purpose and living it is the work of a lifetime, and it’s incredibly rich and rewarding—especially when we connect it with our core values, vision of the good life, strengths, and passions. Wishing you well with it, and please let me know if I can help.

Gregg Vanourek and his dog

 

 

 

 

 

Gregg Vanourek

“You may be moved in a direction
You do not understand,
Away from the safe, the familiar,
Towards a vision that is blurry,
Yet still pounds against
The doors of your dreams,
Screams for recognition,
Petitions for understanding,
Whispers for acceptance.
Out towards distant possibilities,
You are propelled by a fire,
You will never fully comprehend,
But cannot extinguish.”
-Susan Rogers Norton, “Destiny”

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you know your purpose?
  2. Are you living it?
  3. What more will you do to clarify your purpose and build your life around it?

 

Related Tools for You

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

Sources on Purpose

  • Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
  • Richard Leider, The Power of Purpose
  • Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning
  • Hill PL, Turiano NA, Mroczek DK, Burrow AL. The value of a purposeful life: Sense of purpose predicts greater income and net worth. Journal of Research in Personality.
  • Khullar D. Finding Purpose for a Good Life. But Also a Healthy One. The New York Times. The Upshot. Jan. 1, 2018.
  • Morin, A, 7 Tips for Finding Your Purpose in Life. VeryWell Mind. July 12, 2020.
  • Musich S, Wang SS, Kraemer S, Hawkins K, Wicker E. Purpose in Life and Positive Health Outcomes Among Older Adults. Popul Health Manag.
  • Schippers MC, Ziegler N. Life Crafting as a Way to Find Purpose and Meaning in Life. Front Psychol.,
  • Smith, Jeremy Adam. “How to Find Your Purpose in Life,” Greater Good Science Center, January 10, 2018.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Purpose

  • “If we lack purpose, we lose connection with our true nature and become externally driven, generating discontent or even angst. Because purpose can be so elusive, we often duck the big question and look for ways to bury that discontent, most often through ‘busyness,’ distraction, or worse…. What does life want from us? In the end, the task is not finding our purpose but uncovering it—not propelling ourselves toward a more successful life, but rather getting out of the way of the good life that wants to live through us.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives
  • “Purpose is that deepest dimension within us—our central core. It is the quality we choose to shape our lives around. Purpose is already within us waiting to be discovered.” -Richard Leider
  • “I believe that we are put on this earth to live our soul’s purpose. To me, that means using our unique gifts and talents to make a positive impact in the world and help create the world we want to see…. We are all born with an inner compass that tells us whether or not we’re on the right path to finding our true purpose. That compass is our JOY.” -Jack Canfield
  • “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life…. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.” -Victor Frankl
  • “Purpose is adaptive, in an evolutionary sense. It helps both individuals and the species to survive.” -Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center
  • “Purpose is the recognition of the presence of the sacred within us and the choice of work that is consistent with that presence. Purpose defines our contribution to life. It may find expression through family, community, relationship, work, and spiritual activities.” -Richard Leider, The Power of Purpose
  • “You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments—whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life’s work, to loved ones, to your fellow humans.” -John W. Gardner
  • “Purpose is a universal need, not a luxury for those with financial wealth…. Money often conflicts with finding purpose, as it creates a false substitute for defining success…. You can find purpose in any job. It is all in how you approach it.” -Aaron Hurst
  • “The most fortunate people on earth are those who have found a calling that’s bigger than they are—that moves them and fills their lives with constant passion, aliveness, and growth.” -Richard Leider
  • “The difference between success and failure—between a life of fulfillment and a life of frustration—is how well you manage the challenge of making meaning in your life…. Learning to make meaning from our life stories may be the most indispensable but least understood skill of our time.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “If you can find a way to use your signature strengths at work often, and you also see your work as contributing to the greater good, you have a calling.” -Martin Seligman
  • “People don’t choose their calling, it chooses them.” -Richard Leider
  • “You might do a hundred other things, but if you fail to do the one thing for which you were sent it will be as if you had done nothing.” -Rumi

* Researchers have linked purpose to better sleep, fewer heart attacks and strokes, longer life span, and a lower risk of dementia and premature death.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Most Common Myths about Purpose

Article Summary: 

Many people struggle with knowing their purpose. It can be confusing, unclear, and intimidating. Here we bust the most common myths about purpose.

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Of all the top personal development practices, discovering our personal purpose can be among the most challenging for many of us.

It begins with confusion about what purpose is. Our purpose is why we’re here, our reason for being. William Damon, a Stanford University professor and author of The Path to Purpose, defines purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond self.”

Discovering purpose is also hard because there are many myths and misconceptions about what purpose is.

 

Myths about Purpose

Here are the most common and damaging myths about purpose:

 

Purpose is the same as passion.

People often use the words “purpose” and “passion” interchangeably, as if they’re the same thing. They’re connected but not equivalent. While purpose is why we’re here, a passion is a compelling or powerful feeling or emotion. (This gets tricky because we obviously feel passionate about our purpose.) In our book, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives, Christopher Gergen and I noted that passions are those things that consume us with palpable emotions. What are the things we love so much that we’re willing to suffer for them? Those are great, but they don’t get us all the way down to our reason for being.

 

My purpose must be completely original.

We need to stop putting so much pressure on ourselves when it comes to our purpose. There’s no competition for originality. The key is authenticity: have we landed on a sense of purpose that is real and true to us, that speaks to our essence?

 

Purpose is a luxury reserved for the select few, for the affluent and privileged.

Because it can be so hard and take so long, it’s tempting to conclude that purpose must not be for us. We can dismiss it as something reserved for the elite, or the fortunate, and not for us. But purpose is universally available. A hunger for purpose and meaning is built into human nature, and it’s accessible to us all, especially via connection with and service to others.

“Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life.” -Viktor Frankl

 

Purpose is abstract, theoretical, and impractical.

It can be easy to dismiss purpose as something that’s impractical. The notion of knowing our purpose can feel quite distant and philosophical. But in truth, purpose is utterly practical. It means infusing our actions with a deeper meaning informed by a highly motivating gift of clarity about fundamental aims. W. Clement Stone observed that “Definiteness of purpose is the starting point of all achievement.” In other words, the path to achievement and success starts with purpose.

“The difference between success and failure—between a life of fulfillment and a life of frustration—is how well you manage the challenge of making meaning in your life.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions

 

My purpose should come to me in a revelation.

The notion that our purpose will come to us fully formed and crystal clear is unrealistic. Our sense of purpose can be messy and take time to unfold. We get a sense of purpose as we live our lives and make mistakes, observing over time periods when we feel “on-purpose” or “off-purpose.”

“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.” -Marcel Proust

 

Purpose is all about me and what I need and want for my life.

To some, the notion of discovering our purpose sounds like navel-gazing. To know our purpose, we must “monk out” and become a hermit in a cave thinking deep thoughts. And then when we figure it out, we’ll be happy and successful. But all this is backwards. We look inside to uncover our purpose so that we can look outside and actualize it in the world, with contributions to others based on real connections and a heart to serve. Purpose always comes back to others and to something larger than ourselves.

“You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments—whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life’s work, to loved ones, to your fellow humans.” -John W. Gardner

 

Purpose is “out there” for us to go find.

Yes and no. We discover a sense of purpose within by bumping up against the world and getting a sense of what feels empty to us versus what fills us up with energy and meaning. And as we begin to discover it, and to feel it deep in our bones, the whole point is to take it out into the world, to actualize it. In truth, purpose is discovered with and realized through both reflection and action in the world.

When we go looking to find our purpose, it can elude us. Purpose is less something that we find and more something that we uncover by peeling off layers of expectation and obligation until we get to the root of who we are and what (or who) calls to us. Also, the point isn’t finding our purpose. It’s living it. The point is living a life that lights us up and beings good things to those around us.

“Purpose is that deepest dimension within us—our central core. It is the quality we choose to shape our lives around. Purpose is already within us waiting to be discovered.”Richard Leider

 

I have just one purpose—or a purpose can only be manifested in one way.

Oh, the pressure. What’s my one purpose that will answer everything? The poet Walt Whitman once wrote, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” And so it can be with purpose. While some may find purpose in ONE THING, others may find it in many different things, from family and relationships to work and hobbies. There are likely to be patterns and themes connecting them, but purpose doesn’t have to be one dimensional.

 

Purpose has to be big and bold (e.g., saving the world).

This isn’t a competition. Purpose is measured less in size and boldness and more in depth, truth, and commitment. Author Richard Leider distinguishes between a “BIG P” Purpose (a noble cause or something you can dedicate your life to) and a “little p” purpose (the day-to-day choices of how you can contribute to others). For example, his own BIG P purpose is to help others unlock the power of purpose, and his little p purpose is to make a difference in one person’s life every single day. Note that little p purposeful actions are just as worthy and valuable, but on a smaller scale, and they can compound over time into something remarkable.

 

My purpose will never change.

Some people may have the experience of an unchanging purpose that remains consistent over time. But many of us go through chapters and seasons in life, and new layers of purpose get revealed in that flow of time. We change in our circumstances and outlook, so our experience with purpose can evolve, for example, becoming clearer, deeper, and richer. It may be there was a deeper underlying purpose there all along, but we change in our ability to see and experience it.

 

My purpose will manifest in the one “perfect job” that I must find.

For most of us mere mortals, there is no one perfect job. We can have a great job, but change is inevitable. The key is continually infusing our work with meaning and contribution and making adjustments along the way. We can infuse any job with purpose, excellence, and contribution.

 

Once I find my purpose, I’ll be done and can move on.

Even if we’ve done the hard work of discovering our purpose (which few people take the time to do), there’s still further richness ahead of us. Most importantly, we must diligently infuse our life and work with that purpose. And we’re wise to continue revisiting that purpose through different chapters and seasons of life, such as school, early career, marriage, children, midlife, etc.

 

My purpose can be revealed to me by a wise elder, mentor, or friend.

There’s no doubt that a wise elder, mentor, or friend can help us discover our purpose. For example, they can ask probing questions that help us shatter our illusions. Or they can help us acknowledge when we’ve lost our way or are in a trap. They can help us see things about ourselves that we’re missing. But in the end, our purpose is our own, and it’s up to us to realize and experience it in its authentic depth as only we can.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Only some types of work are capable of being purposeful.

Some people self-select out of purpose on the assumption that only some types of work are purposeful. Purpose, they reason, is only the domain of activists, changemakers, and healers and not the domain, for example, of bankers, plumbers, and technicians. Extensive research from Yale School of Management Professor Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues has demonstrated otherwise. They’ve found three main ways people relate to their work:

  1. Job orientation, with work as a means to an end
  2. Career orientation, with a focus on advancement, success, and prestige
  3. Calling orientation, with work as integral to our life and identity

According to their research, any job can become a career or calling, any calling can become a job or career, and any career can become a job or calling. Much depends on how we craft our tasks, relationships, and thinking about our work—what Professor Wrzesniewski calls “job crafting.”

“You can find purpose in any job. It is all in how you approach it.” –Aaron Hurst, The Purpose Economy

 

Conclusion

As we’ve seen, there are many myths about purpose. Discovering purpose is hard enough on its own without having to break through these myths and misconceptions.

While purpose is powerful, of course it’s not enough in and of itself to bring us a happy, successful, and fulfilling life. We also need other critical foundational elements, such as values, vision, strengths, passions, relationships, and more.

But purpose is one of the essential elements of crafting a good life with good work. We’re wise to uncover our purpose and build our lives around it.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.” -John W. Gardner

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Have any of these myths inhibited you from exploring or committing to your purpose?
  2. Which myths are the most common obstacles to purpose?
  3. What will you do to further explore or actualize your purpose?

 

Tools for You

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Are You Taking Shortcuts?

Article Summary:

These days, we’re under a lot of pressure to move quickly, so it can be tempting to take shortcuts. But that can be a big mistake.

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These days, we’re under a lot of pressure to move quickly. Things are changing rapidly, so it’s tempting to jump on the fast track. Or try for a quick fix.

Facebook’s motto from a few years ago captured it well:

Move fast and break things.”
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In today’s culture, people expect quick results. We live in an age of instant gratification. We’re used to swiping, and our attention span is shrinking rapidly to the duration of a TikTok reel.

It can be tempting to seek the easy way, the path of least resistance. People are looking for life hacks, time hacks, relationship hacks, and more.

Actually, it’s been going on for a while, but the time horizon keeps shrinking. The shortcuts are getting shorter.

I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.”
-Queen lyrics from their song, “I Want It All”

 

Types of Shortcuts

There are different kinds of shortcuts that are prevalent these days. For example, there are:

 

Health Shortcuts

It can be tempting to rely too much on pills and medications and neglect focusing on a healthy lifestyle with good and regular sleep, nutrition, movement, and self-care.

Ethical Shortcuts

We see people taking ethical shortcuts in many domains, including business, government, and sports. Think Bernie Madoff, Nixon, and Lance Armstrong. It doesn’t help that our brains are so good at rationalizing questionable behavior. I recall being the co-captain of a school soccer team and catching a player cutting corners on the team’s “Cooper test,” which required that all players run two miles through the campus in 12 minutes to be eligible to play on the varsity squad. It led to painful consequences for the player and the team.

It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”
-Warren Buffett

Financial Shortcuts

Financial shortcuts are tempting, especially given all the financial pressures many of us face. We see these temptations at the individual level with “get rich quick” schemes and speculative “opportunities.” We also see it at the organizational level (think Enron) and even the industry level (think subprime mortgages) and country level (think about the Russian laundering and Malaysian embezzlement schemes).

Quality Shortcuts

It’s often a bad idea to take quality shortcuts, especially when it comes to things like health and safety, hiring, risk assessment, and customer service, as these shortcuts can come back to bite us. Just think of all the airplane and automobile disasters and recalls.

Educational Shortcuts

The temptations are great in schools too, from relying on Cliffs Notes summaries instead of the actual book to outright cheating. We also see it at the institutional level, with universities trying to game the rankings systems with tricks and techniques instead of the actual hard work of improving the educational experience for students.

Relationship Shortcuts

It can even be tempting to take shortcuts in relationships, especially given how uncomfortable many people are with being alone. When we first meet someone, we can hit the “fast forward” button and leap to overly optimistic assumptions about compatibility and fit based on things like chemistry, looks, attraction, status, and common interests. We can fool ourselves into believing this person is “the one.” By skipping the discovery phase of learning about each other’s story, core values, needs, issues, and aspirations we can invite real trouble down the road.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Spiritual Shortcuts

There are even spiritual shortcuts we can struggle with. A common case in point: cheating on our time in prayer or contemplation as we get busy with the affairs of the world and preoccupied with our own status in it.

Jack Kornfield, a renowned Buddhist meditation teacher and author, warns about what he calls a “spiritual bypass.” He explains that if we have a solid spiritual practice (like meditation or prayer), or if we’ve had deep spiritual or transcendental experiences, we can falsely believe that we’re essentially done with our spiritual journey and its inner work. But then life tends to intervene with a challenge with our spouse, partner, children, or work, sometimes aggravating old wounds. In such cases, it’s easy to fall back into destructive behavior patterns and have to face the realization that we’re not fully whole or healed or okay, that we still have work to do. (See this short video with Jack Kornfield talking about the “spiritual bypass” problem.)

Certain meditation can bring tremendous benefits to us.
But it’s also possible to use meditation as a spiritual bypass,
so that we can escape our difficulties by finding some peace and calm.
But later on—at work, with family, or in relationships—
old patterns and ways that we get caught up in begin to show themselves.”
-Jack Kornfield

Entrepreneurship Shortcuts

Given the speed that many startups need to operate with, with their search for a viable business model before they run out of cash, there are many temptations to take shortcuts in Startup Land. For example, entrepreneur and author Steve Blank warns about “organizational debt”: “all the people/culture compromises made to ‘just get it done’ in the early stages of a startup,” because things are so frenzied and chaotic.

He explains it by comparing it to “technical debt,” which is the accumulation of programming shortcuts made in haste by coders when time is short. Their shoddy code must eventually be refactored and cleaned up before it causes too many problems for customers or even brings the whole tech platform down. Blank notes that organizational debt is just like that but on the people side, when the startup skimps on things like onboarding, training, job descriptions, compensation, pay scales, HR budgets, communications, and more. Entrepreneurs may get away with it for a while, but such organizational debt, he says, “can turn a growing company into a chaotic nightmare” or even kill it.

In startups, given their unique context of extreme time pressure, resource constrains, uncertainty, and chaos, there’s also a temptation to take ethical shortcuts.

Within entrepreneurial cultures, there’s often a feeling that
it’s OK to ignore or bend some regulation.
Sometimes regulations are legitimately outdated
or potentially too restrictive to let innovation flourish.
But the challenge for entrepreneurs is that
the line between appropriate and illicit is often quite murky.”
-Eugene Soltes, Harvard Business School Professor

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Clearly, there are many types of shortcuts—and many situations in which we’re tempted to take them.

So why do we take shortcuts, given their risks and downsides? We’ve already noted the cultural and organizational influences above, but we also take shortcuts when we’re in the grips of our ego or pride, or greed or ambition, or a desire for fame or glory.

Sometimes it works out. We can get lucky and get rich quick. Or succeed anyway despite skipping steps.

But many times, it doesn’t work out at all.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Consequences of Shortcuts

Short cuts make long delays.”
(Pippin warning Frodo in J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Fellowship of the Ring)

Taking shortcuts can have grievous consequences: things like reputational damage, financial ruin, injury, or even death.

Plus, when we take shortcuts, we miss the learning and growth associated with the toil of the normal route. We miss the wisdom and character-building that can come from experience and setbacks, from having to re-evaluate or push through. And we can feel a deep sense of regret for the poor choices we made.

Entrepreneur and author Rajesh Setty notes that it’s “easy to miss that the ’real cost’ of taking a shortcut is way higher than the ’perceived cost’ of taking one,” and that the “real cost” of a shortcut is “the loss of an opportunity to become better for the future. If it is too good to be true, it probably is.”

Writer Thomas Oppong recommends avoiding shortcuts and taking “long cuts” instead, which he describes as “long-term and consistent routines, habits, behaviors, principles, and rules that help us become better versions of ourselves.” Such long cuts are things like longstanding habits of saving, investing, and healthy living.

 

Conclusion

Of course, avoiding shortcuts doesn’t mean being a slowpoke. It doesn’t mean being stubborn or foolish.

If there are genuine ways to save time and be more efficient, great. For example, we can often accelerate our move up the learning curve with a task or challenge by working with a mentor or coach and being open to learning from others, including small groups, so that we don’t waste time “reinventing the wheel.”

That’s all well and good. But we should be wary of the too-good-to-be-true shortcuts that can harm us, our relationships, and our future. In our age of speed and pressure, we should be thoughtful about which road to take.

Slow and steady wins the race.” (proverb)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you taking any shortcuts?
  2. In what areas?
  3. When you step back and reflect on it, is there a better way you might consider instead?

 

Related Article

Are You Playing the Long Game?

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding Shortcuts

    • “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” -Beverly Sills
    • “In life, most short cuts end up taking longer than taking the longer route.” -Suzy Kassem
    • “Every shortcut has a price usually greater than the reward.” -Bryant McGill
    • “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” -Mahatma Gandhi
    • “There are no shortcuts. The lazy will accomplish nothing in life. The human path of least resistance is the path to total failure and oblivion. You must always walk the hard path. The fewer the people on the path, the greater the glory. A genius is alone on his path.” -Thomas Stark
    • “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” -Benjamin Franklin
    • “The riskiest thing you can do is get greedy.” -Lance Armstrong
    • “If there were shortcuts, people smarter than you and me would have found them already. There aren’t. Sorry.” -Seth Godin
    • “Wisdom denotes the pursuing of the best ends by the best means.” -Frances Hutcheson
    • “Those that spend the most effort in search of shortcuts are often the most disappointed and the least successful.” -Seth Godin

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Gregg Vanourek helps people with leadership and personal development. He’s a TEDx speaker and co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Do You Have Limiting Beliefs About Yourself?

Article Summary: Many of us have limiting beliefs that detract from our success and happiness. Here we address where they come from and how to change them.

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Do you have limiting beliefs about yourself that are holding you back? Chances are that you do, even if you’re highly capable and successful. Most people do, even if they’re not aware of it, and it’s a bigger problem than most people think.

Limiting beliefs are judgments about ourselves that restrict us in some way. They prevent us from achieving our aims and from becoming what we want. In essence, they’re stories we tell ourselves, and they ain’t pretty because they’re a form of negative self-talk and self-sabotage.

Beliefs are the hidden scripts that run our lives.” -Marie Forleo

 

Examples of Limiting Beliefs

Our limiting beliefs generally tell us what we’re bad at or what we can’t do (or can’t do well). Beneath them are assumptions that there’s something wrong with us or that things are too difficult for us.

When we’re under their spell, we may believe that we are:

  • not worthy of love (perhaps the most debilitating limited belief of all)
  • damaged goods (because, for example, we’re out of a job or in a rut, or because our parents may be gone or divorced)
  • a failure
  • too busy or too old to do the thing we want (such as try a new career path, start dating again, learn a new skill, go back to school, start a venture, or pursue our dreams)
  • not smart, attractive, strong, or talented enough
  • not as good as our siblings, classmates, or colleagues (note the comparison trap)
  • not cut out to be a leader or entrepreneur
  • not creative, artistic, confident, our outgoing enough
  • bad at certain things (e.g., public speaking, writing, math, money, etc.)
  • too tall or too short
  • never going to be successful (or as successful as we hope)
  • not ready for what we need or want to do
  • stuck because things are beyond our control
  • lacking what it takes (e.g., knowledge, skills, experience, degree, credential)
  • too young to have influence
  • so far behind others that we’ll never catch up (as if life were a race)
  • fixed in our intelligence, abilities, and talents (what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”)

Most of us have more than one limiting belief at work and, in some cases, several. These beliefs affect our choices and actions.

We may have a limiting belief that we can’t leave a bad job or bad marriage because we’ve put too much time into it already and we won’t be able to get a better situation in the future. Or a limiting belief that we can’t quit law school or medical school because our parents won’t approve. Or that we can’t leave a prestigious or well-paying career to pursue something more meaningful, because we’ll lose respect. (See my article, “The Trap of Caring Too Much about What Other People Think.”)

Often, there are logical leaps we take with these limiting beliefs. If we embarrassed ourselves once in a high school assembly, we adopt the premature belief that we’re terrible at public speaking. If we got a bad grade in a tenth-grade writing class, we conclude that we’re a bad writer.

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” -Richard Bach

These leaps may be understandable emotionally, but they fall short logically. There are all sorts of possibilities at work in such situations. First, nobody starts out being good at anything. Maybe we were having a bad day when the assembly took place. Or the writing teacher was off base. Plus, we can all learn, develop, and grow into new skills and abilities if we apply ourselves diligently and systematically.

 

Where Limiting Beliefs Come From

Where do our limiting beliefs come from? Many sources, it turns out, including our:

  • parents and our childhood (including well-meaning but ultimately harmful praise only for things like our intelligence, looks, talent, or performance and not our effort, focus, resilience, and improvement)
  • peers and their comments and judgments about us (which we often blow out of proportion)
  • past experiences (and the false lessons we can extract from them)
  • teachers
  • coaches
  • mentors
  • society and its common assumptions about what constitutes success
  • the media, movies, celebrities, influencers, and social media (with their incomplete and misleading portrayals of what life is like for people)

Together, these can mix into a toxic cocktail of harmful notions about ourselves.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

The Effects of Limiting Beliefs

How do our limiting beliefs affect us? They can have profound and lasting effects on our life, work, relationships, and leadership.

Here are ten of the most common effects of limiting beliefs:

  1. lead us to doubt ourselves
  2. lower our confidence
  3. keep us from doing important things (such as going for a dream job or asking someone out)
  4. inhibit our creativity
  5. cause us to reject good options or lose opportunities because we feel we’re unworthy or incapable
  6. keep us in a state of fear, stress, anxiety, or shame
  7. prevent us from approaching or reaching our potential
  8. keep us from achieving success 
  9. reduce our happiness and wellbeing
  10. prevent us from crafting the life we want

When we’re at the mercy of our limiting beliefs, we feel mostly weak, undeserving, unworthy, or incompetent, or just not good enough. And we fail to access our strengths, gifts, resilience, and better angels. Those effects can compound over time into a black hole of negativity that won’t let any of our light escape.

Every belief has a consequence. Long term, your beliefs determine your destiny.” -Marie Forleo

 

Why Limiting Beliefs Are So Hard to Overcome

Limiting beliefs can be tricky because they’re loaded with emotions, fear, and anxiety. They hijack our brains, moving our cognitive activity away from our more prefrontal cortex (where we do our most advanced thinking) and down into our more reactive limbic system.

Limiting beliefs are often subconscious and deeply engrained in our psyche. Although they originate in our minds, we actualize them through our behavior and habits, creating a vicious cycle.

It gets worse. In some cases, our unconscious minds may prefer limiting beliefs over the effort and uncertainty of trying to change them because at least the beliefs familiar, which can provide comfort of sorts. This part of our brain prefers to stick with the “devil we know” versus the stress, pressure, risk, and uncertainty of something new and different (even if the latter may turn out to be much better). If our amygdala values survival above all else, why not stick with what we know and avoid the fear state that comes with change? It craves certainty and familiarity, even when those states lead to complacency and mediocrity.

Our brains are wired to conserve energy and protect us from pain and danger. This can lead to some lazy default behaviors such as staying in our comfort zone and avoiding risk.

Sometimes we’ve had a limiting belief for so long that it feels like it’s beyond questioning or reproach. It feels like it’s an aspect of reality itself, as opposed to the dubious doling of self-sabotage that it is. It can feel like the truth, even though it’s a despicable lie.

 

How to Overcome Limiting Beliefs

When you change a belief, you change everything…. All beliefs are a choice and choices can be changed…. You always have more power than you think. Your mind is the most extraordinary tool you have to shape your reality.” -Marie Forleo

Now that we’ve seen what limiting beliefs are, where they come from, and why they’re so hard to overcome, the next question is: What can we do about them? How can we overcome our limiting beliefs?

Here are the most effective ways to begin overcoming our limiting beliefs:

Understand that all results begin with beliefs, because our beliefs turn into thoughts that drive our actions.

Imagine how much more we could accomplish and how much more happiness and fulfillment we could have if we transformed our limiting beliefs into beliefs that supported us.

Begin noticing the tone of our beliefs—and whether they’re positive or negative, whether they’re supportive or harmful. We need to get better at listening to the negative thoughts in our head, paying attention to our negative self-talk. Notice whether our beliefs are driven by excuses, blaming, or victimhood, versus taking full responsibility and being creative, resourceful, and solution oriented. Be vigilant and keep watching out for cases where we may have unconscious limiting beliefs.

Identify the source of our limiting beliefs, if possible (e.g., comments from a parent, teacher, or boss, or a bad experience).

Recognize that it’s our unconscious brain that’s holding on to the limiting beliefs, not our conscious mind. With that realization, we can change our perception and then our behavior.

Flip our beliefs from unconscious and limiting to conscious and affirming so they don’t continue on autopilot without our awareness, and so they lift us up instead of holding us down.

Reframe the limiting beliefs. A simple way to reframe a limiting belief is to add “yet” to it. For example:

  • The limiting belief, “I can’t do this,” becomes, “I can’t do this yet” (or “I haven’t yet figured out how to make this work”).
  • The limiting belief, “I’ve never led anyone before and I don’t know what I’m doing,” becomes, “I’ve helped lots of people figure things out and I have good people skills and lots of valuable experience to draw upon.”
  • The limiting belief, “I’m not good enough to manage this project well,” becomes, “I’m committed, hard-working, and capable, and I have what it takes to figure this out.”

Choose one limiting belief to begin working on.

Write down our limiting beliefs about that topic area, also noting how they’re holding us back.

Then, interrogate the limiting belief. What if it’s not true?

Assess the accuracy of our limiting belief(s) by gathering data, from ourselves and others.

Challenge our limiting beliefs constantly.

Prove our limiting beliefs wrong by taking courageous actions that refute the phantom belief and its underlying assumptions. Crush our loathsome limiting beliefs with our incredible capabilities and awesomeness.

Create new beliefs that are beneficial, in doing so changing our self-talk so that it’s positive or supportive.

Strengthen our new beliefs via positive actions that reinforce the new beliefs. (Also consider affirmations and/or visualization.)

Develop a mantra that counters each major limiting belief, replacing it with something better. Examples: “Born ready.” “You got this.” “Everything is figureoutable.” (credit to Marie Forleo for this one)

Seek help from a coach, mentor, or small group that’s supportive and committed to our best interests.

 

Summary

Limiting beliefs are judgments about ourselves that restrict us in some way, a nefarious form of self-sabotage. They’re hard to overcome because they’re overloaded with emotions, they hijack our brains, and they’re often subconscious.

We have the power to overcome our limiting beliefs, especially by bringing them into our conscious awareness, interrogating and reframing them, and adopting new beliefs that support instead of sabotaging us.

Sometimes, overcoming our limiting beliefs is a prerequisite for crafting a good life.

“You begin to fly when you let go of self-limiting beliefs and allow your mind and aspirations to rise to greater heights.” -Brian Tracy

 

Questions for Reflection

  1. What limiting beliefs do you have?
  2. How are they holding you back?
  3. What will you do about them, starting today, and which one will you address first?

 

Related Articles

The trap of limiting beliefs doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s related to several of the other common traps of living. Here are several articles addressing related traps:

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Additional Resources

Apollos Hester talking about motivation

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Beliefs

  • “No matter what you’re facing, you have what it takes to figure anything out and become the person you’re meant to be.” -Marie Forleo
  • “The size of your success is determined by the size of your belief.” -David J. Schwartz
  • “Since a leader cannot rise above his thinking, he must assault his limiting beliefs daily through reading, listening, and associating.” -Orrin Woodward
  • “In order to change ourselves, we must first believe we can.” -Marie Forleo
  • “Don’t limit yourself. Many people limit themselves to what they think they can do. You can go as far as your mind lets you. What you believe, remember, you can achieve.” -Mary Kay Ash
  • “I’m not interested in your limiting beliefs; I’m interested in what makes you limitless.” -Brendon Burchard
  • “Learning too soon our limitations, we never learn our powers.” -Mignon McLaughlin
  • “If you accept a limiting belief, then it will become a truth for you.” -Louise Hay
  • “Beliefs have the power to create and the power to destroy. Human beings have the awesome ability to take any experience of their lives and create a meaning that disempowers them or one that can literally save their lives.” -Tony Robbins
  • “Courage is your natural setting. You do not need to become courageous, but rather peel back the layers of self-protective, limiting beliefs that keep you small.” -Vironika Tugaleva
  • “Do the uncomfortable. Become comfortable with these acts. Prove to yourself that your limiting beliefs die a quick death if you will simply do what you feel uncomfortable doing.” -Darren Rowse
  • “It’s the repetition of affirmation that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” -Muhammad Ali

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Are You Pretending to Be Something You’re Not?

Article Summary: 

One of the traps we can fall into in life is pretending to be someone or something we’re not. This article addresses why we do it, its consequences, and how to stop doing it so much.

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One of the traps we can fall into in life is pretending to be someone or something we’re not. We may wear a mask for others, adopt a persona, or impersonate someone we think is more appealing.

There are many reasons why we do this. It’s quite common.

But it can lead to big problems down the road.

 

Examples of Pretending in Action

What does it look like in practice? It can mean:

  • pretending to be like those around us so we can fit in
  • conforming to the expectations of others by pretending to be or like something
  • pretending we like our job when we don’t
  • hiding our true selves because we’re afraid of judgment or rejection by others
  • pretending to be someone we think our spouse or partner wants
  • hiding our mistakes or weaknesses and pretending to be perfect
  • faking something and deceiving someone to get what we want
  • wearing a mask as a coping mechanism for dealing with insecurity (including our propensity for negative self-talk and the “trance of unworthiness”)
  • acting like we don’t feel anger, resentment, hostility, sadness, or regret
  • feigning indifference to something that hurts us deeply
  • curating a perfect social media image
  • concealing our sadness or disappointment that we’ve given up on ourselves or our dreams

When we do these things, we have an innate, intuitive sense that we’re treading in dangerous territory. We feel a disconnect or a guilty conscience.

We’re all familiar with the sayings over the ages urging us to be authentic and true:

“To thine own self be true.” -Shakespeare
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” -Oscar Wilde
“March to the beat of your own drummer.”
“Know yourself, be yourself, love yourself.”

Is it as simple as that? Perhaps not. There’s some complexity here. For example, what is our “true self,” exactly? Is it always knowable, coherent, and consistent? Might it change over time?

In their article, “The Enigma of Being Yourself,” Katrina P. Jongman-Sereno and Mark R. Leary write: “the human personality invariably contains myriad personality dispositions, emotional tendencies, values, attitudes, beliefs, and motives that are often contradictory and incompatible even though they are genuine aspects of the person’s psychological make-up…. People are genuinenly multifaceted.”

The poet Walt Whitman, writing long ago, seems to agree: “Very well,” he wrote, “then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Jongman-Sereno and Leary also note that our ability to adapt our behavior to meet the demands of different situations is, within limits, generally positive and important for our psychological wellbeing and social relationships. We’re also asked to play a role sometimes—whether at home, at work, or in a community group—and that’s okay.

But it’s one thing to walk around making small accommodations to smooth things out a bit and another thing altogether to walk around wearing a mask and pretending to be something very different from what we are. When we do that, it has consequences.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

The Consequences of Pretending

When we hide who we really are behind a mask and adopt a counterfeit persona, there can be a price to pay. It can result in:

  • putting barriers between us and the people who are important to us, including family, friends, and colleagues
  • forgetting who we truly are because we’ve been disguising ourselves to others for so long
  • feeling like we’re a fraud (see also “impostor syndrome”)
  • feeling exhausted from acting, pretending, and pleasing (which can all lead to lack of energy and motivation)
  • creating a sense of aloofness in which people get the sense that we’re inaccessible
  • continuing a nefarious pattern of avoiding deeper issues and kicking the can further down the road

This can become a downward spiral, leading to even more insecurity and anxiety than what provoked us to wear a mask in the first place.

It’s frustrating for people when they notice we’re hiding parts of ourselves. Its puts a barrier between us.

Don’t be fooled by me.
Don’t be fooled by the face I wear for I wear a mask, I wear a thousand masks,
Masks that I’m afraid to take off, and none of them is me.
Pretending is an art that’s second nature with me, but don’t be fooled,
for God’s sake don’t be fooled.
Charles Finn in his poem, “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying”

Let’s note here that it’s not just difficult for the insecure people among us. This can be difficult for everyone, including leaders, entrepreneurs, celebrities, and high achievers. Sometimes, more so, due to all the pressures and expectations imposed on them.

“That age-old advice to ‘be yourself’ is deceptively simple. Being yourself is a lifetime’s work of discovery and courage, stepping out from behind your fear of not being good enough.” -Claire Law

 

How to Stop Pretending So Much

Being authentic and true can be difficult because, when we put down the mask and dare to be ourselves in front of others, we feel raw, exposed, naked, and vulnerable. We feel like we can die from disapproval, rejection, or belittling.

“I was dying inside. I was so possessed by trying to make you love me for my achievements that I was actually creating this identity that was disconnected from myself. I wanted people to love me for the hologram I created of myself.” -Chip Conley, author, entrepreneur, and founder, Modern Elder Academy

But we don’t die. We may suffer some adverse consequences, although usually our fears are way overblown. Overall, we tend to thrive when we lean in to being ourselves more fully, openly, and unapologetically.

How to go about it? Here are some of the things we can do to help us stop pretending so much:

  • know ourselves so well and deeply that we feel a sense of clarity and comfort about our true nature and begin to feel more comfortable in our own skin (a lifelong process)
  • accept our flaws (what about Brene Brown calls the “gifts of imperfection”)
  • engage in systematic personal development to build on our strengths, interests, and aspirations and feel the joy of growth and progress
  • develop the courage to let some people go (e.g., people who are judgmental, controlling, or always worrying or negative)
  • notice that things usually turned out better than we expected when we were afraid of failure, judgment, or rejection
  • develop our confidence and truly believe that we’re enough
  • remove our mask as much as possible in front of those we love the most, deepening connection and building our capacity to be real in front of others
  • dig down into the root causes that led us to want to avoid being ourselves
  • take an occasional break from the heavy responsibilities of being ourselves (“The energy required to maintain your identity is probably greater than you realize, and finding a way to relinquish it regularly can help you recharge.” -David Brooks)

Yes, there are many things we can do, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“Being true to who you really are can be one of the hardest things to do in life.” -Carlii Lyon, Australian executive

 

The Benefits of Being Ourselves

When we start putting the mask down more often, we’re doing two important things, according to researchers.

First, we’re developing our self-acceptance—our acceptance of all our attributes, whether positive or negative.

Second, we’re developing our authenticity—the degree to which our behavior is congruent with our attitudes, beliefs, and values. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown defines authenticity as “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” She notes that it requires audacity to be authentic.

What are the results of developing our self-acceptance and authenticity? There are many benefits, according to researchers, including:

  • improving wellbeing
  • feeling free
  • building confidence
  • developing better relationships
  • boosting work performance
  • protecting our mood in the face of setbacks
  • building our mental strength
  • cultivating a sense of peace
  • feeling less compulsive and anxious
  • lowering the barriers we’ve placed between ourselves and others
  • developing our capacity to distance ourselves from outside expectations and extrinsic motivations
  • avoiding one of the most common and difficult regrets—the regret of living our lives by the lights of others instead of by our own guiding lights
“Studies have even shown that feelings of authenticity can go hand in hand with numerous psychological and social benefits: higher self-esteem, greater well-being, better romantic relationships, and enhanced work performance.” -Jennifer Beer, “The Inconvenient Truth about Your ‘Authentic’ Self,” Scientific American, March 2020

 

Related Traps

Of course, the trap of pretending to be someone or something we’re not doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s related to several of the other common traps of living, including:

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you wearing a mask in front of others and pretending to be someone or something you’re not?
  2. What will you do, starting today, to lean in to being yourself more fully, openly, and unapologetically?

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Authenticity

  • “To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” -e.e. cummings
  • “…psychological suffering always comes from internal splits between what your encultured mind believes and what feels deeply true to you.” -Martha Beck in The Way of Integrity
  • “Live with total integrity. Be transparent, honest, and authentic. Do not ever waiver from this; white lies and false smiles quickly snowball into a life lived out of alignment. It is better to be yourself and risk having people not like you than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone you’re not, or professing to like something that you don’t. I promise you: Pretending will rob you of joy.” -Dr. Christine Carter, sociologist (advice to her children)
  • “The ultimate goal in life is not to be successful or loved, but to become the truest expression of ourselves, to live into authentic selfhood, to honor our birthright gifts and callings, and be of service to humanity and our world… life is seen as a journey of personal and collective unfolding toward our true nature.” -Frederic Laloux in Reinventing Organizations
  • “We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves.” -Francois de La Rochefoucauld
  • “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “Being true to the person you were created to be means accepting your faults as well as using your strengths. Accepting your shadow side is an essential part of being authentic. The problem comes when people are so eager to win the approval of others that they try to cover their shortcomings and sacrifice their authenticity to gain the respect and admiration of their associates…. Many leaders—men in particular—fear having their weaknesses and vulnerabilities exposed. So they create distance from employees and a sense of aloofness. Instead of being authentic, they are creating a persona for themselves.” -Bill George, Authentic Leadership
  • “…the ultimate self-help strategy, the one practice that could end all your suffering and get you all the way to happiness. Stop lying.” -Martha Beck in The Way of Integrity
  • “Now as adults, we realize that to live with courage, purpose, and connection—to be the person who we long to be—we must again be vulnerable. We must take off the armor, put down the weapons, show up, and let ourselves be seen.” -Brene Brown in Daring Greatly
  • “Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the integrity that comes from being what you are.” -Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward and Undivided Life
  • “Our lives only improve when we are willing to take chances and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves.” -Walter Anderson
  • “I write from my soul. This is the reason that critics don’t hurt me, because it is me. If it was not me, if I was pretending to be someone else, then this could unbalance my world, but I know who I am.” -Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule—Never lie to yourself.” -Paulo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “Why fit in—when you were born to stand out?” -Dr. Seuss

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Final Note: The Good Forms of Pretending

One final note. As we address the dangers of pretending to be someone or something we’re not, we should be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” as the saying goes. Here are several forms of “pretending” that are quite different from that trap, and that have important benefits:

1. Self-Distancing

When we’re “self-distancing,” we’re viewing our own experience from the perspective of an observer. According to the research, self-distancing can:

  • help us overcome difficult emotions and reduce stress and anxiety
  • help us reduce emotional reactivity
  • reduce our heart rate and blood pressure
  • help us see things more objectively and with greater perspective
  • promote wise reasoning about conflicts and how to approach them
  • foster humility, empathy, and open-mindedness

2. Alter Ego

Many people think about things from the perspective of a hero or mentor, even pretending that they’ve assumed that identity. Most of us can relate to this, starting from childhood. As a child, maybe we pretended to be Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or Dora the Explorer. If we wanted to be an entrepreneur, maybe we channeled Steve Jobs. If we wanted to be a media maven or overcome trauma, maybe Oprah Winfrey. If we’re Christian, we may ask, “What would Jesus do?” And so on with different religions or influences.

 

3. Visualization

Many people, and most famously athletes, use visualization to boost performance. With visualization, we mentally pretend we’re doing something, simulating it in our mind, forming a mental image of the things we want or the actions we need to take. This helps the brain form neural connections. It can be powerful, especially when it’s followed by action, including extensive, deliberate practice.

 

4. Maskenfreihet

The German word, “maskenfreiheit,” means “mask freedom” or “the freedom that comes from wearing masks.” Many people enjoy going to a masquerade or a costume party, with not only the creativity and fun but also the release from being ourselves.

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal growth and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Trap of Losing Yourself

These days, will all the pressures and pushes we feel, it can be easy to lose ourselves. We get consumed by events or other people’s priorities, surrendering our agency or initiative.

We can lose ourselves so much that we hardly recognize ourselves. Or let our own values, priorities, and aspirations fall by the wayside.

We can become accustomed to suppressing our needs, desires, or feelings. Or lose sight of who we really are and what we want in life. We can stop investing in our learning and growth, stop pursuing our dreams and passions, or neglect our inner life so much that it fades and withers.

Losing ourselves is a common trap these days, but imperative that we address it, because it robs our lives of meaning and joy.

 

When Warren Lost Himself

When Warren Brown chose the legal profession, he probably thought he had found himself—or at least his place in the world.

He had chosen law school, he says, because “I was driven by the expectation that I needed some type of profession… driven by parental expectations and by looking at my peers.”

Warren was successful in the eyes of many, and he had the opportunity to impact many through his work for a government agency.

Down the road, Warren found himself at a Tibetan Freedom Festival listening to a band. He was struck by the lyrics in the song, “Karma Police,” by Radiohead:

“For a minute there I lost myself, I lost myself.”

For Warren, these words hit deep. Out of the blue, his inner voice started interrogating him with provocative questions:

Are you there? Are you happy? Are you you?

His answers to those questions were illuminating:

Yes. No. No.

 Yes, he was there—finally starting to listen again to his inner voice.

But no, he wasn’t happy.

And no, he wasn’t feeling like himself anymore.

The next question that came up was equally surprising:

Are you ready?

Ready? For what?

For Warren, the answer turned out to be baking, a lifelong passion. He realized that for the preceding year he “had been waiting for something to happen, and it never did. I was tired of waiting.”

Warren was ready. The realization that he wasn’t happy and that he had lost himself set him on a new path in which he became what we call a “life entrepreneur”—someone who intentionally and creatively designs his life by integrating his life and work with purpose and passion.

Warren pursued his passion with gusto, and it led him to all sorts of interesting and unexpected places and roles, including founder of the CakeLove bakeries and Love Café, cable TV host, cookbook creator, and more.

 

How We Lose Ourselves

There are several different ways we can lose ourselves. Here we note seven of the most common ways:

1. We can lose ourselves in work and busyness.

The trap here is subsuming ourselves to the needs of our organization, the demands of our manager, or the expectations of our role (and the way we can obsess over it).

In some cases, we end up worshipping our work (and all its trappings, such as wealth, status, and prestige), subsuming our lives to our work. Without enough white space in our lives, we can lose ourselves. And we can lose ourselves in work, busyness, and workaholism.

2. We can lose ourselves in addiction to success or admiration.

The desperate pursuit of success—often fueled by our fragile or wounded ego or by our desire to please demanding parents—can take us away from ourselves. As we get caught up in our desired image, or in the prestige we seek, we can drift away from our core, from who we really are and what we value.

We can get so caught up in the chase that we compromise our authenticity or values on the way to the top. And we can get so driven that we lose sight of the people we love or the things that capture our hearts. We can lose our artistry and uniqueness. Or we can become success robots, dutifully following social programming instead of pursuing our calling.

“As we become more obsessed with succeeding… we lose touch with our souls and disappear into our roles. The child with a harmless after-school secret becomes the masked and armored adult—at considerable cost to self, to others, and to the world at large.” -Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness

3. We can lose ourselves in trying to please others and be liked

We all want others to like us (except for sociopaths). It’s part of our hardwiring, because there’s safety and comfort in groups, in belonging. But when taken too far, it becomes “people pleasing.”

We get stretched thin and lose track of our own needs, aspirations, and health. It’s exhausting to be in perpetual pursuit of the favorable opinions of others, especially when the reality is that most of those people are likely caught up in their own challenges and concerns.

“Don’t lose yourself trying to be everything to everyone.” -Tony Gaskins

4. We can lose ourselves in trying to be perfect.

The perfectionism trap is a common one. When caught up in it, we’re overly critical of ourselves and preoccupied with looking good to others. We assume that flawlessness is the only route to peace, but we’re actually waging war on ourselves because that standard is impossible to reach.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

5. We can lose ourselves by accepting the cultural programming we received as children.

Mindlessly accepting the worldview of our parents or the paradigm of our peers can also lead to losing ourselves. It’s easy to lead our lives around notions engrained in us early on, such as:

  • Life is a competition.
  • Life is a zero-sum game.
  • Everything in the world is winner-take-all.
  • We can’t trust anyone.
  • Life is struggle, and we must fight and grind constantly.
  • We must keep pushing and never stop to rest.
  • We’re worthless.
  • We are not worthy of love and respect.
  • We’re only as good as our achievements.
  • We deserve the bad things that happen to us.
  • Money is everything.
  • Success is everything.

There may be kernels of truth in some of these notions, but we’re all different and on different paths in different times and places. We’re wise to question those ideas and develop our own worldview based on our own experience and intuition.

6. We can lose ourselves when we follow the default option in front of us.

We should ask ourselves a question before jumping into a new project or assignment:

Do we really want it?

We should be wary of the call of the conventional path, the pull of the prestige magnet, the inclination toward conformity, the trap of caring too much what others think, and the Siren call of contorting ourselves to meet the expectations of others.

For example, must passionate and gifted teachers accept a promotion to school administration because others think they’d be crazy not to? Should we all go for the next standard career advancement, regardless of its fit with who we are and what we want or its suitability for the season of life we’re in?

7. We can lose ourselves in a relationship.

We’re so afraid of loneliness—with its longing and its stigma—that we can subsume ourselves to the needs or whims of another.

When we do so, we effectively become a passenger on someone else’s ship.

 

When Losing Ourselves Is a Good Thing

It’s important to be clear and precise here. While losing ourselves can be a painful trap to fall into, there are certain versions of losing ourselves that are good.

When talking about the trap of losing ourselves, we’re not talking about losing ourselves in:

  • a larger cause or in service to others
  • our passions and the things we love
  • a grand adventure
  • an experience of awe 
  • a state of flow in which we experience complete absorption in what we’re doing and lose track of time

And we’re not talking about the normal adjustments and compromises we can and should make in a healthy relationship, with its natural give-and-take.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you losing yourself—in work and busyness, addiction to success, pleasing others, trying to be or appear perfect, accepting your cultural programming, following default options, or a relationship?
  2. What will you do, starting today, to bring more of yourself back into your life—to be you unapologetically?

 

Related Traps

The trap of losing ourselves is related to several of the other common traps of living, including:

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Postscript: Inspirations

  • “…the longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve lost what’s inside me—and ended up empty.” -Haruki Murakami
  • “When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “There is vitality, a life force, energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” -Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life
  • “Once you don’t have freedom and you’re obliged to do many things you don’t want, and it becomes a routine, then your identity is at stake because you can feel that you are not anymore yourself, that you are what they want you to be—and you can lose yourself.” -Ingrid Betancourt
  • “It’s great if you can help others, but seriously don’t lose yourself in the process!” -Karen Gibbs
  • “Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But being active is still wasting one’s time, if in doing one loses oneself. Today is a resting time, and my heart goes off in search of itself.” -Albert Camus
  • “Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. ‘Finding yourself’ is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.” -Emily McDowell

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or subscribe to his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why We Stay in Bad Jobs Too Long

The covid-19 pandemic has raised big questions about the way we live and work. Amidst the turmoil, we’re wise to take a fresh look at our work and consider whether changes are in order.

With the “Great Resignation,” it’s quite clear that many of us have been dissatisfied with our jobs, with millions quitting each month. The trend looks set to continue, especially among younger workers. According to a 2022 LinkedIn study of more than 20,000 U.S. workers, 25% of Gen Zers and 23% of Millennials reported hoping or planning to leave their current employers within the next six months.

Many have fallen into the trap of staying in a bad job too long. If we’re privileged enough to have choices, the questions may arise:

Should I stay or should I go?

How to decide?

 

Why We Stay in Bad Jobs Too Long

There are many reasons we tend to stay in bad jobs too long. For example, we can be:

  • afraid of the unknown
  • unclear about what we want in a new job, what other job to apply for, or career to transition into
  • worried how it will look on our resume if we leave our job too soon*
  • hoping the current job will get better, despite strong signs to the contrary
  • reluctant to give up the money, security, or prestige associated with our current job
  • dreading the job-search process, with its stress and emotional toll
  • afraid the next job will be worse, or have a longer commute, or less flexibility
  • wanting a new job lined up before leaving this one
  • worried that we don’t have the right skills for a better job
  • concerned that our network isn’t strong enough to help land a new job
  • worried about what others will think
  • afraid of being viewed as disloyal to current colleagues
  • good at rationalizing our current situation with logical reasons, even if they’re false or forced
  • living paycheck to paycheck, or too deep in debt, so unable to handle a transition period
  • not confident enough in our ability to find a better job soon
  • concerned about the hassle of adjusting to a new boss, colleagues, and workplace
  • accepting other people’s definition of success instead of our own
  • concerned that the new job will be even more stressful
  • worried about the lack of good job opportunities in this industry

Often, we have many of these concerns simultaneously, and it’s enough to keep us locked in place. It’s hard to make the leap when we’re comparing all the “knowns” of our current job with all the unknowns of what may or may not arise in our future if we attempt a change.

 

What Makes a Job Bad (or Not a Good Fit)

All jobs come with pluses and minuses. For starters, they allow us to put food on the table and support our lifestyle or family. We may not be in a position to be picky when it comes to our basic financial needs, and we may have a lot invested in our current work with our relationships, routines, and identity.

But in many cases, we have more choices and agency than we might think. Given all that we contribute to a workplace, it’s fair to assess whether they’re holding up their end of the bargain. In many cases, they’re not.

There are many signs of a bad (or mediocre) job—or a job that may no longer be a good fit. Here are 17 such signs:

  1. Bad, dishonest, or unreliable manager
  2. Low or no trust among colleagues
  3. Poor or toxic work culture
  4. Unethical workplace
  5. Lack of affinity for the work
  6. No room for growth or upward mobility
  7. Lack of recognition for efforts and accomplishments
  8. Poor work-life balance
  9. Lack of challenge, learning, growth, and development
  10. Unfair treatment
  11. Not enough care for workers and their health, wellbeing, or situation
  12. Poor or unfair compensation and benefits
  13. Workplace that’s not sufficiently diverse or equitable
  14. Missing a sense of inclusion and belonging
  15. Culture of burnout
  16. Lack purpose and meaning at work
  17. Poor fit with our personal values

 

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

The Surprising Downsides of Staying in a Job Too Long

While it may be obvious that we shouldn’t stay in a bad job too long, there are also potential downsides to staying in any job too long, according to some employers. It can be a:

  • sign of complacency or a lack of drive and ambition
  • indication that our professional development has stalled
  • sign that our network isn’t as strong as it should be
  • indication that we’re not as dynamic, adaptable, and entrepreneurial as we could be (that we’ve been institutionalized)
“There are a lot of positive connotations about longevity in a role, but there is a fair degree of negativity as well,” Jamie McLaughlin, CEO, Monday Talent

In addition, staying in a job too long can harm our earning potential. An ADP survey this year revealed that people who switched jobs saw, on average, close to 2% more annual wage growth than their former colleagues who stayed in their jobs.

In some industries, workers received a pay increase of nearly 12%, on average. According to the Conference Board, 20% of people who changed jobs during the pandemic received a 10% to 20% pay increase, and nearly a third of those surveyed earned over 30% more than they made previously. In the U.K., job changers also saw higher earnings growth.

Lauren Thomas, a European economist at Glassdoor, notes that workers often job-hop because of their frustration with slow internal processes at their organization. “Moving to a new job can be a faster and easier way to progress to the next level in a career,” she says. “Job-hopping is one of the easiest ways to gain a significant salary increase. While staying for a long time in the same role can result in below-market pay, finding a new job usually means instantly receiving the market rate.”

Of course, job duration naturally varies not only by individual circumstances and preferences but also by profession and industry. Tech startups and creative agencies, for example, are likely to experience rapid turnover, while law firms, accounting firms, and consulting firms often have some young professionals on a decade-plus march toward achieving partner status while others choose to leave earlier—or get pushed out.

“Unless I really enjoy the role, I don’t see the point in staying for years just for the sake of it. If I can find more fulfilling work and effectively gain a promotion elsewhere, then how long I’ve stayed at a company shouldn’t matter.” -Anna, 29 (cited in a recent BBC article)

 

Conclusion

Consider re-evaluating your job regularly (e.g., every year or two) to see if it’s still a good fit for you (not only for salary and benefits but also learning, growth, purpose, development, challenge, fun, stage of life, and overall fit). Why not look at what else is out there? Keep your options open.

Also, consider changes you can make at your current job before assuming you must get a new one. It’s often wise to work on improving your current job in parallel with looking for potential new ones.

Most of all, though, stop drifting through your career and don’t settle.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Wondering whether it’s time to make a job or career change?
  2. How long have you had these concerns? And how intense are they?
  3. Have you looked at your reasons for staying and whether they stand up to further scrutiny?
  4. How much thought and effort have you put into improving your current job?

 

Related Traps

Other traps related to saying in a bad job too long include:

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Job Choices and Changes

  • “Every worker needs to escape the wrong job.” -Peter Drucker
  • “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” -Warren Buffett
  • “So many of us choose our paths in life out of fear disguised as practicality.” -Jim Carrey
  • “I don’t have a problem with what you do, that’s your choice. What I have a problem with is you lying to yourself about why you’re doing the things you’re doing. You have a choice.” -Jerry Colonna
  • “Work can provide the opportunity for spiritual and personal, as well as financial, growth. If it doesn’t, we are wasting far too much of our lives on it.” -James A. Autry
  • “The one thing you need to know about sustained individual success: Discover what you don’t like doing and stop doing it.” -Marcus Buckingham
  • “Go to work for an organization or people you admire. It will turn you on. You ought to be happy where you are working. I always worry about people who say ‘I’m going to do this for 10 years’ and ‘I’m going to do 10 more years of this.’ That’s a little like saving sex for your old age. Not a very good idea. Get right into what you enjoy.” -Warren Buffett
  • “There is a time of departure even when there’s no clear place to go.” -Tennessee Williams
  • “You don’t have to quit your job to follow your dream. The safest way to pursue your dream is to launch it as a side hustle, and test and learn until you figure out what works. As your knowledge and skills evolve, your passion and purpose can too.” -Adam Grant

* A general rule of thumb is to wait about two years before changing jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The median number of years that wage and salary workers had been with their current employer was 4.1 years in January 2020.”

Featured image source: iStock.

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+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Problem with Lack of Focus—And How to Fix It

Article Summary

These days, we’re bombarded with digital distractions, and it’s detracting from our ability to get things done, our leadership effectiveness, and our quality of life. This article notes 15 of the most important benefits of focus and provides 24 actionable strategies for developing and maintaining our focus.

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

These days it feels like the world is dead-set against our having focus. We’re bombarded with digital distractions. There are near-constant requests for our attention, many driven by algorithms that have cracked the code on hijacking it.

So we struggle with overload and overwhelm. Our concentration is fragmented. We check our phones constantly.

In such a hostile environment, it’s exceedingly difficult for us to focus. But that’s a disaster, not only for our work productivity but also for our quality of life.

Focus is a complex cognitive phenomenon.* For our purposes here, it entails two main abilities:

  1. our ability to concentrate on something in front of us (such as an article or a person talking), channeling our full attention to it without distraction
  2. our ability to concentrate attention or effort on the most pressing needs out of an array of possibilities (such as our top priorities)

Think of a laser. Is our effort focused like a laser on what truly matters, or getting dispersed into a random assortment of tasks?

In today’s world of digital distraction, both levels of focus are in jeopardy. We see it in the data.

 

Unfocused Leaders

According to a survey of more than 35,000 leaders from thousands of companies across 100-plus countries, 73% of them reported feeling distracted from their current task some or most of the time. What’s more, 67% of leaders described their minds as cluttered.

The biggest sources of distraction for these leaders were:

  • demands of other people (26%)
  • competing priorities (25%)
  • general distractions (13%)
  • too big of a workload (12%)

Nearly all the leaders surveyed (96%) indicated that enhanced focus would be valuable or extremely valuable to them. The researchers concluded:

The ability to apply a calm, clear focus to the right tasks—at the right time, in the right way—is the key to exceptional results….
we have observed a direct correlation between a person’s focus level and their career advancement.”
-Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter**

According to research from Dr. Glenn Wilson at London’s Institute of Psychiatry, we pay a high price for the persistent interruptions and distractions we encounter. Here’s a summary of the findings written up in The Guardian:

Those distracted by emails and phone calls saw a ten-point fall in their IQ, twice that found in studies on the impact of smoking marijuana. More than half of the 1,100 participants said they always responded to an email immediately or as soon as possible,
while 21% admitted they would interrupt a meeting to do so. Constant interruptions can have the same effect as the loss of a night’s sleep.
” (Source: Harriet Griffey, “The Lost Art of Concentation,” The Guardian, October 14, 2018.)

In our age of skimming, scrolling, and swiping, some of us may be losing the ability to read books or study articles for more than a few minutes. Isn’t technology supposed to enrich our lives, not degrade them? We must avoid the sorry fate of becoming slaves to our machines.

A primary task of leadership is to direct attention. To do so, leaders must learn to focus their own attention….
Attention is the basis of the most essential of leadership skills—emotional, organizational, and strategic intelligence.
And never has it been under greater assault….” -Daniel Goleman

 

The Problem with Lack of Focus

We pay a price for our diminished ability to concentrate on the things in front of us and to concentrate effort on our most pressing needs.

When we’re not focused, we’re:

  • reading something over and over but not absorbing it
  • listening to people but having our mind wander so we don’t take their words in
  • zoning out in meetings or lectures
  • more likely to fall behind, causing stress and anxiety
  • busy all the time—busy, busy, busy
  • stressed, with stress hormones like cortisol overwhelming calming and feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine
  • dealing with repetitive, intrusive thoughts that we struggle to let go
  • tired and depleted
  • overworked and overwhelmed
  • not making significant progress on our most important tasks
  • jumping from task to task, flying around frenetically
  • beholden to working on things that are other people’s priorities, whatever is easiest in the moment, or whatever appears before us as we check emails and respond
  • constantly putting out fires (which is exhausting for us and chaotic and frustrating for those around us)
  • frequently switching between tasks (a big problem, since our brains can’t transition seamlessly across tasks; there’s a major delay and a cost in terms of our energy)
  • working on things that should be done by others or that should be automated
  • doing things that shouldn’t be done at all (the worst of all)

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Benefits of Focus

By contrast, there are many benefits when we cultivate our ability to focus and prioritize. Here are the most important benefits:

  1. better work quality
  2. higher productivity
  3. better decision-making
  4. enhanced ability to pursue goals intensely
  5. improved cognitive flexibility, allowing us to resist distractions and shift our focus away from unproductive things
  6. greater mental efficiency, since we’re not wasting valuable mental energy on distractions
  7. better time management
  8. full presence in the moment
  9. better capacity for learning
  10. enhanced creativity
  11. less stress
  12. help with managing harmful or unproductive thoughts and emotions
  13. improved ability to develop strong social relationships and empathize with others (by focusing on their point of view as well as our own)
  14. enhanced ability to remain calm under pressure and to recover from setbacks
  15. creation of mental stillness, allowing us to hear our inner voice and pay attention to our gut feelings, which can be critical in wise decision-making

 

How to Develop Our Focus: Strategies and Approaches

So how do we develop our focus? Here are 24 actionable strategies and approaches:

  1. Observe our daily rhythms, including best and worst times for focused work as well as energy levels at different times and on different tasks. Then design our work and schedule to capture our greatest attention, energy, and focus.
  2. Take regular breaks, recognizing that our brains can’t focus all the time and that we need to toggle between focus and rest. (When we do so, we’re able to focus much better when we return from rest, according to the research.)
  3. Practice self-care, including good sleep habits (regular bedtimes, caffeine and device curfews, etc.), eating and hydration habits, and exercise habits to reduce stress and produce energy.
  4. Minimize interruptions and eliminate distractions. (Tip: turn off smartphone notifications and place the device outside the room when working.)
  5. Develop simple rules to maximize time in deep work (e.g., never check email before noon or another time that works for you).
  6. Engage our senses when we’re doing deep work (e.g., lighting a scented candle, playing classical music in the background, or working in a room with a beautiful design or view).
  7. Focus on one task at a time and avoid frequent task-switching, since we waste time regrouping and trying to recover our original flow when we switch tasks.
  8. Design our work for “flow.”
  9. Practice doing things that require concentration, such as reading books or playing games that requires mental focus.
  10. Engage in deep breathing and practice meditation.
  11. Reduce anxiety, stress, and negative self-talk.
  12. Develop clarity on what’s most important.
  13. Determine which tasks will make the highest possible contribution toward our most important aims.
  14. Clear the decks so we can focus on our most essential task for extended periods.
  15. Reduce or eliminate non-essential tasks. (Consider using a “stop doing list” or a “drop list.”)
  16. Schedule the most important tasks and impose deadlines on them. (Tip: be generous in the amount of time given for completion, as we tend to underestimate the time it will take, causing unhelpful stress.)
  17. Learn how to say “no” more often and more easily, especially to things that don’t fit with our top priorities.***
  18. Avoid “sunk cost bias” by asking if we weren’t invested in this already, how much would we invest in it now (with time, resources, etc.)—and considering what else could be done with our time or money.
  19. Get better at cutting our losses, recognizing that it’s a necessary and important part of life
  20. Systematically measure our progress on our most important tasks. (Getting feedback on progress helps maintain our attention.)
  21. Stop focusing so much on results and focus more on deep engagement with the process of doing things that matter (e.g., less focus on our target weight and more focus on the strategies we can learn for healthy eating, sleeping, moving, etc.).
  22. Experiment with different schedules that help us focus better (e.g., themed days, such as a Monday planning day, Tuesday prospecting day, Wednesday writing day, etc.). Or half-days.
  23. Be more disciplined in committing to one thing at a time, as opposed to having to divide our attention across multiple things.
  24. Make a “Done for the Day” list each morning—a list of what would constitute essential progress and that’s reasonable for a single day. (Source: Greg McKeown in Effortless.)

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Tools that Can Help with Focus

Beyond the strategies and approaches noted above, there are also many tools and frameworks that can help with focus and prioritization. Below are several of them:

1. Eisenhower Decision Matrix (a.k.a., Urgent-Important Matrix): distinguish between tasks that are urgent (time-sensitive, demanding immediate attention) and important (contributing to our long-term purpose and vision), using a simple matrix.

2. Warren Buffett’s Two Lists: write down our top 25 goals, then circle our five highest priorities from that larger list, and then only focus on the top five—“avoiding at all costs,” as Buffett says, working on the other 20.

3. Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, and without moving to the next task until the current one is complete.

4. Brian Tracy’s “Eat the Frog” method: identify one challenging and important task (the metaphorical frog) and complete it first thing in the morning. The logic:

The hardest part of any important task is getting started on it in the first place.
Once you actually begin work on a valuable task, you seem to be naturally motivated to continue….
The most valuable tasks you can do each day are often the hardest and most complex.
But the payoff and rewards for completing these tasks efficiently can be tremendous.
-Brian Tracy

Related Books

Since so many of us struggle with the challenge of staying focused in our world of constant distractions, it’s good that we have many excellent resources. Below are two helpful books that address the root causes of the problems, with select quotations from the books as well:

Essentialism (by Gregory McKeown):

  • “Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”
  • “The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better.”
  • “Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either.”
  • “Remember that if you don’t prioritize your life someone else will.”
  • “Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.”
  • “The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.” -Gregory McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Deep Work (by Cal Newport):

  • “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. The few who cultivate this skill and make it the core of their working life will thrive.”
  • “To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.”
  • “Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking.”
  • “Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”
  • “What we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore—plays in defining the quality of our life.”
  • “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”
  • “To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.” -Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you struggling with concentrating on the things in front of you without distraction?
  2. Are you struggling with concentrating your effort on your most important tasks?
  3. Which focus and prioritization strategies and tools work best for you?
  4. Which new ones will you try, starting today?

Postscript: Inspirations on Focus and Prioritization

  • “If there is any one secret of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.” -Peter Drucker
  • “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” -Alexander Graham Bell
  • “The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.” -Lin Yutang
  • “Learn to master your attention, and you will be in command of where you, and your organization, focus.” -Daniel Goleman
  • “Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives.” -Tony Robbins
  • “I don’t care how much power, brilliance or energy you have, if you don’t harness it and focus it on a specific target, and hold it there you’re never going to accomplish as much as your ability warrants.” -Zig Ziglar
  • “If you don’t guard your time, people will steal it from you.” -Pedro Sorrentino, investor
  • “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.” -Steve Jobs
  • “Every time we say yes to a request, we are also saying no to anything else we might accomplish with the time.” -Tim Harford, economist
  • “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” -Peter Drucker
  • “Without focus, you can never achieve anything.” -Eric Phillips
  • “What you stay focused on will grow.” -Roy T. Bennett
  • “Where your attention goes, your time goes.” -Idowu Koyenikan
  • “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life!” -Christian Missionary Review, 1902
  • “Half the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quicly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings
  • “Focus is not a zero-sum game. Focus can be trained and planned. And with a bit of effort, your focus can be sustained throughout the day.” -Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter
  • “Focused leaders can command the full range of their own attention: They are in touch with their inner feelings, they can control their impulses, they are aware of how others see them, they understand what others need from them, they can weed out distractions and also allow their minds to roam widely, free of preconceptions.” -Daniel Goleman
  • “My role does not allow for a lack of focus. I can’t afford to be distracted. I must be on point. I have trained my focus while at work for 15 years, moment-to-moment. I feel the brain is like a muscle, and I exercise it all the time.” -Jean-Francois van Boxmeer, CEO of Heineken

Notes:
* Mental processes related to focus include:

  • cognitive control (placing our attention where we want it and keeping it there despite distractions or temptations to focus elsewhere)
  • selective attention (focusing on certain stimuli selectively when several occur simultaneously, such as focusing on one person’s voice in a crowded room)
  • open awareness (our attention is open and remains aware of everything that’s happening around us, instead of concentrating on one thing)

** Source: Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, “Are You Having Trouble Focusing? These Simple Strategies Will Help,” Harvard Business Blogs, December 26, 2017.

*** McKeown suggests saying “yes” only to the top 10% of opportunities we encounter, in part by using rigorous criteria for giving assent, such as whether the opportunity is exactly what we’re looking for. If it’s not a clear “yes,” it becomes a clear “no.”

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!
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