Golden Handcuffs: Stuck in a Job You Don’t Like?

two hands in golden handcuffs

Stuck in a job you don’t like? Enduring it? Too often, we do it for the money, the security, or the prestige, but not for its intrinsic value. We stick it out, trapped by golden handcuffs.

Golden handcuffs are financial incentives designed to keep workers at an organization. We may long to leave a job and set out on a new adventure, but the thought of giving up the salary, bonus, or other perks makes us stay.

It helps to view it from our own perspective. Sometimes the golden handcuffs are self-imposed. They can come in the form of lifestyle choices (regarding possessions and consumption) that inhibit us from doing what we want with our life. We become financially tethered to a job that’s not a good fit.

There’s nothing wrong with money, or making a lot of it, or enjoying the fruits of our hard work. The problem comes when we’re chained to a job we don’t like and sacrifice our quality of life for huge swaths of time. When we’re stuck with a manager we don’t respect or can’t stand. Or at an organization with a poor culture, or toxic employees. When we’re stressed or burned out but feel trapped.

We may feel stuck due to our fear of the unknown. Or we fear a loss of status, or the judgment of others if we make a change.

What’s Really Going On

These decisions have many factors. We have expenses. There are things we want to do in life, and they cost money. We have bills to pay. We have a family to feed, or trips we’ve been dreaming of, or kids’ college and retirement to save for. Fair enough.

But we rationalize. We accept other people’s definition of success and live on their terms instead of our own. We make big decisions based on the assumption that success is the point of life—or that status will give us what we want.

In many cases, the problem is compounded by overconsumption and “lifestyle creep”: when our expenses or spending go up as our discretionary income increases.

Too many of us are living paycheck to paycheck (54% of U.S. consumers, according to recent data). According to a 2021 CNBC report, the average American has $90,460 in debt. People want that bigger house, that nicer car, that better neighborhood. They struggle to keep up with mortgage payments, car loans, credit card debt, student loans, and more.

Related Traps

There are many reasons we may be stuck in golden handcuffs. Our life and work choices are complex. Related traps include:

  • Climbing mode: focusing so much on climbing the ladder of success, and on achievement and advancement, that we never take time for discovering who we are, what we love, and what we long to do in the world
  • Conform: conforming to societal conventions or conventional paths instead of blazing our own path in life
  • Ego: being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves
  • Emptiness: feeling empty about what we’re doing
  • Outer-driven: being driven by the expectations of others
  • Prestige: hunger for status, prestige, or approval
  • Hedonic treadmill”: the tendency to remain at a set level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of goals
  • The Comparison Game: constantly comparing ourselves to others and judging our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics
  • False Metrics of Success: measuring success in cold and calculating ways, such as income, net worth, position, power, or number of followers

What to Do about It

OK, we know that golden handcuffs can be a big problem. What to do about it?

First, reduce spending and start saving to free up some margin in your life. https://greggvanourek.com/do-you-have-margin/

“Do not save what is left after spending; instead spend what is left after saving.”Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

Second, build up not only your emergency fund but also your cash runway for when you want or need to make a work change. When Seth Goldman was a young professional working in finance, he was “living lean” and driving an old car and foregoing the amenities that his friends were spending a lot of money on. By doing so, he was able to give himself a much longer runway when he decided to take the entrepreneurial leap and start his company, Honest Tea.

Third, invest in yourself—in your knowledge and skills, and in your network. Such an investment pays the biggest dividends over time.

Fourth, go out and do some “life design interviews”: find people you admire who do work that interests you and ask them about their career path and life trajectory, including what they do and how they got there.

Fifth, spend time with new people in the fields you’re interested in exploring—learning new things and adopting new mindsets. Sometimes the people in our current situation are the ones holding us back.

Sixth, recognize that the career design and change process is usually messy and iterative, not a quick and clear process. Get curious and active. Embrace the transition process with all its possibilities and mysteries—including the possibility of recrafting your current work to be a better fit and a source of meaning and fulfillment as well as income.

Seventh, play it smart—with a healthy balance between wisdom and urgency. Don’t jump off a financial cliff. Invest thought and time in a smart process. At the same time, don’t wait too long. (The more common mistake is waiting too long—or never making a change—not moving too quickly.)

Finally, once you’ve decided your new direction, be bold and take massive action. Be flexible with approach, since reality rarely lines up with our plans, but show faith in your convictions.

Work comprises a huge part of your life. Why not craft it according to your values and aspirations?

Reflection Questions

  • Are you trapped by golden handcuffs?
  • If so, how long have you been in this trap?
  • What will you do about it, starting today?

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership, success, golden handcuffs, career, career design.

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Postscript: Inspirations for Escaping the Golden Handcuffs

  • “It’s better to fail trying to do what you really care about than to succeed at something else.” -Mark Albion
  • “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
  • “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
  • “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
  • “Every worker needs to escape the wrong job.” -Peter Drucker
  • “Money sometimes costs too much.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “In our time, we workers are being called to reexamine our work: how we do it; whom it is helping or hurting; what it is we do; and what we might be doing if we were to let go of our present work and follow a deeper call.” -Matthew Fox
  • “For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if you just improve the socio-economic status of people, everything will be OK, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” -Victor Frankl
  • “And then there is the most dangerous risk of all—the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” -Randy Komisar

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives  (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Are You Trapped by Success?

success trap--man on a hamster wheel

Are you trapped by success? It’s an odd question. How can success be a trap? Is that even possible?

Turns out it can be a big trap. Below are 15 quick ways.

1. Addicted to Success

In a culture that worships success, we can become obsessed by it. It can consume most of our waking hours, and most of our waking thoughts. It can become a compulsive drive. We can build our lives around the pursuit of success. But what is success, actually? Have we taken the time to define what it means for us, in our current chapter of life, based on our own values?

2. Success Can Lead to Overwork

The pursuit of success can become all-consuming. It can cause us to be busy all the time, with a perpetual deficit of downtime. We never feel fully rested and renewed. We start losing our perspective and our resilience. We get run down and, ironically, start to lose our motivation and productivity.

3. The More We Aim for It, The More Elusive It Becomes

Some things in life aren’t exactly logical and linear. It’s not a matter of inputs in leading to inputs out. Some things don’t respond to sheer willpower or muscle. Some things in life are more nuanced.

We can’t force a baby kitten to feel comfortable with us. We can’t force someone to love us, no matter how hard we try. In fact, it may push them away. If we go bounding into the woods seeking wild game, they may never appear unless we sit quietly for a while and let them come to us in their own time. We can’t force happiness, at least the real kind. There’s a difference between a real smile that comes when we see an old friend after a long time apart and a forced smile that everyone can tell is fake.

Success will likely elude us if we’re too focused on it. Rather, it’s something that ensues when we get our life in order, when we’re clear about who we are and act accordingly—letting go of the trappings of false influences. Of course, success usually requires focus and hard work. But it’s best when we get lost in our work because we love the process itself and how it makes us feel while we’re doing it, not because we’re set on some arbitrarily created result with factors well beyond our control.

4. Locked into the Wrong Thing

What if the one thing that we excelled at isn’t right for us? What if we’re destined for something more, or something different? When did we make that decision about our career path, and on what basis and with what practical experience about what it actually entailed? Too often, it’s when we’re too young to make sound decisions, and we panic and play the short game or become overwhelmed by all the options.

5. Stuck in One Phase of Life

Perhaps we’re changing, with new interests emerging, but how could we possibly abandon the things that took us to the top? So we stick it out. We don’t grow and evolve into new challenges and opportunities better suited to our current circumstances. We flounder.

6. Never Feeling Successful Enough

There’s this illusion that once we become successful, then we’ll feel happy. But it’s often not the case. There are many “successful” people who are unsatisfied or even miserable. Many reach one goal, enjoy it for a while (literally a few days), only to then start focusing on the next goal, and the next one, ad infinitum. The happiness never arrives, because there are always new goals out there and higher levels of success, achievement, recognition, or wealth. Researchers call this the “hedonic treadmill”: the tendency to remain at a stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of goals. We rapidly adapt to the new circumstances and simply increase our aspirations. We get tripped up by social comparison among a new class of people, perpetually raising the expectations.

7. Resistance to Being Imperfect

Success comes with lots of perks, from wealth and power to comfort and prestige. But it can also make us feel like we need to be perfect. Otherwise, how can we be worthy of success? We fear making mistakes or being wrong in front of others, lest they start to question our worthiness. So we harbor a secret terror of being discovered as a fraud or of letting our imperfect humanity come through. We wear a mask of projected perfection and total confidence, secretly hoping that people can’t see through it. It’s exhausting. Nobody’s perfect. We can’t always be on, and right, and put-together. In this charade, we miss out on what Brene Brown calls “the gifts of imperfection,” including authenticity, self-compassion, connection, intimacy, and more.

8. The Burden of Success

Yes, success has its privileges. But it can also feel like we’re walking around with a hundred pounds of bricks on our backs. We carry the pressures, the expectations, the demands, the effort, the work. Life can start to feel like a burden we must bear.

9. The Illusion of Circumstances

As we chase success, it can feed into a trick our minds play on us, the illusion that the quality of our circumstances determines the quality of our lives. It’s such a pervasive belief that we can go through our whole lives without ever pausing to question it. The logic goes like this: When we’re successful and things are going well, we feel good and we’re happy. When we’re unsuccessful or in pain, uncomfortable, or facing a challenge (ourselves, or for our loved ones), we feel bad and unhappy.

The truth is that we can feel good even when our circumstances are bad. We can return to our values and sense of purpose. We can revisit our personal history and what makes us who we are. We can remain grateful for all that we have and have had. We can stand still in awe of the gifts of life even when things are tough. We can be unflappable in the storms that are a natural part of life. We don’t have to let our thoughts spiral down with our circumstances.

10. The Myth that Success Is the Point of Life

The belief that success is the point of life is another mental trick that we can go through life without questioning. The point is to climb the ladder of success, right? To win the game, right? To be the best, or to achieve success, right? Not so fast.

Aren’t there more important things than achieving success and winning? What about love and our precious relationships? What about contributing to something greater than ourselves, to our family, our community, our world, or a worthy cause? What about character and integrity? What about our faith, or spiritual practice, or connection with something deeper and more significant than points on a scoreboard or zeros in our bank account? Yes, we can do great things on a quest for success, but is that really the point of it all?

11. Success Can Take Us Away from Ourselves

As we get caught up in the image, in the prestige, in the chase, 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 integrity on the way to the top. We can get so driven that we lose sight of the things that capture our hearts. We can lose our artistry and our soul. We can become success robots, following social programming instead of pursuing our calling.

12. Success Can Take Us Away from Others

As we drift away from ourselves, we can also drift away from others. From our spouse or partner, because we’re so busy and have such important things we need to do. From our own children in their precious formative years or their struggling adult years, because we’re so caught up in our own stuff. From our extended family, from the friends we cherish, from our neighbors and community. We’re busy like bees, so we let our relationships suffer or die.

13. The Comparison Game

When we’re in chasing-success mode, it becomes a numbers game: How do we stack up against others in terms of salary, promotions, title, awards, fame? We start judging our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics, falling into what Father Robert Spitzer called the “comparative ethic,” instead of the “contributive ethic.”

14. The False Metrics of Success

When we take a mercenary view of success, we start measuring it in cold and calculating ways: cash, net worth, position, power, number of followers or direct reports. These may send our ego to the moon, but do they keep us warm at night and light us up? Will they hold up and stand the test of time as we look back on our lives?

15. Narrow Views of Success

Somewhere along the way we can start to view success in overly narrow terms, thinking about it in terms of professional, financial, and relative social terms—wealth, prestige, celebrity. The problem with this thinking is that, as Clayton Christensen has noted, it causes us to over-invest in our career while under-investing in our health, family, friends, community, spirituality (or mindfulness), and fun.

Reflection Questions

  • Are you trapped by success—or caught up too much in the chase?
  • Which of the traps above resonated most with you?
  • What will you do about it, starting today?

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self leadership, success.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives  (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his monthly newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

The Conformity Trap

One of the biggest traps we face as we make decisions about life and work is the trap of conforming to societal expectations or conventional paths instead of blazing our own path in life.

Conformity entails behaving in ways similar to others or according to their wishes instead of relying on our own judgment or preferences. We see this all time. We tend to mirror the body language and communication styles of our peer groups.

Our penchant for conformity comes from a strong desire to fit in with the group. It can be conscious or unconscious, and it doesn’t require overt pressure. The pressures can be indirect and subtle yet still powerful (or even misperceived—manufactured by our anxious brains).

As humans, we feel a strong, almost primal need to be accepted and viewed favorably by others. It’s a powerful urge baked into our biology, presumably because we found safety in the group that helped us survive despite all the risks we’ve faced over the ages, most of which are more pronounced and dangerous when we’re alone.

Willing to Go Along

To see how powerful the effects of conformity are, consider the classic experiment by Dr. Solomon Asch, a Polish social psychology researcher, who gave people cards with lines of different lengths on them and had them judge which line was the same length as the target line. When people were tested individually, the success rate was of course near perfect (99%). It was a no-brainer. People could see the lines right in front of them with their own eyes.

But when people were tested in a group setting and there were secret people planted in the experimental group who were instructed by the researchers to give wrong answers, it caused many subjects of the experiment to ignore what they saw with their own eyes.

Overall, they agreed with the wrong answer from the majority about the length of the lines a whopping 37% of the time. So the error rate went from 1% to 37% on a simple and obvious task due to group influences. The point is not that their vision was altered but rather that they were willing to go along with something they clearly knew wasn’t right to remain accepted and in agreement with the group.

Excellent Sheep

“They’re anxious, timid, and lost… heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it. They’re violently averse to risk as a product of being shackled by their academic success.” -William Deresiewicz

In his book, Excellent Sheep, teacher and author William Deresiewicz describes how this problem shows up in elite universities. He heard the term “excellent sheep” from one of his students. It describes a phenomenon in which students “feel toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression,” are in a “constant state of competition,” feel a need for “compulsive overachievement,” go through “endless hoop-jumping,” and are loaded up with schoolwork and extracurriculars and stressed out and miserable most of the time.

The result: a stunning amount of them end up going into the same well paying, high-status, professional careers, dutifully following the herd and the wishes of their shepherds. Yes, problems of privilege, but still problems.

Consider the response of a former student of mine when asked in survey about top challenges faced:

“We feel the pressure of achieving high grades in school, having a job, doing extracurricular work such as volunteering to build up a CV, having a social life, and exercise—all at the same time. Social media makes it seem as if everyone is totally capable of juggling twenty balls at once, emphasizing only positive experiences. Nowadays, the only thing that is important is ‘measurable’ success. Anything you cannot put on your CV or on social media doesn’t count anymore…. Because of all these measurements, I feel like I am only extrinsically motivated. And I don’t want that. I want to be intrinsically motivated and block out everything that others or society expect of me—but do the things that I want to do because I value them.”

The Problem with Conformity

“Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable. You want to be able to do what you want to do in life.” –Janet Wojcicki, professor, University of California at San Francisco

The problem is that this conformity urge can interfere with our ability to make good decisions—decisions that keep us safe or that leave our character intact.

Bronnie Ware identified the “top regrets of the dying” after years of work as a palliative nurse caring for people in the final weeks and days of their lives. The top regret she noted was this:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

These conformity and pressure patterns start early and continue with great momentum throughout our lives. Common examples during adolescence include pressure to do the following to fit in:

  • bullying, racist, or sexist behavior (going along with it or looking the other way)
  • casual sex
  • alcohol or drugs
  • ditching school or vandalism
  • cheating and cutting corners (according to researchers, we’re more likely to engage in unethical behavior when we see others succeed at it)
  • feeling that our parents will only be satisfied if we do what they want us to do, regardless of what we want, and following their preferences toward safer and more lucrative and prestigious careers (note also that they may have felt similar pressures from their parents, and so on, in some sort of endless family loop; making things worse, we’re conflicted because we love our parents and don’t want to disappoint them but we also want to find our own path in life).

Consider this message from another former student:

“I am facing a few obstacles at the moment, and most of them are related to what is expected of me, especially by my family. I have always been a very good student at school, I got the highest grades throughout high school, I was valedictorian at my graduation, I got into a top university for my bachelor’s degree and my master’s, and I have been working full-time and part-time during my studies as well. I’ve always heard from everyone around me that I would make a great businesswoman, that I would get in to ‘any of the top companies’ I wanted. And now that I’m at that point, I don’t know if that’s the type of success that will make me the happiest…. So at the moment, my major obstacle is internal; do I risk disappointing them for not following the path they would expect me to? Or do I accept the fact that I might end up working somewhere that is not a true ‘fit’ for me to make others happy?… Another obstacle I have is internal; I don’t want to fail. And I am terrified of failing. And this fear of failure is putting limits to what I will allow myself to do…. I am scared of taking a step in the wrong direction.”

When we conform, we can lose our individuality and uniqueness. What’s more, we feel anxiety about having to maintain an image of near perfection.

It’s important to note that conformity is not all bad. We evolved with a desire for it for good reasons, and there are some benefits of it.

For example, it can make our lives simpler and easier because we don’t have to worry as much about being judged harshly by our peers. It also gives us something of a safety net we can fall into when we’re anxious.

The Second-Order Effect of Conformity

Here’s the problem that rarely gets noticed. We move through different social circles during our lives: from childhood and teen friends to early-career colleagues and neighbors, to new people we meet at work or in new places we live or visit, including our spouse or partner’s friends.

Sometimes we make decisions about work to impress certain people and fit in, but we won’t even be in touch with those people in a few years. As we age, we can be shocked by how little it matters what some of those people think, when back in those early days it felt like the weight of the world was upon us. And yet we make big decisions that are hard to change based on those often superficial and unhelpful influences.

The effects of conformity can be long-lasting and hard to unwind, given the switching costs of trying to make big changes later (like a change in career or college major).

What to Do about It

So the forces of conformity are powerful and hard to resist. What to do about it? Here are a half-dozen tips:

First, know yourself. That begins with knowing your story—and weaving it into a cohesive narrative based on the patterns you’ve seen in your life and especially drawing on your sense of purpose, values, strengths, passions, and aspirations. It also means learning from challenges, setbacks, and tragedies but not letting yourself be defined or limited by them.

Second, embrace your uniqueness as part of your identity. That way, you can explain your nonconformity with the group using your difference in a way that fits with your core identity—with who you really are.

Third, build up your courage—the courage you’ll need to resist the Siren call of conformity. How? By practicing hard things. By doing what you think you can’t. Start with something small. See how often it turns out that fears were phantoms, and that the worst cases imagined almost never materialize—and how resilient and resourceful we can be when we need to be. The good news is that, as we develop an increasing ability to withstand criticism and fight against the pressures of conformity, our confidence increases and we develop a clearer sense of our identity and uniqueness. It can turbocharge our life and work.

Fourth, find support from people who value you for your uniqueness and differences—and who don’t pressure you to fit into to conventional boxes. (And be sure to reciprocate.)

Fifth, stop spending time with people who put you in uncomfortable situations. Terminate the toxic in your life.

Sixth, and most importantly, JUST BE YOU. Stop following the crowd and blaze your own path in life. It may make the difference between a lifetime of fulfillment versus regret.

Reflection Questions

  • Are you falling into the conformity trap in areas of your life? If so, which ones?
  • How is it hurting you or holding you back?
  • What will you do about it, starting now?

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Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding the Conformity Trap

  • “Our deepest calling is to grow into our authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be.” -Parker Palmer
  • “There is nothing more genuine than breaking away from the chorus to learn the sound of your own voice.” -Po Bronson
  • “But there is something that’s a great deal more important than parental approval: learning to do without it. That’s what it means to become an adult…. You won’t be able to recognize the things you really care about until you have released your grip on all the things that you’ve been taught to care about.” -William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep
  • “To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.” -Robert Louis Stevenson
  • “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself.” -Friedrich Nietzsche
  • “Middle-status conformity leads us to choose the safety of the tried-and-true over the danger of the original.” -Adam Grant in his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
  • “Any day of the week I would choose to be ‘out’ with others and in touch with myself… than to be ‘in’ with others and out of touch with myself.” -Portia Nelson
  • “Every time you don’t follow your inner guidance, you feel a loss of energy, loss of power, a sense of spiritual deadness.” -Shakti Gawain
  • “Cowardice asks the question ‘Is it safe?’ Consensus asks the question ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks, ‘Is it right?’” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular… but because conscience tells one it is right.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his monthly newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?

Work is a big part of our lives. It’s essential to our income and security, and it can be a source of meaning and satisfaction. But there are dangers with having our identity too wrapped up in our work.

What happens if we’re laid off? Or in-between jobs? No longer able to do that kind of work? Retired? We’re vulnerable to an identity crisis and a downward spiral when the work that animates our identity disappears or changes.

“Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.” Colin Powell

For sure, there are many different types of workers out there: nine to fivers working for the weekend, side hustlers, part-timers, hybrid professionals, unemployed, underemployed, and more. The job market has been brutal for some during the pandemic, better for others. Some like or love what they do. Others despise or endure it.

Some toil away in a workaholic organizational culture. Others are trying to live up to parental expectations. Some are trapped in golden handcuffs. Others can’t stop ruminating about work situations and scenarios.

 

The Traps of Overidentification with Work

There’s nothing wrong with working hard. Or with loving or liking what we do. Or with identifying with our work.

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your f**king khakis.”Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

The problem comes when we identify too much with our work, losing other important aspects of ourselves and our lives in the process.

Problems come when we bury ourselves in busyness and overwork—when we glorify being busy and can’t slow down and shut if off (or can’t feel good when we’re not working). According to a meta-analysis of 89 studies, workaholism is related to lower physical and mental health and lower job, family, and life satisfaction. Sometimes we use overwork to avoid dealing with difficulties, disconnections, rejections, or wounds.

We get into trouble when work is all about trying to please or impress others. When we reject who we really are—abandoning our true nature and avoiding our calling.

Problems pop up when we bury ourselves in someone else’s priorities so much so that we never get to our own.

It’s nice when we get recognition, praise, or even prestige from our work, but it’s dangerous when we become dependent on those, addicted to our next hit.

It’s a problem if we feel terrible when work is going poorly, clouding everything in disappointment.

It becomes a trap when our relationship with work becomes an obsession in which we’re constantly striving and can’t switch it off—when we’re never satisfied with things as they are.

It’s trouble when our attachment to work disconnects us from meaningful relationships—from the people we love and who need us.

“…the work I’ve put between us, you know it doesn’t keep me warm.”Don Henley in “The Heart of the Matter”

It’s limiting when our current work keeps us from moving forward and trying new things, because we feel safer in the current iteration of our work and wary of venturing forth. So we avoid the uncertainty and awkwardness of the in-between periods of our lives—the ones that tend to lead to the biggest breakthroughs in growth and fulfillment after we ride out the storms of fear and doubt and stare down the unknown.

The problem is when our identity is wrapped up too much in our work, with too much emotional investment (and time). It leads to stress, anxiety, burnout, or depression—and a sense of emptiness, disappointment, or regret.

Who are we? Are we only our title? Only the person who gains income or accolades? Yes, we are those, and we’re wise if we’re intentional as possible about infusing those activities with as much heart and soul and fun as we can. It’s great if we can integrate our life and work into a cohesive whole that suits us. It’s powerful if we can integrate our values, passions, and authenticity across all the domains of our lives, bridging them with an overarching sense of purpose.

“A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature.” Seneca, Roman Stoic philosopher

But aren’t we also husbands or wives, fathers or mothers, sons or daughters, friends and neighbors, lovers and dreamers, community members, citizens, and humans bound together on spaceship Earth?

 

What to Do About It

What to do when we’re identifying too much with our work and not honoring other important areas of our lives?

Return to what’s important: who and what do we love? What do we long for? What are we missing in our life?

Do we have enough vitality, connection, and contribution in our lives? Do we have a strong sense of our “core identity,” and are we living with “authentic integrity” (integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature)?

We all get off-kilter sometimes. We need to cut ourselves some slack. But we also need to stop lying to ourselves. We must take our lives back when we’ve given them away. We must honor the fullness of our nature and the marvelous range and depth of our lives, both in and out of the work we do. If we do, we can learn to be well regardless of the events and circumstances of the day, grounded in a deeper presence and appreciation for all that we’ve been given.

 

Reflection Questions:

  • Are you identifying too much with your work?
  • What important areas of your life are you neglecting?
  • What will you do start doing to make yourself whole again?

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Postscript: Inspirations on Life, Work, and Identity

“Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” -Epictetus

“‘Can I be comfortable in my own skin regardless of what’s going on around me?’ And that to me is the definition of true success.” -Peter Crone

“People who can tolerate the painful discrepancies of the between-identities period, which reflect underlying ambivalence about letting go of the old or embracing the new, end up in a better position to make informed choices. With the benefit of time between selves, we are more likely to make the deep change necessary to discover satisfying lives and work and to eventually restore a sense of community to our lives.” -Herminia Ibarra

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Sign up for his monthly newsletter for inspirations, articles, tools, and opportunities.

The Trap of Deferring Dreams and Postponing Happiness

One of the most common—and costly—traps of living is the trap of deferring dreams and postponing happiness. We do it, we tell ourselves, because it’s not practical or “the right time.”

So what happens in the meantime? We endure work without enjoying it. We suffer through the days. We become resigned to the dysfunctions of our work, and habituated to its anxiety and stress. We sacrifice health, family, and dreams for the job. We neglect precious relationships with family and friends with the rationalization that we’ll make up for it later.

We wait. Hmmm….

Waiting for that “Perfect Time”

“People wait. They wait for the elusive day when they’ll finally have enough time (guess what? — you never will), enough education (there’s always more to know), enough money (no matter how much you make, someone will always have more)…. People wait until that fateful day when they wake up and realize that while they were sitting around paying dues, earning their keep, waiting for that elusive ‘perfect time’ their entire life has passed them by.”Richie Norton, The Power of Starting Something Stupid

For some, this means enduring a mediocre or even miserable, stress-filled present on the bet that if we keep grinding it out today (this year… this decade…), we’ll magically arrive in happiness heaven at some point.

Don’t misunderstand: hard work is good. Paying dues can be valuable. Not everybody is blessed with options.

But here’s the reality: If we spend our days deferring our dreams and postponing our happiness, then our life will be, well, one of deferred dreams and postponed happiness. Too often, the dreams and happiness never materialize. We put them off until it’s too late, or we burn up too much time in deferral mode.

Life is too precious and short to wait. It comes with unknown contents and duration. Is it really worth the wait?

According to Emma Seppäla of the Yale School of Management, “This theory of success, the idea that in order to be successful you have to postpone or sacrifice your happiness, is simply false.”

Why Is This So Hard?

Of course, we understand the dangers here conceptually, yet we still end up falling into this trap of waiting, deferring, and postponing. Why?

First, we undervalue ourselves, subconsciously believing we’re so flawed that we’re not yet worthy of happiness. Sometimes, we learn these self-beliefs or worldviews from our family, born in a different time or with a different outlook.

Second, we fear failure. Our brains are wired for it. We submit to our risk aversion. As we mull our decision whether to wait or go for it, we overweight the cost of potential failure while underweighting the value of failure (from what we’ll learn and the pride we’ll feel for having tried) and neglecting altogether the cost of regret (the anguish associated with looking back and wondering about missed chances).

Third, we’re paralyzed by uncertainty about how to venture forth into the murky territory of our hopes and dreams. There are a couple factors at work here:

  • The “paradox of choice” (with anxiety coming from choice overload, causing “analyis paralysis”), as noted by psychologist Barry Schwartz
  • The belief that we have to find the one “perfect idea” and make the one “right choice,” with advance certainty that all will work and that it will go according to plan. (The reality is that it almost never does.)

An important note: postponing happiness also means postponing purpose—one of the most important drivers of a fulfilling life. True happiness comes not just from savoring the simple pleasures but also from connecting with others in deep, reciprocal relationships and contributing to something larger than ourselves, whether a family, neighborhood, organization, community, nation, cause, or planet.

Related Traps

There many related traps resonant with this trap of deferring dreams and postponing happiness, including:

  • Drift: getting carried along by time, circumstances, and outside influences—eventually wondering, “How did I get here?”
  • Empty: feeling empty about what we’re doing, without passion or joy
  • Fear: holding back or not trying due to fears about failure or threats to image
  • Golden handcuffs: financial or lifestyle choices that inhibit us from doing what we want (for example, being financially tethered to a job that’s not a good fit)
  • Hedonic treadmill: working harder and gaining more wealth or possessions without increasing happiness or fulfillment (a professional hamster wheel)
  • Inertia: sticking with a sub-optimal path, often because the switching costs are high
  • Settle: compromising or settling for “good enough”
  • Sleepwalk: going through the motions of life and feeling “half-awake”

There’s no magic formula for determining the right time to make a change—or how to go about it. But we do know that if we don’t chase our dreams and aspirations, they’ll die a cold and lonely death from neglect. Is that what we want for our lives?

The most important thing, then, is first to decide to avoid that fate and second to get started.

Reflection Questions

  • Do you have dreams you’re deferring?
  • What are you postponing?
  • What can you do, starting today, to begin pursuing your aspirations?
  • What are you waiting for?

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Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Avoid this Trap

  • “There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, ‘Yes, I’ve got dreams, of course. I’ve got dreams.’ Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they’re still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box.” -Erma Bombeck, columnist and humorist
  • “Am I doing things that allow me to live the way I want, serve the way I want, and be the parent I want to be? The last thing we wanted to do was live in a way that was talking about tomorrow instead of living it today.” -Stacey Boyd, entrepreneur
  • “There comes a time when you ought to start doing what you want. Take a job that you love. You will jump out of bed in the morning. I think you are out of your mind if you keep taking jobs that you don’t like because you think it will look good on your resume. Isn’t that a little like saving up sex for your old age?” -Warren Buffett, investor
  • “Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time.” -Albert Camus
  • “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” -Chinese proverb
  • “People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.” -Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” -Meister Eckhart, German theologian, philosopher, and mystic
  • “I think the fiercest question of all is this one: What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant? …. You might demand of it, ‘Why should I go through all the trouble to make something if the outcome might be nothing?’ The answer will usually come with a wicked trickster grin: ‘Because it’s fun, isn’t it?’ Anyhow, what else are you going to do with your time here on earth—not make things? Not do interesting stuff? Not follow your love and your curiosity?” -Elizabeth Gilbert, author and journalist
  • “The way to live our vision on a daily basis is to understand that right now is the only time we have.” -John Hanley
  • “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” -Sydney J. Harris, journalist and author
  • “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” -Steve Jobs, entrepreneur
  • “During the first period of a man’s life the greatest danger is: not to take the risk.” -Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher
  • “A lot of times we’re driven and limited by perceived risk. But perceived risk is unrelated to actual risk. Real risk is not starting a business you are passionate about. Real risk is staying at a job that isn’t fulfilling; wasting your life.” -Jim Koch, founder, Boston Beer Company
  • “The most dangerous risk of all—the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” -Randy Komisar, tech executive, entrepreneur, and author
  • “If you truly love life, don’t waste time because time is what life is made of.” -Bruce Lee, martial artist, actor, and director
  • “Instead of your heart beats faster, why not you just act faster a bit; instead of just thinking about it, why not do something about it? Poor people fail because of one common behavior: their whole life is about waiting.” -Jack Ma, entrepreneur
  • “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” -Carl Sandburg, poet and biographer
  • “In the time of your life, live.” -William Saroyan, novelist and playwright
  • “It’s not at all that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well. But when it’s poured down the drain of luxury and neglect, when it’s employed to no good end, we’re finally driven to see that it has passed by before we even recognized it passing. And so it is—we don’t receive a short life, we make it so.” -Seneca, On the Brevity of Life
  • “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” -Shakespeare
  • “I must change my life, so that I can live it, not wait for it.” -Susan Sontag, writer, philosopher, and teacher
  • “Do not wait till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” -William B. Sprague, clergyman
  • “All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us.” -J.R.R. Tolkien, English writer, poet, and academic

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

The Trap of Caring Too Much about What Other People Think

We humans are social animals. We’re wired to think about our role in the group and about how others think of us. It matters in our families, friendships, and work relationships. We can’t survive and thrive without tending to these relationships.

But there’s also a big trap here. The problem is when we’re so influenced by what others think—or, to be precise, what we think others will think—that it causes us to make choices that won’t serve us well over time. We avoid the short-term pain of a possible loss in status in exchange for the long-term loss of missing out on better things.

This dynamic can cause us to drift away from who we really are and what we really want to do. To drift toward the safety of what others expect. We can lose bits of ourselves as we seek approval from or try to please others.

These are common traps. And painful ones.

“The unhappiest people in this world are those who care the most about what other people think.”C. JoyBell C., writer

To be clear, it’s not that expectations are bad. They’re needed, and they can be helpful in many ways. The problem is becoming addicted to approval or fenced in by others’ expectations.

Haunted by Expectations

I see this again and again—and especially among young people early in their career. As they navigate through the dark and disorienting maze of career options, they’re haunted by the expectations of their parents—and of teachers, coaches, and peers: Be a doctor. Or lawyer. Or architect. Join the family business. Choose a profession. Go for salary and status. Climb the ladder. (Regardless of who you are, what you love, and what you long for.)

There’s a deceptive calculus at work here. The benefits of the approval flowing from those safe and respectable options can turn out to be shallow and fleeting. We can find ourselves in a career filled with things we don’t like—or even resent—and we’ve signed up for about 80,000 hours of it (the average amount of work people do today over a lifetime). So how does that bargain look now?

Meanwhile, there may be other costs: Paperwork. Time sheets. Bureaucracy. Boring meetings. Energy-sapping colleagues. Lousy bosses. All for what?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with being a doctor, lawyer, architect, or whatever, or with joining the family business, or pursuing a traditional career path IF—and here’s the rub—IF it’s a good fit for you. The key is that it’s your choice and that you’ve tried it and found it to be a good fit for you. That it fills you up with energy more often than it drains you.

Of course, not everyone has a choice. Sometimes we’re buried in debt or mired in financial stress and insecurity, or lacking better options. Many people face structural or institutional barriers or biases. But we usually have more choices than we think. It often comes down to our courage and agency, and to our imagination and hustle, despite the obstacles.

My sense is that we tend to overweight the external factors of approval and status early in life, while the intrinsic motivations quietly and steadily grow in importance as we grow older.

Avoiding this trap of getting pushed off course by the expectations winds is especially hard during transitions, because taking a step back to chart a new course summons potent fears of judgment and disappointment from others, though the reality may be that many are excited or even a bit envious about our new adventure (and most probably won’t even notice or think twice).

The Costs of Caring Too Much about What Others Think

When we’re in this mode of being driven by outside expectations, we tend to:

  • have a hard time communicating forthrightly when there’s disagreement or debate
  • struggle with setting boundaries
  • work too much and feel overwhelmed
  • experience anxiety and stress
  • feel resentment
  • avoid doing things that call to us
  • pass up on potential opportunities

The need for achievement-based approval can become a compulsion. We become approval addicts looking for our next hit, and then the next. When does it end?

Life is too precious and short to let others determine our path.

It gets worse: The expectations of others are a terrible guide for deciding what’s right for us in our own particular context. Those expectations can be unrealistic, or even contradictory. What are we supposed to do with that? If we try to please everybody, we’ll fail miserably. No matter how hard we may try, we can never do things just as others might want or expect.

By surrendering to the Siren call of people-pleasing, we violate a silent sacred pact with ourselves, denying our nature and denigrating our integrity, leading to a downward spiral of self-doubt and inner turmoil.

Why Is This So Hard?

It’s easy to understand this problem conceptually, harder to self-diagnose because it’s emotionally charged and sometimes subconscious, but very difficult to address properly. Why?

For starters, we’ve been doing this for our whole lives—a tough habit to break. It’s been part of our conditioning as children—seeking the attention and approval of our parents and striving again and again to demonstrate our worth. When we did what was expected, we basked in soothing acceptance.

Our brains and bodies seek the chemical rewards of this stimulus-response feedback loop from our neurotransmitting hormones. This loop began in early childhood and it’s etched deep into our neural pathways. According to the late leadership expert Edward Morler, the stages of human development include moving from a focus on “Am I good enough?” in childhood to a healthier focus on “I am enough” in mature adulthood.

Related Traps

This excessive need for approval can also manifest is many related traps, including:

  • getting too caught up in “climbing mode”
  • constantly comparing ourselves to others and judging our worth by how we stack up
  • conforming to societal conventions or conventional paths instead of blazing our own
  • holding back or not trying due to fears about failure or threats to image
  • feeling that others are racing ahead with more clarity or success while we lag behind
  • sticking with a sub-optimal life or career path because we’re afraid of what others will think if we step off the treadmill and start over
  • being short-sighted about what matters in life
  • not setting proper boundaries or articulating needs due to a need to be liked
  • being consumed by a hunger for status, prestige, or approval
  • pretending to be someone we’re not
  • becoming addicted to work

How to Stop this Downward Spiral

Okay, so we know it’s a big problem. What to do about it? Here are 8 things we can do to stop this downward spiral:

  1. Acquire more self-awareness (in part by paying attention to our instincts and listening to our inner voice)
  2. Develop a clear and compelling personal purpose, values, and vision so that we’re clear about our deeper why, what’s most important to us, and what we want for our life
  3. Cultivate self-acceptance: Appreciate what we have and do well while shutting down our unrealistic inner critic
  4. Take time before saying yes to a new task or commitment and have clear and high standards for what we’ll spend time on
  5. Gain perspective: How much will what they think matter in a week, a month, a year, a decade? In the final analysis?
  6. Experiment with what it feels like to experience disapproval, sitting with it and getting a sense of how much it matters (if at all?)
  7. Notice how people may respect us for setting boundaries and for being clear and committed to our goals and aspirations
  8. Imagine and pursue the freedom and power on the other side of this mental block—the gift of finally letting ourselves be who we really are and long to become

“The most freeing experience of my life thus far has been to… be unapologetically myself, and to stand in my own light.” -Hannah Rose, therapist and writer

Reflection Questions

  • Are you caring too much about what other people think in some areas of your life?
  • Which ones?
  • Which action steps above will you start taking?
  • Who can you turn to for help or accountability?

 

Don’t waste your time on earth

doing the work of others.

Do your own work.

The sweat of your soul,

 

The lightness in the center of your heart

will tell you

when you are on course.

 

The swiftness of your breath

will slow to match

the tidal pull of moonlight.

 

You will ski effortlessly

down the slope of each day

calling your own name

softly to the trees.

-Elizabeth Carlson, poet, “Don’t Waste Your Time”

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Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Avoid this Trap

  • “Being dependent on approval—so dependent that we barter away all our time, energy, and personal preferences to get it—ruins lives.” –Martha Beck, author
  • “The first step toward change is to refuse to be deployed by others and to choose to deploy yourself.” –Warren Bennis, leadership author
  • “I was driven by the expectation that I needed some type of profession. [I was also] driven by parental expectations and by looking at my peers.” –Warren Brown, entrepreneur
  • “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” –Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “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, entrepreneur and author
  • “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically—to say ’no’ to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.” –Stephen R. Covey, author
  • “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.” –Bill George, leadership expert and author
  • “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” –Steve Jobs, entrepreneur
  • “Listen to your heart above all other voices.” -Martha Kagan
  • “‘Finding yourself’ is not really how it works. You aren’t a ten-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You are also not lost. 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, writer and entrepreneur
  • “So long as you’re still worried about what others think of you, you are owned by them. Only when you require no approval from outside yourself can you own yourself.” –Neale Donald Walsch, author
  • “Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable. You want to be able to do what you want to do in life.” –Janet Wojcicki, professor, Univ. of California at San Francisco

I do my thing and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you, and I am I,

and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.

If not, it can’t be helped.

-Fritz Perls, Gestalt Prayer

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

Tired of Settling? How to Light Your Life and Work on Fire

Settling for “good enough” instead of what you really want? Getting comfortable with the ordinary? Letting others treat you poorly? Suffering through a poor work situation? Tired of working with people who don’t want to excel or don’t share your values? Playing small, even though you know there’s something bigger possible for you?

Time out. This is your life. Your one and only life, with an uncertain duration and no guarantees. Time to take it back.

“There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa

Why Do We Settle?

If you’re settling, you’re not alone. It’s a common trap. There are many reasons we settle:

1. Fear: We’re afraid of looking bad, of not living up to expectations, of failing. We fear what other people will think or say. So we let these fears box our choices, keeping us squarely in the safe and conventional spaces even though we long for something more. The kicker is that we’re often misreading people and conjuring scenarios of their disappointment and rejection when in fact they’re not even thinking of us, or they have a wildly different take. Too often, we’re just listening to phantom voices in our head whispering about unlikely worst cases.

“So many of us choose our paths in life out of fear disguised as practicality.” Jim Carrey, actor, comedian, writer, producer

2. Self-Deception: We’re brilliant at hiding the truth from ourselves. We rationalize: It’s only for a while. What choice do I have? In these excuses, we hide from the distressing realization that we’re settling for something less than desirable.

“The worst of all deceptions is self-deception.”Plato, classical Greek philosopher

3. Conformity: We yield to parental expectations, social norms, and conventional paths instead of blazing our own path. We worry about the harsh judgment we think may come if we stand up or stand out, so we shrink back into the facelessness of the crowd. Sure, there’s safety in the crowd. But also boredom—and regret.

4. Inertia: Change is hard. We get stuck in the quicksand of questions: What to do instead? How to decide? How to make it work? Can I really give up the safety of what I have now? The “switching costs” (of changing jobs, careers, degrees, locations, etc.) can be high—especially in the short term, with no way to know the long-term payoff. So we stick with a lesser path because it’s easier to stay the course. But at what cost in terms of lost opportunities and sense of pride and satisfaction for testing our mettle and venturing forth into the terrifying beauty of possibility?

“Never be passive about your life…  ever, ever.”Robert Egger, social entrepreneur, activist, and author

5. Not tending to the fire: We’re all born with a zest for life (see how babies and children experience the world) and a capacity for dreaming big (go back and visit your childhood dreams). These aspirations require energy, but too often we’ve let that energy fizzle out over time by burying ourselves in busywork, escaping into mindless distractions, numbing ourselves, and making excuses.

There are indeed big obstacles. Not all are fortunate enough to have choices, or a savings cushion, or the ability to escape poverty, financial insecurity, or other debilitating hardship. But these questions are relevant to all, regardless of circumstances, because even in the hardest circumstances we have agency and possibilities for change, whether by hard work, grit, adjusting our approach, or upgrading our skills and outlook.

Often the real issue is lack of clarity about what we want and how we can move forward in the face of uncertainty. Trepidation about being who we really are. Setting the bar low so we won’t be disappointed if we fail to reach it. We lack a clear and compelling why. We have no audacious aspiration to rekindle the fire.

That’s not all. More things contribute to settling:

  • We avoid difficult tasks or conflicts
  • We’re too busy reacting to events instead of driving them
  • We lack confidence about our abilities and prospects for success
  • We’re not seeing the big picture and get caught up in the moment
  • We put things off until later

The Flip Side: Dangers of Not Settling?

We should pause here and note that there’s a danger of taking this line of thinking about not settling too far. We can get so focused on striving for something better that we lose our capacity to be grateful for what we have now. We can get caught up in obsessively chasing success due to an unhealthy need for validation and recognition for achievements.

There’s a danger to some of swapping a life of settling for a life of anxiety and workaholism, detached from family, friends, health, and the simple pleasures: nature, hobbies, quiet time. We can risk losing our capacity for quiet reflection, mindfulness, and pausing for renewal. We should be wary of getting too caught up in “climbing mode.”

Ceaseless and obsessive striving can prevent us from living a full life with a healthy array of meaningful aspects, like marriage, family, career, health, friendships, community, and more. In his book, On Settling, social philosopher Robert E. Goodin notes that if we settle on some things, we’re better positioned to concentrate on others that are more important. Otherwise, our efforts may be too diffuse and never gain traction.

We can have bold aspirations for a better future but still be grateful for what we have and not too attached to a future outcome that’s unlikely to solve everything in our life and bring us unending joy. Life doesn’t work that way. Writer Chris Guillebeau creatively flips the script from the “pursuit of happiness” to what he calls the “happiness of pursuit.”

So yes, we mustn’t turn our striving into a compulsive crusade. But for many, the bigger danger is settling.

The Icarus Deception

The myth of Icarus is relevant here. You may recall the warning Daedalus gave to his son, Icarus, after constructing wings from feathers and wax to escape Crete: “Don’t fly too close to the sun.”

The big danger is hubris, right? Of having the sun melt your wings of wax if you get too full of yourself and fly too high.

But author Seth Godin points out that Daedalus warned Icarus first of the danger of complacency—the danger of flying too low such that the damp sea affects his wings and causes him to crash into the water. The first danger is about flying too low. We must guard against that too.

So what to do?

How to Stop Settling

There are several things we can do to stop settling and reignite the flame in our life and work:

1. Take full responsibility. Be a “LIFE Entrepreneur,” taking ownership of your life, and recognizing your agency. Take your life back. Stop making excuses. No one’s coming to the rescue.

“Some people don’t just live: they lead a life. They don’t sit around waiting for a lucky break. They create opportunities. They go after their dreams and bring them to life…. They develop a vision of the good life, devise a plan for how to attain it, go for it, and check their progress along the way. As with any great effort, their work is never done but ever-evolving and, often, inspiring to those around them. Welcome to the territory of life entrepreneurs.” -Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives

2. Summon the courage to try. Act in spite of your fears. That of course sounds easier than it is in practice. How to punch through the fear? It helps to realize that most fears are phantoms, unlikely to play out in real life like the nightmare in our head. Also, be sure to account for the cost of coming to the end of your life and looking back with regret for not trying. It also helps if you do what’s next on the list below, to give you a sense of drive and direction:

3. Develop a clear and compelling personal purpose, values, and vision so that you’re clear about where you want to go in your life and work, and how and why:

  • Purpose: why you’re here, and what gives you a sense of meaning and significance—including by serving others
  • Values: what’s most important? What are your core beliefs and principles that guide your decisions and behavior?
  • Vision: what you aspire to achieve in the future, and what success looks like for you

4. Start. Get momentum by trying things. Learn what works (and what doesn’t) and notch small wins. Use this to build toward taking massive action.

5. Build vitality. Develop physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health, wellness, energy, and strength. Be intentional about nourishing habits, rituals, and routines, with visual cues to remind you about what to do and where and when. Choose intentionally what you do, with whom, and what you consume. Eventually you become the kind of person who doesn’t settle without having to think about it so much.

6. Let go of limiting beliefs. Change your mindset. Upgrade your mental operating system. How? Spend time with people you admire. Read books that challenge and inspire you. Take courses that help you develop new skills and abilities. Listen to uplifting podcasts. Work with a mentor, coach, or therapist to shed vestiges of the past that no longer serve you.

7. Set and maintain high standards for yourself. As with our children, we tend to rise or fall to the standards we set. Set deadlines. Focus on results. Hold yourself accountable. Be systematic about learning, development, and continuous improvement. Be clear about the kind of life you seek and commit to it. Choose the life you want, and then get to work crafting it with a hopeful and determined heart.

Temperature Check

How’s your fire? Is it burning hot, lukewarm, or flaming out? If you’re settling, resolve to do what you can with what you have to start turning up the heat.

Reflection Questions

  • Are you settling in any important aspects of your life (family, health, career, etc.)?
  • If so, what will you do about it? When and how?
  • Who can you ask for help?
  • What works for you when it comes to reigniting the flame?
  • What are you waiting for?

For a related trap and how to overcome it, see “Are You Drifting through Life?”

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Postscript: Quotes on Settling

  • “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • “Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.” -Les Brown
  • “If you decide to live in the arena, you will get your ass kicked. You can choose comfort, or you can choose courage, but you can’t have both.” -Brene Brown, researcher and author
  • “The secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky, Russian novelist and philosopher
  • “There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, ‘Yes, I’ve got dreams, of course. I’ve got dreams.’ Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they’re still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box.” -Erma Bombeck, American writer
  • “We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for… many facets of our own oppression.” -Audre Lorde, American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist
  • “We ask ourselves, ‘How am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” -Marianne Williamson

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

Feeling Behind? It May Be a Trap

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

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

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

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

Panic Choices

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

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

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

90,000 Hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

Switching Costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choice Overload and Career Transitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we face a dilemma:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Normal? Not So Fast

In fortunate parts of the world, there’s a palpable sense of relief and celebration as life begins to get back to normal after a brutal pandemic year. In some quarters, there’s jubilation—and rightly so after so many shocks to so many for so long. And of course the pandemic rages on, with so many people suffering, struggling, recovering, mourning, and more.

But back to normal? Not so fast.

We sense, beneath the surface, that this is an opportunity to revisit and reinvent.

Surely there are some things we just want to bring back—things we missed. But we should be wary of falling back into old patterns that no longer serve us.

Now that we’ve received stark reminders of our own mortality and that of our loved ones, now is a good time to ask:

What kind of life do I want?

What kind of life have I been living?

What changes would I like to make?

When it comes to the life we’ve been living, a fair assessment will likely reveal some pain points. Consider the following traps of living:

Common Traps of Living:

  • Am I avoiding deeper issues or pressing pain points in my life, and numbing myself with distraction, binge-watching, or other escapes?
  • Have I suffered from burnout?
  • Am I living paycheck to paycheck with unsustainable or dangerous approaches to consumption and debt?
  • Have I been cocooning, losing close connection with family and friends?
  • Have I fallen into the comparison trap?
  • Am I conforming to a conventional path instead of blazing my own?
  • Have I been drifting through life?
  • Am I stuck in ego-centric living, making everything about me?
  • Does my life feel empty, without a sense of meaning, passion, or joy?
  • Am I caught up in pleasing others?
  • Have I been postponing my happiness?
  • Am I chasing prestige?
  • Have I been pretending to be someone I’m not?
  • Am I settling?

These questions, while unsettling, can also be motivating, because they point to the gap between who we are and who we long to be.

We must begin, though, with an honest appraisal.

“If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule. Never lie to yourself.”Paulo Coelho, Brazilian writer

The appraisal above should lead not only to insight but action. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Where are you doing well, and where are you struggling? You can use whatever system you like, even as simple as a list, writing in one column “What I like about my life” and in another column “What I don’t like.”

The left column (What I like) is one for appreciation, and a place to revisit to make sure you continue the good things and savor them.

The right column (What I don’t like) is one for action. The point is not to wallow in defeat but to take a cold hard look at reality and then decide: What will I do about it? (And how, and when, and with whom?)

Many of us have several pain points in our life. That’s okay. Don’t get bogged down in trying to solve everything at once, or in too much planning.

Begin with the most pressing pain point. Start with small things you can do to make progress, to generate energy and momentum.

Now is your chance. Will you take it?

Reflection Questions:

  • What aspects of your life do you wish to keep or get back to?
  • What aspects of your life do you want to change, and how will you get started?

P.S. – Another level of analysis for the “back to normal” question is the societal level. Surely, there are some things we want to bring back, but it’s also a great opportunity to revisit vexing issues like financial fragility, inequality, racism, political division and disdain, digital addiction and manipulation, climate change, unsustainable practices, and the role of business in society.

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