Time to Check the Path You’re On?

Article Summary: 

How to know if we’re on the wrong career path—or the wrong path in life? Is there a right path? How to decide and move forward?

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Sometimes in life we may wonder if we’re on the wrong path. Things can feel off. We may wonder if we’re pursuing a path that doesn’t align with who we are and our core values and aspirations. We can wonder if the path we’re on is taking us somewhere we want to go.

At the end of all our hard work, all our pursuit, what’s the destination we’re headed to? Is it a worthy one? Is it good and true? Does it represent our true nature, resonate with something deep inside us, and honor the life we’ve been given?

“What is the use of running when we are not on the right road?”
-German proverb

 

Are There “Right” Paths and “Wrong” Paths?

This notion of a “path,” of course, is a metaphor that represents our current direction—in work and in our life more broadly. Evaluating our path naturally raises questions about whether our path is right or wrong. Is that an accurate and helpful way to think about it?

Yes and no.

When we talk about a “right path,” we mean one that aligns with who we are and our core values and aspirations—one that’s taking us somewhere we believe to be good and worthy of our efforts. A “wrong path” doesn’t do those things.

In that sense, there are right and wrong paths. But in reality, things aren’t often so clear and binary.

There are no perfect paths, and there isn’t only one good or right path for us.

Also, we’re not bad, stupid, or behind if we haven’t figured out our path yet—or if we discover we may want to change course.

Life can be challenging, messy, and unclear. We may have changed as a person, causing us to want to head in new directions. And that’s okay.

What’s more, we’re all different. Some people want career advancement. Others want entrepreneurial venturing or creativity. Still others want flexibility and freedom, while some want balance or stability.

There’s a place in life for adventure. For wandering off the path and exploring.

We don’t always have choices about our work. Sometimes there are real constraints and barriers, so we have to keep our heads down and work in what’s available to support ourselves and our families. (We must also be honest and not conflate rationalizations with real needs.)

Here’s the key: it’s critical to stop walking sometimes and take a look around to see where we are and where we’re headed. Is our direction still a good and worthy one or is it time to change? The key is to be clear and intentional in choosing—and then brave and committed in moving forward.

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.

 

Signs We’re on the Wrong Path

Making a good assessment of the path we’re on can be difficult because we can be on autopilot and not even mindful of the path we’re on. (See the article, “Are You Sleepwalking through Life?”)

Sometimes our view is obstructed by the trees and branches around us, making it hard to see the big picture. And sometimes we’ve been walking a long way while looking only at the ground in front of us without gauging our location and direction. Do we still want to get to where we’re going?

Sometimes we’re reluctant to assess things because we sense that we’re not going to like the result.

“I had fallen into a life that was not what I wanted, and I couldn’t see any way to escape from it without tossing a live grenade into the carefully constructed world I had built…. Maybe I didn’t need to be defined by my achievements and how fast I could get there, but instead by what brought me joy and happiness and inspired my passions.”
-Alisha Fernandez Miranda, My What-If Year: A Memoir

How to know how we’re doing? Here are ten signs that we may be on the wrong path:

  1. Not liking our work or not feeling engaged and energized by it
  2. Regularly wishing we were doing something different and dreaming about working in other fields
  3. Longing to go back and make different decisions
  4. Missing fun and joy in our work
  5. Feeling that our work no longer has relevance, meaning, or significance
  6. Lacking enthusiasm and motivation for our current path and what we’re doing
  7. Living the success script of others
  8. Feeling our life is passing us by
  9. Feeling like we’re living someone else’s life—chasing the goals and dreams of others
  10. Envying people who have summoned the courage to travel their own authentic path (or “LIFE entrepreneurs”)

 

How We Got There

It’s common for people to find themselves on a wrong path—or to question the direction they’re headed. Life tends to have its twists and turns.

Here are some of the things that can get us off track:

Childhood programming. Some parents steer us heavily toward certain paths of their own preference. They may be trying to live vicariously through their children or viewing their children’s choices as a reflection of their own worth.

“…make no mistake about it, well-meaning people around you—friends, family, work associates, and others—
will push you to run someone else’s race.”

-Dr. Nicholas Pearce, professor, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management

People-pleasing. Maybe we put others’ needs or preferences ahead of our own when we chose our path. (See “People-Pleasing: Why We Do It and How to Stop It.”)

We’re often lacking important context when we make career decisions in our young adulthood. We don’t know what we don’t know. In fact, we think we know it all.

“Oh no! I just realized—I let a 20-year-old choose my husband and my career!”
-anonymous middle-aged woman in a career seminar cited in Douglas T. Hall, “The Protean Career”

We may have stumbled into career choices instead of choosing them deliberately. Maybe we didn’t have a good sense of our options. Or we made a panic choice because we needed money.

When we’re younger, it’s easier to adopt the values of our peers or of society instead of blazing our own path. Early in our career, we often make work decisions exclusively or mostly on compensation, but as we go through life we learn more and more about the importance of other things in addition to that: meaningful and engaging work, good managers and colleagues, autonomy, a chance to learn and grow, work-life balance, job security, and more. Early on, we tend to overweight the extrinsic factors and underweight the intrinsic ones. For many, the intrinsic factors become more important over time. The career ladder is also a social ladder of sorts, with all kinds of social comparisons built in, causing us to choose paths based on ego and status.

An impatient climb. Sometimes we’re so focused on climbing the career ladder as quickly as possible that we don’t take the time to consider which wall the ladder is up against.

Sometimes we make choices based on reasons that don’t hold up over time. For example, we choose based on comparison or a need to be viewed as successful. Or we’re in the trap of caring too much about what others think when making our own choices—or the trap of viewing life as a race and perhaps feeling behind.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

The Problem with Walking the Wrong Path

When we’re on a flawed path, we’re likely to be dissatisfied with our life or work. We may feel like we’re settling instead of going for what we really want—or like we’re playing small.

In the end, the biggest problem is that we’re very likely to feel pangs of regret when we look back if we don’t make changes.

“Growth is painful. Change is painful.
But nothing is as painful as staying stuck somewhere you don’t belong.”
-Mandy Hale

 

What to Do When Doubting the Path We’re On

Thankfully, there are many things we can do when we suspect we need a course correction:

Get perspective on the whole of our lives—including how our work fits in with the other important areas of our lives (like health, family, education, hobbies, and travel)—and the limited time we have to live them. (Consider taking this Quality of Life Assessment.)

Tempus fugit. (Time flies.)
Memento mori. (Remember that you will die.)

Question any beliefs about which path to take because of what others think, starting with our parents but also including friends and colleagues.

Press pause on being in “climbing mode” (striving to move up the ladder of success) and dive back into “discover mode” (learning about who we are and what we want to do in the world). Who are we? What are we good at? What do we get lost in? Who do we like to serve, and how? (See my TEDx talk on “Discover Mode” for more on this.)

We can know ourselves more deeply when we are clear about things like the following:

Spend time alone and tap into our deeper wisdom via reading and reflection. Clarify what happiness, success, and the good life are to us—without mindlessly accepting others’ definitions of them. Get clear about what we want and need out of our work.

Do a path check. Ask the following: Does my current path align well with who I am and who I’d like to be? Is it a good fit with my core values? Is my current path taking me closer to the life I want? Think not only about what we’ll do if we stay on our current path but also about who we’ll become. And who might we become if we blazed a new trail?

Determine why our current work isn’t a good fit at this point in our life. Where are the breakdowns? This can help us make improvements in our next chapter.

Recognize that we’re not likely to get epiphanies or clear directions. The way forward is likely to be unclear and challenging for a while. Account for that and give ourselves grace for it.

Recognize that logic and analysis will only take us so far. We should also engage our hearts and tap into our deeper wisdom.

Get input from people who have our back. Have open discussions with family and friends—and perhaps a mentor or coach. Consider joining a small group to air out tough issues in a safe environment of confidentiality and trust.

Get some distance from people in our current work environment and industry. This can help us gain perspective and different vantage points. And it can help us resist some of the social pressures holding us back.

“Change always starts with separation…. maintaining some degree of separation from the network of relationships that defined our former professional lives can be vital to our reinvention.”
-Dr. Herminia Ibarra, London Business School professor and expert on career transitions

Embrace our uniqueness—our interests, passions, preferences, and idiosyncrasies—as part of our identity and part of what’s valuable and precious in life.

Consider taking a sabbatical from our current work, if possible. A sabbatical is an extended period of time away from work, often for travel or study. The Sabbatical Project describes it as “a sacred human ritual for what you want to do differently in life—even if for just a little while.” It notes that sabbaticals can help address burnout and can spark profound changes in people that benefit not only themselves but also those around them.

Learn about and experiment with possible new paths via simple probes. Start with small steps. Be open and curious. There are many ways to run such probes, including research, conversations, volunteer work, consulting projects, internships, job rotations or shadowing, board service, “life design interviews” (asking people who are currently doing work that interests us to learn more about it), and more. Dr. Herminia Ibarra, a London Business School professor and expert on career change, notes that a “test-and-learn approach” is much more likely to be successful than a “plan-and-implement approach.”

Summon courage to change the path we’re on. Any such changes are likely to come with substantial internal and external resistance, so we’ll need to summon our courage to start and to persist through obstacles. Don’t let the fear of making a mistake or choosing poorly stop us from taking necessary actions. Expect a flood of terror and excitement in the process, not to mention confusion and doubt. It comes with the territory. (See my article, “Getting Good at Overcoming Fear.”)

Don’t think we need to get everything right from the outset. Our choices don’t have to be forever. Give ourselves room to try things, assess, and recalibrate. Our progress is likely to be halting for a while.

Don’t waste time and energy on blaming others for the path we’re on. Would we rather be happy about the path we’re on or have someone to blame for steering us astray? Our life choices are ours and ours alone.

Don’t believe it’s selfish to do what we want with our life. Far from it. What example are we setting for our children, friends, or family if we give up on our dreams?

Find someone who’s done a good job of changing career paths and ask them to share how they went about it and what they learned along the way. Sometimes it’s helpful to learn from others who have been on a similar journey with comparable influences and pressures.

Place our career choices in the larger context of what’s most important in our lives. For some, it’s all too easy to overweight the importance of work in our lives while losing sight of other important things like family, health, spiritual practices, and more.

Recognize that the further we get on a certain path, the harder it is to switch to a different one—and that it’s our ego that makes it harder. If we need a path change, it’s better to determine that as early as we can.

Take full responsibility for our lives and the decisions we make—as well as the impact we have on others. (See “The Power of Taking Full Responsibility for Your Life.”)

Enjoy the process of living, learning, growing, and serving. Don’t focus too much on the results we hope to achieve. Results are of course essential, but they’re not in our full control. Better to focus on what’s in our control and enjoy our journey as much as we can.

Recognize that we’re likely to have different preferences for paths at different phases of our life. Sometimes an old path has served its purpose and it’s time for a new one.

Pay attention to the clues that have been left for us in our lives—the signs and signals we’ve gotten from our passions and dreams. What fills us with energy, and what makes us feel most alive? Those are all pieces of the puzzle we can put together in our own unique way.

“What did you want to do when you were five years old?… Don’t give up on those visions you used to have, no matter how far-fetched and unrealistic they are. Investigate them…. A heart-centered desire could be hiding within even the most far-fetched of dreams. Maybe you said you wanted to be an astronaut, but maybe what you meant is the idea of exploring somewhere new fascinates you. Maybe you said you wanted to be a ballerina, but you were intrigued by the idea of putting more beauty into the world. Maybe you said you wanted to be a firefighter, but what you meant was you wanted to help people.”
-Haley Pace, “Before You Climb, Make Sure the Ladder is Placed to the Right Wall”

Identify the red threads in our work. What are the patterns we keep returning to? What projects engage us the most deeply? Which ones repel us? Which groups do we most like to interact with and serve?

Consider several new options. Don’t limit our consideration set to just one possible new path, as that’s far too limiting. In their book, Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans note that we should never select our first solution to any problem and that we tend to choose better when we have lots of good ideas to choose from.

Stop delaying action. Stop waiting for the perfect moment or perfect clarity. Get going. Think about what we’d do if we only had a year to live. What would we do then?

“For the past year, I had been waiting for something to happen, and it never did.
I was tired of waiting. It was time….”
-Warren Brown, lawyer turned entrepreneur

Consider that our most likely regret will revolve around not making changes, as opposed to attempting changes that may not work out as planned. Consider the cost of not taking action in our decision calculus. What’s the cost of our current course?

Pray or meditate for clarity and guidance. Meanwhile, have faith that we can find a good new path if we persist and take appropriate action over time.

“Chart your own course!… Your life is your art, and I am constantly working to create mine. My business is my passion.… I get so excited talking about it and helping women realize that you can leave a loveless full-time job and create the life you desire.” -Kimberly Wilson, yoga entrepreneur and author

 

Conclusion

In the end, there’s an important time element at work with these decisions. The past is past. The key question is where we are now and where we’re heading. Are we on a good and true path based on who we are, what we value most, and what kind of life we’d like to live, with whom, and how?

We’re sure to face resistance in making changes, but the real question is whether we want to bet on ourselves and a better future or stick with where we’re headed. And we must see that our path is not a solitary one. We must connect it with those we care about so we walk together, support each other, and help each other while having a positive impact in the world. Otherwise, it’s just a long and lonely road to nowhere.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you have doubts about the current path you’re on?
  2. If so, what are they?
  3. How long have you had them?
  4. Is it time for a path check—or for a start in a new direction?

 

Tools for You

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

 

Related Books

  • Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (Harvard Business School Press, 2004).
  • Annie Duke, Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away (Portfolio, 2022).
  • Amy Porterfield, Two Weeks’ Notice: Find the Courage to Quit Your Job, Make More Money, Work Where You Want, and Change the World (Hay House, 2023).
  • Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions (Penguin Press, 2020).
  • Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

 

Postscript: Quotations on Our Path

  • “It’s better to fail trying to do what you really care about than to succeed at something else.” -Mark Albion
  • “…surely we can do better than having to look back on our lives and regret that we lived by someone else’s priorities.” -Greg McKeown, writer
  • “Some of us think that holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.” -Hermann Hesse
  • “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
  • “I lost a lot of time and wasted a lot of energy by running after achievements to validate myself. It was all about how many things I could have on my resume… trying to live up to others’ expectations of me. It was like living on junk food…. It took me sixty years to trust myself.” -Karin Weber
  • “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
  • “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” -Greg McKeown
  • “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” -Joseph Campbell
  • “The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short.” -Abraham Maslow
  • “The first step toward change is to refuse to be deployed by others and to choose to deploy yourself.” -Warren Bennis
  • “In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” -Warren Buffett, legendary investor
  • “There is a time of departure even when there’s no clear place to go.” -Tennessee Williams
  • “Humans are creatures of least resistance. We take the road most traveled, or the road best paved. So much of our behavior runs on autopilot.” -Aline Holzwarth, applied behavioral scientist
  • “Every worker needs to escape the wrong job.” -Peter Drucker, management expert
  • “…the sensible man considers his steps.” (Proverbs 14:15, New American Standard Bible)
  • “Don’t just climb the mountain because it’s there. Really think about whether that’s the mountain you want to climb.” -Kim Smith, entrepreneur
  • “She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.” -Mae West, actress, singer, and comedian
“Begin with the end in mind… It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busy-ness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall.” -Stephen R. Covey, leadership author and educator

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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!

How Inertia Keeps Us from Making Needed Changes

how inertia keeps us from making needed changes

Inertia can keep us from making needed changes in our life or work. Because of inertia, we can stick with a sub-optimal path, often because it feels safer and easier.

According to Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, something at rest will remain at rest, and something in motion will remain in motion, unless it’s acted upon by an external force. It’s often called “the law of inertia.”

Think of the amount of fuel and energy it takes for a rocket to blast off. Next, think of a loaded freight train barreling down the tracks and how much energy it will take to stop it.

 

Inertia in Our Lives

We can think of inertia not only in terms of physics but also in terms of inertia in our life and work—in terms of resistance to changes.

Dr. Jim Taylor, a performance psychologist, points to what he calls the “law of human inertia,” noting that we tend to remain on the course of our current life trajectory unless a greater force enters the picture—either externally or internally. He notes that our current life trajectory is highly resistant to change because of all the forces that propel it. He writes, “A little effort here or there is unlikely to change the direction of our lives because it is already being driven by potent forces.” Forces that help keep us on the same trajectory include our identity, the people around us, and our daily habits and routines.

Dr. Taylor notes that, while we often talk about feeling stuck when we’re dissatisfied with our lives, more often the problem is that we have so many things going on in our lives that small efforts here and there are unlikely to initiate the desired changes. If we want to redirect the forces that are propelling us on our current trajectory, we must summon even greater force to make that happen—and point them in a clear direction.

He also notes that, in many cases, we’re still on the same trajectory that began when we were much younger, still repeating some of the same patterns and falling into some of the same traps (e.g., trying to be perfect or please others, comparing ourselves to others, etc.).

It’s worth questioning whether we want to remain on our current path. If we’re stuck in a job we don’t like, or that feels like a major compromise, we should ask whether we’re hampered down with inertia. Did we choose our path intentionally and for good reasons that still stand up to scrutiny, or are we on it by default?

Changing the course of our life and work can require much from us: taking stock, getting clarity on what we want and the changes needed to get there, and then taking action.

Nothing happens until something moves.”
-Albert Einstein

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 Implications of Inertia

Years ago, a family friend, J.D., had just graduated from a prestigious university and was thinking about a career in business. He went to my father for advice since Dad was in the middle of a long and distinguished business career.

J.D. didn’t know what area of business to focus on, so Dad walked him through the various functions of business, from sales, marketing, and human resources to finance, manufacturing, and engineering. After hearing about all the options, J.D. realized something troubling: none of them appealed to him.

At this point, his Mom jumped in and asked J.D. what did appeal to him. After a long pause, he quietly responded that he’d like to go to medical school and become a doctor, but he knew that was impossible because he hadn’t taken the necessary prerequisites. He couldn’t go back and take them because of the time and expense.

Of course, that made total sense. The cost would be great, and the time, effort, and money already invested felt enormous.

But compared to what? Given his expectations and what all his classmates were doing (and perhaps the fear of falling behind), the idea of going backward instead of forward seemed foolish and naive.

But how might the calculus change if he broadened the aperture to the sweep of his life and career? If J.D. were to work 40 hours a week for, say, 45 years, he’d end up working for about 90,000 hours over the course of his career

How does this decision look in that larger context? What would it be worth to work for 90,000 hours doing something that tugged at his heart instead of something that didn’t?

His Mom didn’t miss a beat. She said he should go back to school if that’s what he really wanted to do. And so he did.

Thus began his remarkable journey as a doctor. He’s now medical director of the pediatric cardiac transplant program at a nationally ranked children’s hospital, and he still loves what he does.

 

Inertia in Companies

Of course, inertia isn’t just a problem for people. It can also plague companies. Think of all the companies that struggled or even cratered because they stuck with their existing strategy and business model when the market around them was changing.

I call it the “disruption graveyard,” and it’s not only huge but still growing.

inertia in companies

Leadership Derailers Assessment

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

 

The Problem with Inertia

The inertia trap can lead to painful consequences. For individuals, it can lead to:

  • settling for “good enough” instead of what we really want
  • feeling dissatisfied with our life or work
  • playing small even though we know something bigger is possible for us
  • preventing us from trying new things and taking risks
  • feeling pangs of regret when we look back
Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing is as painful
as staying stuck somewhere you don’t belong.”
-Mandy Hale

For organizations, it can lead to lower revenues and profits, a precarious competitive position, or even insolvency.

 

Why Overcoming Inertia Is So Hard

Changing our path is hard because it disrupts our mental equilibrium. We’re wired to prefer order and familiarity—and to fear the unknown. We know that change can be slow and hard—and sometimes grueling and brutal. It can bring losses, even big ones.

Here are many of the reasons why overcoming inertia is so hard:

When thinking about making some changes, our “loss aversion” kicks in.
For most people, the pain of losing something is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining something equivalent, according to researchers. As a result, most people are more motivated to avoid losses than go for gains.

Many of us tend to overthink things and fall into the trap of “analysis paralysis.”
It’s hard to get moving in a new direction when we’re deep in all the mental weeds of scenarios and suppositions.

Successful people start before they’re ready.
-James Clear, author

It takes a great deal of energy to go from standing still to moving.
This is as true in our lives and careers as it is in physics. Getting started—or re-started—is often the hardest part. If we’ve taken time off due to parental leave or a sabbatical, or to raise a family, those transitions can be wonderful, if slightly unnerving sometimes. We should truly make the most out of them and appreciate them. But they can also make it much harder to start up again, both for us and for people considering whether to hire us. It’s the heaviness of restarting.

We feel like we’re so far along our current path that it would be foolish to make a change now.
Researchers point to the “sunk cost fallacy” as a factor that keeps us on our current path. In this mode, we’re reluctant to abandon a course of action because we’ve invested heavily in it (e.g., with time, money, or effort), instead of asking whether it really makes sense to continue with it, looking at it objectively today. A related point: many of us are susceptible to “status quo bias,” according to researchers—a preference for maintaining the current state of affairs (and resisting actions that will change it).

Everything seems to conspire to keep us where we are….
Life seems more comfortable in known, familiar territory.
-Bob Buford, Half Time

We have a hard time deciding what to do next, sometimes aggravated by “choice overload.”
Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls it the “paradox of choice.” He argues that having many choices leads to anxiety and “analysis paralysis,” in which we become frozen in undecidedness. We fear making the wrong choice. In many cases, though, there’s no way of knowing in advance if choices will be “right” or “wrong,” so the key is using a good decision-making process and then implementing our decisions as best we can and adjusting as we go.

We can be bogged down by fears.
This can be a fear of failure, or of rejection, or of making the wrong decision. It can be a fear of being judged by others. (We suffer cognitive dissonance when there’s a gap between what we want and what those who care about us want for us, often causing us to crumple back to the status quo.) Or it can be a fear of losing something (such as stability, safety, balance, or a relationship with others), or a fear of the unknown, or a fear of commitment.

We may have perfectionist tendencies that hold us back.
With all the messiness of change, our perfectionism won’t let us enter that liminal state where we can look and feel foolish because we don’t yet have our bearings. Such perfectionism is harmful because it prevents us from tolerating the transition periods when we’re in between roles and identities, when things aren’t yet sorted and clear.

We’re trying to do too many things at once.
That causes us to get bogged down, and it makes it very difficult to summon enough focused energy to change our course. If we’re overcommitted and lacking margin in our lives, we won’t have enough time, space, and energy to change our trajectory.

We may be limited by our current relationships.
For example, we may have a spouse or partner who has different values and aspirations. Or perhaps we’re both not summoning effort and creativity to work through differences and find a workable solution.

We may lack the confidence to take on the risks associated with making changes.
Most people view confidence as something innate, but the truth is that, while some people have more of a disposition toward confidence than others, it’s something we can and should build. Confidence gives us conviction that we can succeed.

We may lack clarity about some essential things that could help us overcome our inertia.
Like what? Our purpose in life (our deeper why, our reason for being), our core values (what’s most important to us), and our vision of the good life (a picture of what success looks like for our lives).

We may feel as though it’s too late to make the needed changes.
Like we’ve missed the boat. While this is a very common notion, the truth is that it’s most often flat-out wrong. In most cases, there’s still much more time than we think, and we should be careful not to let excuses and rationalizations prevent us from doing what’s necessary to make improvements. (See my article, “The Trap of Thinking It’s Too Late for Big Things in Our Lives.”)

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.

 

What to Do About It

Clearly, overcoming inertia in our life and work can be challenging. Fortunately, there are many things we can do about it that will set us up for success.

We can:

  1. Begin by acknowledging the reality of our current situation with brutal honesty while maintaining high standards for what we accept in our lives.
  2. Let go of the past and all the things we’re holding on to that are preventing us from moving forward.
  3. Take full responsibility for our current state.
  4. Look for the root causes of what’s keeping us stuck. Perhaps we’re afraid of failing or are too caught up in helping others?
  5. Summon our motivation and courage to try, in part by tapping into any dissatisfaction we may feel about our present state.
  6. Get clear about what’s most important (our purpose and core values) and what we want and where we want to go (our vision and goals).
    …the first tangible step to change—is knowing what you intend to change into.
    Before you can start a healthy change in your life or in the world,
    you need to consider what a healthy change even is.
    -Tyler Kleeberger
  7. Outline concrete steps we can start taking to move us closer to our vision and goals.
  8. Create margin for the needed changes in life. Without that, the changes will suffocate from lack of oxygen.
  9. Set a date to decide about our next steps, to infuse our change process with urgency.
  10. Get some separation from our current network and routines to free up opportunities for new perspectives and change. According to Professor Herminia Ibarra from London Business School, “We are all more malleable when separated from the people and places that trigger old habits and old selves. Change always starts with separation…. maintaining some degree of separation from the network of relationships that defined our former professional lives can be vital to our reinvention.”
  11. Make sure we don’t have unrealistic expectations for the pace and magnitude of change. (Note the “planning fallacy,” a well-researched phenomenon in which we tend to underestimate the time it will take to complete a task. It can set us up for frustration and perhaps failure, causing us to abandon our change efforts.)
  12. Start small. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking we have to have everything figured out in advance or that we need to make big changes straightaway. According to the “progress principle” from Dr. Teresa Amabile from Harvard Business School, the most important thing we can do to boost our motivation is make progress in meaningful work. The more frequently we do that, the more likely we are to remain productive over time. Everyday progress and small wins can make all the difference in how we feel and perform. What’s more, this leads to what they call a “progress loop” in which our inner experience of motivation drives performance, and that performance further enhances our inner work life.*
  13. Ask for help, ideally from a friend, mentor, coach, or support group—and surround ourselves with positive and supportive people.
  14. Maintain healthy habits. Be disciplined when it comes to exercise, nutrition, sleep, and breaks, since our physiology profoundly influences our mental state.
  15. Adopt the habit of periodically disrupting our own lives and career to avoid falling into the trap of complacency.
  16. Develop momentum in our preferred direction by aligning an array of forces: our purpose, values, vision, strengths, passions, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, habits, and expectations. Bad habits are a form of friction on our desired life trajectory. Good habits are jet fuel.
The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements….
Small habits don’t add up. They compound. That’s the power of atomic habits.
Tiny changes. Remarkable results.”
-James Clear

Investor and writer Mark Mulvey notes that start time and frequency are critical factors. He writes:

“The sooner you start the farther you tend to go….
The more often you do something the more you will tend to continue doing it.

This points to a flipside to the challenge of overcoming inertia: we can also use the law of inertia to our advantage. If we’re able to change our mindset, obtain clarity, and get moving in a different direction, we can develop real momentum, especially via daily practices and disciplined habits. Eventually, the benefits start to accumulate and grow, much like the power of compound interest.

 

Conclusion

In the end, when it comes to questions about which path we’re on and how to summon the energy required to change it, we need to be brutally honest and play the long game. By taking the long view, we can avoid the cost of regret for not trying.

Reflection Questions

  1. Is inertia keeping you from making needed changes? If so, in what areas?
  2. Is it time to re-evaluate and start changing your trajectory?
  3. What’s the cost of not taking action?

Tools for You

Related Articles:

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Overcoming Inertia

  • “Inertia is the force that holds the universe together. Literally. Without it, things would fall apart. It’s also what keeps us locked in destructive habits, and resistant to change.” -Shane Parrish, Farnam Street
  • “Humans are creatures of least resistance. We take the road most traveled, or the road best paved. So much of our behavior runs on autopilot.” -Aline Holzwarth, applied behavioral scientist
  • “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” -Will Rogers
  • “Sometimes you make up your mind about something without knowing why, and your decision persists by the power of inertia. Every year it gets harder to change.” -Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • “The recipe for staying stuck is to try to do too many things at one time.” -Todd Herman
  • “It’s better to fail trying to do what you really care about than to succeed at something else.” -Mark Albion
  • “You don’t have to be one of those people that accepts things as they are. Every day, take responsibility for changing them right where you are.” -Cory Booker
  • “To change one’s life, start immediately, do it flamboyantly, no exceptions.” -William James
  • “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is in your daily routine.” -John Maxwell
  • “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” -Chinese proverb
  • “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” -Meister Eckhart, German theologian, philosopher, and mystic
  • “Never be passive about your life… ever, ever.” -Robert Egger, social entrepreneur, activist, and author
  • “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” -Epictetus

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* Source: Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, “The Power of Small Wins,” Harvard Business Review, May 2011

“Resist the temptation to start by making a big decision that will change everything in one fell swoop.
Use a strategy of small wins, in which incremental gains lead you to more profound changes
in the basic assumptions that define your work and life. Accept the crooked path.
Small steps lead to big changes, so don’t waste time, energy, and money
on finding the ‘answer’ or the ‘lever’ that, when pushed, will have dramatic effects.
Almost no one gets change right on the first try.”
Dr. Herminia Ibarra, London Business School

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
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!

Why We Stay in Bad Jobs Too Long

The covid-19 pandemic 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.

The “Great Resignation” demonstrated 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.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

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?

 

Tools for You

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.

 

Related Traps

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

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Job Choices and Changes

  • “Every worker needs to escape the wrong job.” -Peter Drucker, expert on management and innovation
  • “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, author, executive, and teacher
  • “In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” -Warren Buffett, legendary investor
  • “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, author and CEO coach
  • “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, author and consultant
  • “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, investor
  • “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, organizational psychologist and author

* 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, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. 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 Benefits of Systematic Personal Development

Personal development entails efforts to improve yourself—to develop your potential and capabilities. With systematic personal development, you can improve nearly all aspects of your life.

“Personal development refers to activities that improve self-knowledge and identity, develop talents and potential, build human capital and employability, enhance quality of life, and contribute to the realization of dreams and aspirations.”
-Bob Aubrey, Managing Your Aspirations

You can also leverage personal development to address challenges in your life, such as:

  • dullness and monotony in your days
  • unfulfilled dreams and ambitions
  • feeling stuck or uncertain about what’s next

Personal development involves both inner and outer work. And it can have mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual dimensions. It can involve learning and growing from various sources, including reading, courses, workshops, assessments, tools, and actions taken, perhaps with coaching and feedback. Ideally, it’s a lifelong practice. We’re never done learning, growing, and developing.

 

Benefits of Personal Development

When done well, personal development has many benefits. Through systematic personal development, you can:

  1. increase self-awareness
  2. get more clarity about who you are and what you want to do
“There are so many people who don’t know what they want. And I think that, in this world, that’s the only thing you have to know—exactly what you want.… Doing what you were born to do … That’s the way to be happy.”
-Agnes Martin, painter
  1. improve health and wellness
  2. build confidence
  3. develop knowledge and skills (e.g., communication, interpersonal, and time management skills)
  4. discover your purpose, values, and passions
  5. determine and develop your strengths
  6. clarify and pursue your dreams and aspirations

  1. develop a growth mindset
  2. advance in your career
  3. increase your earnings and build wealth
  4. feel a sense of accomplishment as you grow in your capacities
  5. realize more of your potential and achieve more of your goals
  6. develop perseverance, resilience, and capacity to navigate change and uncertainty
  7. reduce stress and anxiety
  8. increase emotional intelligence
  9. improve relationships
  10. build your personal power (your ability to influence people and events)
  11. improve your leadership or prepare to launch an entrepreneurial venture
  12. increase your happiness, wellbeing, quality of life, and likelihood of success
  13. deepen your spirituality, if you’re so inclined
  14. be truer to yourself despite social pressures or external expectations

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.

 

Personal Development Practices

Though it can vary widely by person and context, personal development practices often include:

  • identifying areas of your life you’d like to improve
  • analyzing what’s going well and not (which requires brutal honesty with yourself)
  • developing goals, strategies, and tactics
  • planning your time (i.e., your day, your week, your year: “Either you run the day or the day runs you.” -Jim Rohn)
  • prioritizing and focusing on the most important things
  • developing good habits and practices (e.g., a “golden hour rule” or a “morning miracle” in which you start your day early and invest the first hour in yourself, such as with reading, meditation, prayer, exercise, affirmations, and/or journaling).
  • creating and employing personal development plans and/or life design approaches
  • using timelines, deadlines, and action plans
  • assessing and measuring progress and adjusting as you go
  • working with an accountability partner
  • spending time with people who challenge you and make you better

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.

 

Final Thoughts

Done right, personal development isn’t a solo endeavor. It works much better when you engage with others (e.g., a coach, mentor, accountability partner, counselor, teacher, guide, manager, or small group).

Recall that personal development includes both inner work (reflection) and outer work (action). You often learn, grow, and develop the most when you’re out there trying things and making mistakes. You’ll do much better when you’re action-oriented.

If you’re thinking that you’re already busy and that all this seems like a lot of work, a few thoughts:

First, note that it can begin with small and simple steps. Then, with progress, you gain momentum and start turning the flywheel.

Second, consider all you’re losing and missing by not investing in your development.

Third, when done right, it’s rewarding, energizing, and fun.

Reach out if I can help. Wishing you well with it.

 

 

 

 

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you investing enough time and resources in systematic personal development?
  2. What more will you do, starting today?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Concepts

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Personal Development

  • “Your level of success will seldom exceed your level of personal development, because success is something you attract by the person you become.” -Jim Rohn, entrepreneur and author
  • “Growth is the great separator between those who succeed and those who do not. When I see a person beginning to separate themselves from the pack, it’s almost always due to personal growth.” -John Maxwell, leadership author
  • “Taking charge of your own learning is a part of taking charge of your life, which is the sine qua non in becoming an integrated person.” -Warren Bennis, leadership author
  • “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
  • “…your life gets better only after you get better.” -Hal Elrod, writer
  • “Your action, what you do, depends on who you are. The quality of your action depends on the quality of your being…. So there is a link between doing and being. If you don’t succeed in being, you can’t succeed in doing.” -Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, author, and teacher
  • “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is in your daily routine.” -John Maxwell, leadership author
  • “Look closely at the present you are constructing. It should look like the future you are dreaming.” -Alice Walker
  • “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, media entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author
  • “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” -C.S. Lewis, British scholar, writer, and lay theologian

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!

Changing Careers? Avoid These Common Mistakes

Are you happy with your work? Do you love what you do, or at least enjoy it a fair amount of time? Do you often find yourself wondering, should I stay or should go? Many people have been asking these questions—even more so during the pandemic and its “Great Resignation”—and answering them with a job or career change. What are the most common career change mistakes?

 

Job or Career

First, let’s distinguish between a job and a career.

  • A job is work you perform to earn money. It can be full- or part-time, and short- or long-term.
  • A career, by contrast, can be thought of in two ways. First, it’s a period of time spent in a job or profession, with people usually holding many jobs over their career. Second, it’s an occupation you carry on for a significant period of your life (for some, their entire time in the workplace), often with opportunities for progress and advancement.

It’s usually easier to change jobs in the same field of work (e.g., nursing or marketing). Switching careers is much more difficult and may require going back to school or starting over.

 

The Top Career Change Mistakes

When thinking about or pursuing a career change, we tend to make many mistakes. Here are the most common mistakes:

 

Not getting clarity first.

The mistake here is neglecting the inner work of getting clear about your purpose, values, vision, passions, strengths, aspirations, and preferences. It’s not taking the time for reflection about the sources of your discontent.

 

Not mining your personal history and story.

Are you looking backward a bit so that what’s come before can inform your current choices? Reflecting on the patterns of your life and work can give you clues about who you are, what you love, and what value you can add to organizations.

 

Not working in parallel on the possibility of improving your current career.

By all means explore new options. But don’t give up too soon on improving your current situation. And don’t be too timid about trying new ways of working. If you may be leaving soon anyway, why not take some chances and see if you can make important changes?

 

Leaping without looking.

The mistake here is not doing your homework and digging deeply enough on your alternatives. Be sure to scrutinize your options and gather data on them—ideally with some hands-on projects—before diving in. Otherwise, you risk a rude awakening that your new career may also have major drawbacks for you.

 

Rushing into a new career because you hate your job.

This is problematic because sometimes there are particularities of a job, such as a bad manager or a toxic culture, which you could solve with an organizational change, not a career change.

“Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called EVERYBODY and they meet at the bar.” George Carlin

 

Leaping without a safety net.

When you leap without cash reserves for a reasonable amount of time, it may work out. But it may not. As you get closer to drawing down your reserves, you may get desperate and take something that’s far from ideal—or even worse than what you left. According to a 2021 McKinsey survey, 40 percent of U.S. workers who left their job did so without a new one (higher than other countries in the sample).

 

Going it alone and neglecting your network.

Navigating a career change is a big deal, with many challenges large and small. So it’s a big mistake to try to figure it all out on your own. Your network may be able to help in important and even unexpected ways. There are opportunities that people in your network know about that you couldn’t, as well as experiences and insights they have which they could share with you. But only if you reach out. A related mistake: not tapping a mentor or career coach to provide perspective and guidance. And not leaning on a small group to provide support.

 

Expecting your existing network to be adequate.

A successful career change often requires new people and perspectives from different industries. There may be subtle ways in which your current network is holding you back from making changes. An example: the social pressure you may feel based on your identity in that industry, with your existing level of success. That success can trap you and prevent you from making necessary changes.

“Don’t just focus on the work. Find people who are what you want to be and who can provide support for the transition. But don’t expect to find them in your same old social circles. Break out of your established network. Branch out.”Herminia Ibarra

 

Taking too much direction from others.

Yes, you want to get input from others. Particularly those who have your best interests at heart, and those who have important connections, experiences, or perspectives. But recall that their preferences and perspectives are different from yours. Maybe they want different things for you—or they don’t see clearly what fills you up and what drains you.

 

Overweighting compensation as a consideration.

Sure, money is important. We earn it for our basic needs, and to enjoy comfort and enriching opportunities, if we’re so fortunate. And to give back or make an impact. But don’t neglect the important non-financial compensation that can come from work such as growth, community, and fulfillment. Don’t underweight other important variables, such as fit with values, interests, and strengths.

Salary and bonus are readily quantifiable, but happiness, self-respect, and values alignment are harder to pin down but also essential. Too often, people use money as a scorecard to measure success or status, as if all that matters is salary and wealth (and not health, relationships, growth, contribution, and more).

“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

 

Assuming you must go back to school.

Yes, sometimes you need a degree or credential to make a successful career change. But not always. At some point, real-world experience, street smarts, and valuable skills and mindsets more than make up for the lack of a degree. In many cases, a degree will impart academic knowledge but not prepare you fully for the requirements of the new career. So be sure to look into this before making the investment of time and money.

 

Assuming your degree determines your career.

According to Bill Burnett and Dave Evans in their great book, Designing Your Life, about three-quarters of U.S. college graduates don’t end up working in a career related to their majors. There are tons of wildly successful business CEOs who got liberal arts degrees, from Howard Schultz (Starbucks) and Andrea Jung (Avon) to Michael Eisner (Disney) and John Mackey (Whole Foods). Singer Carrie Underwood studied mass communications. Actress Eva Longoria studied kinesiology. Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin studied Greek and Latin. Higher education is mostly for learning and growing, not pigeonholing us.

 

Thinking and planning too much, and not taking enough action.

The mistake here is “analysis paralysis.” Career change expert Herminia Ibarra says it well: “Act your way into a new way of thinking and being. You cannot discover yourself by introspection. Start by changing what you do. Try different paths. Take action, and then use the feedback from your actions to figure out what you think, feel, and want. Don’t try to analyze or plan your way into a new career.”

 

Doubting your skills and abilities.

Changing careers feels scary, in part because of all the unknowns. You begin to doubt your skills and abilities, assuming you’re so far behind others in that field, when it’s more likely that you have many transferrable skills and abilities. And that being an outsider can be a tremendous asset (e.g., in terms of the objectivity and innovation).

 

Playing it too safe.

If you’re taking on the daunting challenges of career change, why not “shoot the moon” and go for what you really want? Otherwise, what’s the point of it all? You never know what may come of your courage and efforts.

 

Narrowing your options too quickly.

Since it can be overwhelming to consider many possibilities, you may be tempted to narrow your options quickly. There’s a balance here. Yes, there’s a danger of option overwhelm (famously explained by Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice), but there’s also a big risk of missing good options by excluding them prematurely. You generally make better choices when you have lots of good options to choose from, so be sure to ideate openly first before analyzing and narrowing.

 

Thinking it’s too late.

You may dismiss opportunities because you think it’s too late. That can be a big mistake. You never know until you try, and you may have just the right skill set or mindset for the new career. According to surveys, one of the top barriers to career change is a concern about being too old, with 31 percent of workers reporting that. Yet there are countless examples of people who made not just one but multiple career changes later in life. And as people live longer, on average, we’ll need to get better at transitioning into new careers later in life.

 

Holding out for perfection or total clarity about the new destination.

Life is messy. Change is hard. It’s rare that you get perfect clarity or achieve perfection when trying something new. Be willing to act anyway and watch how things start to move. Act, learn, and adjust. Iterate as you go. But get going.

“By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change careers
is to delay taking the first step until they have settled on a destination.”

-Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organizational Behavior, London Business School

 

Not testing the new career before leaping.

You can’t figure it out on a spreadsheet. The list of pros and cons may help, but it won’t get you all the way there. You need to roll up your sleeves and start trying things. Gather data. Interview people in fields of interest (ideally including people who liked and succeeded in the career of interest and people who disliked and abandoned the career). Run low-cost probes and simple, quick experiments that will help you experience the profession before taking the leap. Examples:

  • consulting project
  • internship (or a “returnship” for mid-career professionals)
  • job rotations inside your organization
  • job shadowing
  • training in new areas
  • life design interviews (meeting with people who are already doing what you’re interested in doing and hearing their story: asking them questions like how they got to where they are, how they developed the necessary skills, what a typical day looks like, what they like and don’t like about their work, etc.)

 

Assuming you must “climb the ladder” in your career.

You may be in “climbing mode”: striving to move up the ladder of success, focusing on achievement and advancement. For many, this is taken for granted. But is it right for everyone always? No doubt there can be great value in climbing mode: money, status, growth, challenge, and more. But many people feel empty at the top. The key is crafting a career that works for you—given your values, passions, and aspirations—and your current context of your family and other responsibilities.

 

Not playing the long game.

Are you playing the short game? Our culture is geared toward it. It’s alluring. But playing the long game is powerful. That involves taking the necessary steps today to set yourself up for success tomorrow. Avoiding instant gratification and distractions. Making sacrifices in the present for a better future. Building a foundation that will set you up for new opportunities and success.

 

Being so focused on fleeing from a bad situation that you don’t scrutinize your new direction.

When you allow your current work situation to become so bad, or even toxic, you can become desperate even for the slightest change, even if it doesn’t advance you toward the horizon you seek. A better approach: set boundaries and stabilize your current situation while developing an intentional and systematic process for crafting an exciting and rewarding next career chapter. One that’s worth the wait.

 

Giving up too quickly or easily.

Changing careers is hard, so you may be tempted to throw in the towel and settle. Don’t. This is your one life. Stick with it and keep working until it’s great.

 

Not giving it the time and attention it deserves, with a well-designed process.

Changing careers is hard. You may already be busy with a current job, plus all the other things you’re doing. It’s easy to let the career change process slide as you get lost in the daily busyness. Big mistake. You need to create and protect margin in your life to let the career discovery process launch and gather momentum.

 

Not paying attention to market waves.

Do you have functional skills (like digital marketing, event planning, or management) that can be applied in different industries and settings? Almost certainly. Think about market waves—big changes that are rolling through our lives. Examples: clean tech and green energy, conscious capitalism, space exploration, and so many more. What interests you? Are you looking ahead? What are the big economic, social, technological, political, or environmental trends shaping our time and driving new opportunities? As with blackjack players in Las Vegas, you have the advantage of table selection—of choosing where to play, whether it’s in exciting and growing industries or corrupt and dying ones. (For a short video explaining this kind of thinking, see “Find a Wave and Ride It” by Eric Straser.)

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…
We must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”

-William Shakespeare (Brutus in “Julius Caesar”)

 

Believing there’s one perfect career for you that you must find.

Perhaps you’re holding back on moving career change exploration because you’re expecting to find THE ONE PERFECT CAREER that will take you to professional nirvana. News flash: in the real world, that’s exceedingly rare. For those who haven’t won the career lottery, crafting a career is an iterative process, with many ups and downs. So let go of the fantasy and get to work.

 

Not taking advantage of transition time.

Are you always jumping from one thing to another without a proper transition? Afraid of the in-between time, when things are fuzzy and emergent, or are you embracing it as an adventure? Stressed about not yet knowing what’s next, or are you finding ways to enjoy yourself despite the uncertainty—appreciating the freedom and the possibilities to explore and have fun with other things (like reconnecting with other people and hobbies) in the meantime? Are you fearing or trusting? As author Bruce Feiler reminds us, sometimes “life is in the transitions.”

“This is now my #1 tip for changing your life. You need to clear a space for the new you to emerge.”
Joanna Penn, writer
Joanna Penn

 

Forcing change on an arbitrary timeline.

Did you pick a deadline out of a hat that may not reflect the reality of the change process? Are you overly optimistic about the timeline? It’s one thing if your cash burn rate gives you a hard deadline. It’s another thing altogether if you’re slavishly following an arbitrary deadline and making big decisions based on it.

 

Jumping prematurely to sweeping changes.

Tempted to bet the farm on your latest idea? You may want to think again. Herminia Ibarra says it beautifully:

“Resist the temptation to start by making a big decision that will change everything in one fell swoop. Use a strategy of small wins, in which incremental gains lead you to more profound changes in the basic assumptions that define your work and life. Accept the crooked path. Small steps lead to big changes, so don’t waste time, energy, and money on finding the ‘answer’ or the ‘lever that, when pushed, will have dramatic effects. Almost no one gets change right on the first try.”
-Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organizational Behavior, London Business School

 

Not considering entrepreneurial options.

Did you assume you’ll go work for an established organization and rule out starting a new venture? Have you considered becoming a solopreneur or freelancer? Nowadays, there are so many compelling opportunities in these lanes, plus easy and accessible ways to experiment with them, even as a side hustle.

 

Not factoring in the cost of regret.

As you think about your next move, be sure to account for the cost of coming to the end of your life and looking back with regret for not trying the things you really wanted to do.

“It’s better to fail trying to do what you really care about than to succeed at something else.” Mark Albion

 

Letting fear hold you back from trying for what you really want.

Are you intrigued by something but reluctant to pursue it because of what others might think? This is especially hard today when your social media profiles are open for all to see. It’s natural to fear the judgment of others when you’re in between things. But this can be a real barrier to your progress on big things.

“So please ask yourself: What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it.”
-Sheryl Sandberg, tech executive and author
Sheryl Sandberg

Postponing what you really want to do.

Putting off the dream? Telling yourself that it’s not the right time? What are you waiting for? Do you risk waiting too long, or even deferring indefinitely? Consider the sage advice of Warren Buffett:

“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, legendary investor

 

Not finding sanctuary.

In today’s world with its frenzied pace, it can be easy to get caught up in the chase and never take time for rest and renewal. Especially when you’re making big decisions in life, you need sanctuary in your life: places and practices of peace that restore your heart. Places of quiet and tranquility where you can get quiet and hear your inner voice. Sanctuary can give you the perspective to make wise choices and to sustain you through the difficulties of the transition.

“What on earth do you do when you no longer have work as an excuse to be hyperactive and avoid the big questions?”
Tim Ferriss, entrepreneur, author, and podcaster
Tim Ferriss

 

Telling yourself you have no choice.

Feeling like you’re stuck, perhaps torn between your desires and obligations? Not even trying because you feel trapped? Think again. Here it straight from venture capitalist and executive coach Jerry Colonna:

“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

 

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.

 

There you have it. A summary list of the most common career change mistakes.

Yes, career change is hard. Sometimes brutally so. But it’s also a tremendous opportunity for you to take your life back and have fun while doing great things. It’s well worth the effort to navigate these challenges intentionally.

Wishing you well with it, and please reach out if you’d like some help.

Gregg

 

 

 

 

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Career Change

  • “Big career decisions don’t come with a map, but all you need is a compass. In an unpredictable world, you can’t make a master plan. You can only gauge whether you’re on a meaningful path. The right next move is the one that brings you a step closer to living your core values.” -Adam Grant
  • “Everything seems to conspire to keep us where we are. That is why so many people remain stuck in the first half or, at best, flounder in a perpetual halftime. Life seems more comfortable in known, familiar territory, even when we are fairly certain something better awaits us out there.” -Bob Buford
  • “An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.” -Honore de Balzac
  • “The thought once occurred to me that if one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment… all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • “An easy way to pick the wrong career is to put your image above your interests and identity. A motivating job isn’t the one that makes you look important. It’s the one that makes you feel alive. Meaningful work isn’t about impressing others. It’s about expressing your values.” -Adam Grant
  • “While we should dream big, sometimes we need to make smaller moves and small experiments to build confidence and gather data and grow more organically in a new direction…. There is no real way to know the answers up to the front of what to pursue next in our careers unless we’re running small tests and learning from them.” -Jenny Blake
  • “So many of us choose our paths in life out of fear disguised as practicality.” -Jim Carrey
  • “In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” -Warren Buffett

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Appendix: Data on Job and Career Changes

While there’s a great deal of data out there about the frequency of job changes, there’s not much out there on career change for two reasons: first, disagreement about definitions; second, career change is much harder to track and measure.

For example, 41 percent of employees were considering leaving their current employer in 2021, according to a Microsoft Work Trend Index survey of 31,092 full-time employed or self-employed workers across 31 markets. (Data are similar for the U.K. and Ireland, according to a recent survey.) But that addresses potential job changes, not career changes.

According to a September 2021 MetLife survey of 2,000 U.S. workers, 56 percent of women say they’ve thought about career change during the pandemic—twice as many who felt that way in summer 2020. In addition, 48 percent of women report that the pandemic has negatively impacted their career path.

According to Zippia, a business skills training company:

  • The average U.S. worker has 12 jobs throughout a lifetime.
  • S. workers have an average tenure of about 4.1 years with a single employer.
  • 37 percent of the U.S. workforce changed or lost their job in 2020.
  • 51 percent of U.S. workers said in 2018 that they change jobs every one to five years, up from 42 percent in 2017 and 34 percent in 2016.
  • Job change frequency varies dramatically by age in the U.S.:
    • people between 18 and 24 years old change jobs about 5.7 times during that period
    • people between 25 and 34 change jobs about 2.4 times
    • people between 35 and 44 change jobs about 2.9 times
    • people between 45 and 52 change jobs about 1.9 times
  • The average age of a major career change is 39 years old.
  • 58 percent of people say they’d be willing to take a pay cut to make a major career change.
  • 57 percent of workers said that the top barrier to career change is a lack of financial security. (The other top barriers are lack of clarity about what career to enter, lack of required education, and concerns about being too old.)

Image source: Zippia

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. 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!

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 we place the golden handcuffs on ourselves. 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’re 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.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Related Traps

Golden handcuffs may be a problem for many reasons. Our life and work choices are complex. Related traps include:

  • Wrong Path: pursuing a path that doesn’t align with your values and aspirations
  • 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
  • Comparison Trap: 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
  • Inertia: sticking with a sub-optimal path, often because the switching costs are so high
  • Not Moving On: holding on too long to a bad situation or relationship and not moving forward
  • Short Game: failing the invest in the future and deciding important things without considering the long term

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.

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.

“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

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

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.

 

Tools for You

 

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
  • “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

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). 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 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, or addicted to work. We never feel fully rested and renewed. Or 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. (See my article, “Time to Check the Path You’re On?“)

 

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. (See my article, “What Keeps Us from Moving On?“)

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.

 

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. Or 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. And 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? And what about contributing to something greater than ourselves, to our family, our community, our world, or a worthy cause? What about character and integrity? And 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?

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

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. And we can get so driven that we lose sight of the things that capture our hearts. We can lose our artistry and our soul. Or 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. Or 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.

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.

 

Reflection Questions

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

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

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 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. Call it the conformity trap.

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 for acceptance. We want others to view us favorably. 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 the conformity trap 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 researchers tested people 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 about faulty vision. Rather, they were willing to go along with something they clearly knew wasn’t right. Why? To remain accepted and in agreement with the group.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

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 a survey about the 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 the Conformity Trap

“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 pressure patterns of the conformity trap 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 harsh judgment from our peers. It also gives us something of a safety net we can fall into when we’re anxious.

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 Second-Order Effect of the Conformity Trap

Here’s the problem. 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’re 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 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 the Conformity Trap

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. 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.

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.

 

Reflection Questions

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

 

Tools for You

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

 

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.

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!

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, U.S. Army officer, statesman, and diplomat

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. 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.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

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.

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

“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

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?

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.

What to Do If Your Identity Is Wrapped Up in Work

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, as Jonathan Fields recommends? 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

  1. Is your identity wrapped up in work?
  2. What important areas of your life are you neglecting?
  3. What will you do start doing to make yourself whole again?

 

Tools for You

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

 

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

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!

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. Or we suffer through the days. We become resigned to the dysfunctions of our work, and habituated to its anxiety and stress. Or 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….

 

Deferring Dreams: 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. We’re not all 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.”

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Deferring Dreams: 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 “analysis 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 to Deferring Dreams and Postponing Happiness

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”
  • Wrong path: pursuing a path that doesn’t align with your values, aspirations, and preferences

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.

 

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

  1. Are you deferring dreams?
  2. Are you postponing happiness?
  3. What can you do, starting today, to begin pursuing your aspirations?
  4. What are you waiting for?

 

Tools for You

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

 

Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Avoid Deferring Dreams

  • “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.” -William 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 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!