Why Self-Awareness Is So Important–And How to Develop It

Article Summary: 

Self-awareness is critical in our life, work, and relationships, but many of us struggle with it. How to develop self-awareness.

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To be self-aware is to have a good understanding of ourselves, including conscious knowledge of our feelings, motives, and desires. Self-awareness (also known as self-knowledge) involves having a clear, accurate, and deep understanding of our emotions, values, strengths, and weaknesses. It also involves having a realistic view of ourselves, including a good and true sense of how we’re coming across to others.

In her book, Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think, organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich defines self-awareness as “the ability to see ourselves clearly to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us.” She calls it the “meta-skill of the 21st century.” It may be an important skill in this century, but we’ve known about the importance of self-awareness for millennia.

“Know thyself.”
-inscribed on the temple wall at Delphi, 6th century BCE

According to researchers, there are two types:

  1. Internal (or private) self-awareness is about how clearly we see ourselves and whether we notice and reflect on our own internal state.
  2. External (or public) self-awareness is about being aware of how we appear to others.

 

Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence

Self-awareness is closely associated with emotional intelligence (EQ). Pioneering psychologist Daniel Goleman considers self-awareness one of the four domains of emotional intelligence (along with self-management, social awareness, and relationship management)—and emphasizes that it’s the foundation for the other three.

According to Goleman, self-awareness involves certain personal competences, including:

  • Accurate self-assessment: knowing our strengths and weaknesses
  • Emotional self-awareness: reading our own emotions and recognizing their impact
  • Self-confidence: having a good sense of our capabilities and self-worth

Take the Traps Test

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

 

The Consequences of Lacking Self-Awareness

When we lack self-awareness, we have blind spots that get us into trouble, and we don’t know the underlying reasons for our actions. As a result, we’re likely to keep making the same mistakes, and we’ll be less likely to take responsibility for them, damaging our credibility.

Think of the compulsive talkers who don’t let others get a word in during conversations, unaware that people find it off-putting because it shows a lack of interest in others. Consider the frequent criticizers who spend so much time judging others instead of addressing their own issues.

Think of the people who keep bringing up politics out of the blue and saying things that hurt or offend the people around them without realizing it. Consider the people who speak loudly in public places, unaware that they’re disturbing everyone around them.

Think about the reserved introvert who unintentionally comes across as aloof or uninterested. Note the chronic complainer who never asks others how they’re doing. Consider the perpetual dreamers who never get around to the things they need to do to get started.

We’re all flawed—and prone to self-deception—so we should approach these cases with empathy and grace. But in many cases, a little self-awareness would go a long way toward helping people get out of their own way.

“Knowledge of the self is the mother of all knowledge. So it is incumbent on me to know my self, to know it completely, to know its minutiae, its characteristics, its subtleties, and its very atoms.”
-Khalil Gibran, Lebanese writer and poet

 

20 Benefits of Developing Self-Awareness

The good news is that we can develop self-awareness, even if we’re low on it (as many are). Having a high level of self-awareness can help us in many ways. For example, it can:

  1. help us see our blind spots for the first time—or see them more clearly
  2. improve our decision-making
  3. help us communicate more effectively
  4. increase our confidence
  5. help us manage stress
  6. enhance our sense of personal control
  7. help us develop our social intelligence and relational awareness, in the process improving our relationships
  8. help us avoid wearing a mask or creating a persona that lacks authenticity
  9. increase our happiness and fulfillment
  10. help us recognize the ruts we’ve fallen into
  11. help us use more of our potential
  12. enhance our influence
  13. facilitate higher job satisfaction
  14. improve our ethical behavior, making us less likely to lie, cheat, or steal
  15. help us avoid looking to others too much for what we should do
  16. help us find good work that’s a good fit for us—and know what work we should avoid
  17. help us understand what makes us come alive and what drains us
  18. help us discover our purpose and what feels meaningful
  19. help us answer the question of what we should do with our lives based on what we’re good at and how we can best add value to others
  20. help us connect with our dreams, including a vision of our ideal self, in the process invoking our energy and excitement for life

Developing our self-awareness is a necessary step in honoring our nature and becoming who we want to be instead of conforming to the desires of others. It’s also a necessary step in developing self-acceptance and self-compassion. Developing self-awareness also helps illuminate our “shadow side”—the parts of our personality that we don’t want to admit—which is a necessary part of human development.

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.

 

Why Self-Awareness Can Be So Hard

Organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich and her colleagues researched self-awareness via multiple investigations with nearly 5,000 participants. She describes their results as follows:

“…even though most people believe they are self-aware, self-awareness is a truly rare quality:
We estimate that only 10-15% of the people we studied actually fit the criteria.”

Why is this so hard? Several reasons.

We’re subject to all sorts of influences from our family and friends, and from our culture, that cause us to question who we are and pull us away from it. We’re confused by the cultural influences that don’t align with our own values. Sometimes, we end up defaulting to the values given to us by our parents, peers, or culture (e.g., values related to money or success) and rarely take the time for self-inquiry—or to consider the downsides of those values and whether there may be better alternatives.

It’s hard to admit our weaknesses and face them. Being self-aware often hurts, so we tend to avoid it. This is the work of our fragile ego in defense mode.

We’re used to hiding tender parts of ourselves when we don’t feel safe admitting or revealing who we really are. We fear harsh judgment by ourselves or others.

We’re too busy or overscheduled, so we don’t take time for reflection and introspection.

We tend to default to emotion-driven interpretations of events and encounters instead of pausing to reflect on our inner state and how we may have contributed to things.

We’re accustomed to leaping right into action instead of having the patience and humility to inquire into the deeper reasons for things and our self-sabotaging patterns.

We feel uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance between the messiness of reality and our perfectionistic tendencies. It’s too painful to look at our shortcomings, so we remain in denial.

 

How to Develop Self-Awareness

Clearly, developing self-awareness is difficult, for many reasons. But given all its powerful benefits, it’s worth our focused and ongoing attention.

So, how to develop self-awareness? Before answering that, we’re wise to ask: Awareness of what, exactly? What does self-awareness include? Ideally, it includes our life story, purpose, values, vision, strengths, passions, emotions, motivations, needs, desires, successes, curiosities, weaknesses, shadow sides, traps, vulnerabilities, and blind spots.

Given that, here are things we can do to facilitate greater self-awareness:

Develop a propensity for frequent self-reflection (1), including taking time to reflect on meetings or other encounters and their emotional wake. Also, pay attention to what we love and long for, and what makes us come alive. This requires a commitment to self-inquiry and an intentional discovery process (what I call “discover mode”), including listening to our inner voice.

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.”
-Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian minister, theologian, and writer

Seek input and guidance from family, friends, mentors, and coaches. Ask for honest feedback, including about our weaknesses and blind spots. At work, this should include “360-degree reviews.”

Convene a small group to facilitate deep conversations about meaningful things in members’ lives. Make sure the conversation includes self-reflection with input from the group, so participants have a chance to consider new insights in a safe environment and search for patterns.

“…inner work, though it’s a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter:
inner work can be helped along by community.”
-Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Try using the Johari Window. It’s a framework that helps us identify what’s known to ourselves (or not) and what’s known to others about us (or not). See the image below.

Source: Adobe Stock

For many of us, we don’t let many people see our true selves (limiting what shows up in the upper left “Arena” quadrant). Also, we may have several blind spots—things that are known by others about us that we’re not aware of (in the upper right quadrant). Consider writing down ten words that describe yourself (your main characteristics) and then having one or more people who know you well do the same for you. Then, compare the lists to see the extent of overlap on the different lists. One goal of this work is to get us to show more about ourselves to others, in the process shrinking how much of ourselves we hide or that remains unknown to others.

Journal intentionally, since it can help us reflect on our feelings and experiences, sometimes uncovering insights or patterns.

Take time for renewal and sanctuary, including daily restorative activities (e.g., gardening or yoga) and places or practices of peace that help us recenter our hearts. Without time for renewal and sanctuary, we’ll be too scattered and frazzled to maintain self-awareness.

Take assessments that facilitate our self-awareness and personal growth. Examples include:

 

Conclusion

Self-awareness is sometimes painful—like when we discover hard truths about how others see us or first learn about major blind spots. Still, it’s well worth it. Without self-awareness, we’re likely to fall into several traps—and perhaps remain in them unknowingly, blind to our unhappy predicament.

Developing self-awareness can help facilitate real growth and development—and sometimes breakthroughs. We can only grow and develop when we have the courage to admit the traps we’re in and acknowledge our shadow side.

As we commit or recommit to developing our self-awareness, we’re wise to consider where many people get it wrong and trip up. Here are three final cautions about this process of becoming more self-aware:

First, self-awareness isn’t only about introspection and talk. The real value comes when we take action in the world based on a high level of self-awareness, such as when we build our life and work around our strengths and find viable workarounds for our weaknesses and blind spots, like asking for help from people who are strong in those areas.

“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”
-Witold Gombrowicz, Polish writer

Second, self-awareness isn’t only about the self. It’s also about the self in the larger context of our lives, including our family, friends, community, work, convictions, and commitments. As Quaker teacher Douglas Steere wisely noted, the ancient question “Who am I?” inevitably leads to the question “Whose am I?”

Third, our identities aren’t fixed. We’re multifaceted and dynamic, so our self-awareness needs to keep up with the changes in our inner and outer lives. New challenges and changes will continue—both imposed on us and chosen by us—giving us opportunities for more depth and insight in our quest to know ourselves so we can live more fully and freely.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. How well do you know yourself, and how can you be sure?
  2. Do you keep falling into old traps and patterns that hold you back, indicating that you may have some blind spots?
  3. Are you asking for feedback regularly and truly being open to it?

 

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

“How can man know himself? It is a dark, mysterious business…. It is also an agonizing, hazardous undertaking thus to dig into oneself, to climb down toughly and directly into the tunnels of one’s being…. Let the young soul survey its own life with a view of the following question: ‘What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?’ Assemble these revered objects in a row before you and perhaps they will reveal a law by their nature and their order: the fundamental law of your very self. Compare these objects, see how they complement, enlarge, outdo, transfigure one another; how they form a ladder on whose steps you have been climbing up to yourself so far….”
-Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher

 

Related Books and Videos

  • Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
  • Tasha Eurich, Insight: The Surprising Truth about How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More than We Think
  • William L. Sparks, “The Power of Self-Awareness,” TEDx Asheville
  • Tasha Eurich, “Increase Your Self-Awareness with One Simple Fix,” TEDx Mile High

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Self-Awareness

  • “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.” -Lao Tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher
  • “Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” -Epictetus, ancient Greek Stoic philosopher
  • “Full wise is he that can himself know.” -Chaucer, 14th century British storyteller
  • “If a man does not know himself, how should he know his functions and his powers?” -Michel de Montaigne, 16th century French Renaissance philosopher and writer
  • “Self-knowledge is best learned, not by contemplation, but by action. Strive to do your duty and you will soon discover of what stuff you are made.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer, poet, scientist, and statesman
  • “The purpose of life seems to be to acquaint man with himself.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century American essayist
  • “…the world’s wisdom traditions offer a valuable secret. They teach that the unsettled mind comes about through one thing only: losing sight of who we really are…. The answer lies in finding out who you really are—a conscious agent who can choose, at any time, to live from the level of the true self.” -Deepak Chopra, spiritual teacher and author
  • “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” -Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • “Most folks go through most days on automatic pilot and don’t reflect upon it. When you say, ‘Why did I do that? What was that in service to inside of me? What old button, or issue, or agenda did that hit in me? When have I been here before?’ these are questions that begin to open up the mechanism working within each of us. And through that, you gain some greater sense of self-awareness. And with that, the potential for a great sense of freedom in how you live your life.” -James Hollis, quoted in Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
  • “The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
  • “To be aware of a single shortcoming within oneself is more useful than to be aware of a thousand in somebody else.” -Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
  • “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions…. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live—but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

(1) Caution: introspection is helpful but can sometimes lead us astray, especially when we use it to ask the wrong questions. Based on data from her research on the most self-aware people, organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich recommends asking ourselves “what” instead of “why” questions to improve the value of our introspection. The “why” questions (e.g., “Why do I feel so bad?”), she notes, often concern unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives, and our instincts about them are often wrong. What’s more, those “why” questions tend to invite negative thought patterns, including rumination. Better questions, she proposes, are “what” questions: “What are the situations that make me feel bad? What do they have in common? What are the patterns?” Those “what” questions are more likely to lead to productive insights. (Source: Tasha Eurich, “What Self-Awareness Really Is (And How to Cultivate It),” Harvard Business Review, January 4, 2018.)

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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 Common Traps of Living: Which Are You In?

face and hands being buried

We all want a good life. To be healthy and happy. We want to love and be loved. To have experiences, enjoy comforts, and do certain things before we die.

All well and good. But too often we focus on what to do to get the things we want in life—and not enough on what not to do.

That’s where the common traps of living come in—the things that inhibit us from leading the life we want.

We all fall into traps in life. All of us. Moms. Dads. Leaders. Professionals. Interns. Students. Retirees. Geniuses. Dopes.

We all fall into traps in life.

Photo by Christopher Windus on Unsplash
photo by Christopher Windus on Unsplash

The point is not to beat ourselves up for not living perfectly. Nobody does.

Rather, the point is to recognize the traps we’re in—and get busy climbing out. Too often, we go through long stretches of our lives in several traps pretending like all is well when it’s not. The sooner we address our traps and stop avoiding them, the better.

 

Common Traps of Living

Below are 15 of the most common traps of living, based on my data set of more than 900 people around the world who have taken my Traps Test as of August 2023. As you read through them, note which ones have affected you.

  1. Overthinking: excessively analyzing something, dwelling on possibilities and second-guessing.
  2. Overwork: working too much consistently despite negative effects on other priorities; potential burnout or work addiction
  3. Negative Self-Talk: inner dialogue that makes you feel flawed, unacceptable, or not enough.
  4. Postponing: deferring plans or dreams because it’s not practical or “the right time.”
  5. Self-Doubt: lacking confidence or questioning your capabilities and potential.
  6. Comparing: measuring yourself against others and judging your worth by how you stack up.
  7. Perfectionism: setting unrealistic expectations for yourself or others or needing things to be flawless.
  8. Indecision: wavering between different courses of action and having trouble deciding and moving on.
  9. Fear: holding back or not trying important things due to fears about failure or threats to image.
  10. Avoidance: not facing up to difficult tasks, situations, or conflicts.
  11. Numbing: shutting out feelings by keeping yourself preoccupied with other things (e.g., work, technology, substances).
  12. Complacency: allowing yourself to lose urgency and motivation.
  13. Settling: accepting significantly less than what you want or deserve.
  14. Not Moving On: holding on too long to a bad situation or relationship and not advancing forward.
  15. Catastrophizing: assuming the worst and blowing things out of proportion.

(Take my Traps Test to see the full list of the common traps of living.)

Which traps have you fallen into? Are there any which are pressing now?

Photo by Tom Chrostek on Unsplash
Photo by Tom Chrostek on Unsplash

See my Traps Test to find out your top traps—and then get to work on climbing out of them.

Take the Traps Test

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

 

Reflection Questions

  1. What are your top traps?
  2. And what will you do about them, starting today?
“It was one thing to make a mistake; it was another thing to keep making it.”
-Jodi Picoult, Handle with Care

P.S. – This always works best when you talk it through openly with others. We all fall into traps, and we all have work to do. So get busy with the important work of intentional personal development.

Reach out if you think I may be able to help.

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Traps of Living

  • “We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” -Ernest Hemingway, novelist
  • “In school we learn that mistakes are bad, and we are punished for making them. Yet, if you look at the way humans are designed to learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we never fell down, we would never walk.” -Robert T. Kiyosaki, Rich Dad, Poor Dad
  • “There is more to learn from mistakes than from successes.” -Richard Branson, entrepreneur
  • “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.” -Brandon Mull, Fablehaven
  • “Being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.” -Bryan Stevenson, social justice activist

(Note: This article has been updated several times as I’ve learned more from my global data set of people taking my Traps Test.)

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!

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!

The Trap of Workaholism–And What to Do About It

Article Summary: 

Everything you need to know about workaholism (work addiction): its prevalence, signs, causes, and costs—and how to overcome it.

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Many people today struggle with workaholism—being addicted to work and struggling to switch it off or stop thinking about it

Psychologist Wayne Oates coined the term “workaholism” in 1971 in his book, Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts About Work Addiction. He defined it as “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” In 2014, researchers C.S. Andreassen, J. Hetland, and S. Pallesen defined work addiction as “being overly concerned about work, to be driven by strong and uncontrollable work motivation, and to spend so much energy and effort into work that it impairs private relationships, spare-time activities, and/or health.”

According to researchers, work addiction has both a behavioral component (working long hours consistently) and a psychological component (being obsessed with work). It’s a serious problem for many.

 

A Cautionary Tale About Workaholism

Gerald Chertavian grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts with a strong work ethic. After business school, he moved to London to be with his fiancée. Following a frustrating first job experience there, he was approached with an opportunity to buy into a technology company on the verge of bankruptcy. They had precious little to go on, but he decided to go for it.

The challenges were fierce, but Gerald was committed. For years, he pushed and pushed, until one day it was too much. As he told us in an interview for LIFE Entrepreneurs:

“I looked over the side of my desk in London. It was 2 a.m. and I couldn’t see the ground. It was just black. I couldn’t even see the rug below me. It was like looking into the abyss.”
-Gerald Chertavian

This talented and vigorous young man early in his career could have worked himself to death. It was a stark wake-up call.

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 Value of Hard Work

Concerns about workaholism shouldn’t be equated with a critique of hard work. There’s incredible value in hard work (especially in smart hard work), from opportunities for learning and growth to success and wealth creation.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s another problem: sloth. Many people fall into the trap of not working hard enough and later come to regret it.

Aristotle famously wrote about the “golden mean” of virtue between two vices. So, between sloth and overwork, the golden mean is hard work—ideally work with purpose, passion, and impact. But that’s a far cry from work addiction.

Workaholism shouldn’t be conflated with hard work, a strong work ethic, dedication, conscientiousness, loving what we do, or occasionally working extra hard to complete an important task. These are all good. By contrast, workaholism takes us into the territory of preoccupation, compulsion, and addiction, with the associated loss of self-control and continuation of excessive work despite negative consequences.

If we love our work, that doesn’t mean we’re addicted to it. But if we’re a workaholic, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we work so much because we love it or because we need to when we actually don’t.

Workaholism is also not the same as having an overly demanding boss who piles way too much work on our plates—or as the excessive work sometimes demanded by startups, turnarounds, or crises. Work addiction, in short, is not the same as work overload. (That’s a different problem.)

 

The Prevalence of Workaholism

The prevalence of workaholism is hard to pin down because it’s hard to define precisely and even harder to measure. And even when it gets measured, there are challenges with getting nationally representative data sets.

Nonetheless, psychologists estimate that about 10% of Americans struggle with work addiction. Research from a nationally representative random sample in Norway using the Bergen Work Addiction Scale found that 8.3% of the population there struggles with work addiction.

These may not be huge percentages, but they add up to massive numbers of people. According to Zippia Research, 55% of Americans (55%) didn’t use all of their paid time off in 2022.

Researcher Brene Brown jokes that when they start having support meetings for workaholics, they’ll have to rent out football stadiums.

 

Signs of Workaholism

How to know if we struggle with workaholism? It comes with a number of telltale signs, including:

  • feeling preoccupied with work even outside normal working hours (we can’t stop thinking about it)
  • being the first one in the office and the last to leave
  • not taking a lunch break and other breaks
  • working often on weekends*
  • working more than is needed or expected of them
  • having a hard time stopping work
  • feeling physical and emotional distress when we’re not working, much like the withdrawal symptoms from other addictions
  • lacking margin in our lives and suffer from “time poverty” (an acute feeling of having too much to do and not enough time)
  • sacrificing time with our spouse/partner, children, and friends because we’re so consumed with work
  • suffering negative consequences from working so much, whether physically, relationally, or otherwise.

The Bergen Work Addiction Scale is a psychometrically validated assessment instrument developed by testing 12,000 Norwegian workers from 25 different industries. See the image below and consider doing a quick check.

Source: Clockify, https://clockify.me/workaholism-facts

According to the research, workaholics tend to be status-conscious, hyper-competitive, and achievement-oriented. They have high standards (e.g., must be the best) and tend to be self-critical. Often, they have a strong need for success and external validation.

Workaholics may also struggle with close relationships, vulnerability, and intimacy due to a fear of disclosing flaws. And they may neglect their inner life given their focus on external achievements.

Edward Hallowell writes in his book, Crazy Busy, that it can become a habit so entrenched that it makes you “a slave to a lifestyle you don’t like but you can’t escape.” According to Clockify, a company that helps organizations track how much time people spend working on tasks, the top ten traits of workaholics are the following:

Source: Clockify, https://clockify.me/workaholism-facts

Workaholism can show up in different ways. For some, it may be a standard compulsion that’s fairly consistent over time. For others, it gets progressively worse. And for others, it involves binge-working in fits and starts.

Some people are good at hiding their workaholism from others, knowing that it brings conflict or disappointment, so they sneak in work when others can’t see it.

According to researchers, workaholics often make things harder for themselves by placing more pressure on themselves, making their work more complicated than necessary, and hesitating to delegate work when possible or to seek social support when they’re struggling. They may also be attracted to high-pressure jobs with intense demands.

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.

 

Causes: Where Workaholism Comes From

Where does workaholism come from? Researchers have discovered several sources. Here are the main ones:

Childhood causes. Many workaholics grew up with overly demanding or overly protective parents. This can set up long-term behavioral patterns that can be difficult to escape.

Our identity. Author Stephen R. Covey noted that some people have a work-centered identity. (See my article, “Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?”)

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown notes that some people consider exhaustion a status symbol and view “productivity as self-worth.” Others have an achievement identity. Shirzad Chamine, best-selling author and chairman of the Coaches Training Institute, has identified what he calls a “hyper-achiever” as one of ten “saboteurs” that inhibit our effectiveness and enjoyment:

“The Hyper-Achiever makes you dependent on constant performance and achievement for self-respect and self-validation. It keeps you focused mainly on external success rather than on internal criteria for happiness. It often leads to unsustainable workaholic tendencies and causes you to fall out of touch with deeper emotional and relationship needs. Its lie is that your self-acceptance should be conditional on performance and external validation.”
-Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence

Emotional causes. If we feel guilty or anxious when we’re not working, it’s easy to numb those feelings by working incessantly. Some people suffer from “productivity guilt”—having a constant nagging feeling that we should be doing more.

Personality factors. Many workaholics struggle with perfectionism, neuroticism, or obsessive-compulsive tendencies. They may have a “Type A” personality characterized by ambition, aggressiveness, and intense achievement striving.

Running from pain. At a deeper level, workaholism is sometimes more about running away from something that running toward the glories of work. There may be great emotional pain, discomfort, shame, or trauma driving it.

“…workaholism is a surprisingly effective distraction from emotional and spiritual problems.”
-David Brooks, The Second Mountain

There’s an interesting question about the direction of causality here. It’s clear that workaholism can and often does lead to significant distress in our lives. But researchers have discovered that, for many people, workaholism is also a response to distress in their lives, such as emotional disturbance or anxiety. In other words, it’s caused by distress but also adds to distress, a double whammy.

“We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough,
the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”
-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

 Fear. Sometimes the compulsion to work and work comes from a place of fear—fear of not being enough or of disappointing people. Seen in this light, work addiction becomes a matter of overdoing things to avoid the things we’re afraid of (but too often doing damage in the process).

Motivational factors. If we’re highly motivated by extrinsic factors like financial or status rewards, we can tell ourselves that working all the time will bring us the satisfaction and happiness we crave. (See “The Most Common Myths About Happiness.”)

Cultural influences. Some organizations and even nations have a culture that lionizes work and achievement over other values. People living in different countries can have widely varying outlooks on the importance of work.

“American culture valorizes overwork, which makes it easy to slip into a mindset that can breed success addiction.”
-Arthur Brooks, From Strength to Strength

 

The Problem with Workaholism

Workaholism, like all addictions, can come with a high—sometimes devastating—cost. Here are some of the problems it can cause in different areas of our lives:

Workaholism can contribute to physical health problems, including:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • higher systolic blood pressure
  • insomnia

These are all serious problems. Notably, some languages now have words for “death from overwork” (karoshi in Japanese and guolaosi in Chinese).

It can also contribute to mental health problems, including:

  • higher levels of mental distress and emotional exhaustion
  • chronic stress
  • anxiety
  • depression

Workaholism can lead to relationship problems, including::

  • less time with family and friends
  • more work-family conflicts

Workaholism can have negative effects on our work, including:

  • more job stress
  • greater chance of burnout
  • lower job satisfaction
“Findings suggest that workaholism is related to negative outcomes such as increased job stress, work–life conflict, burnout, decreased job and life satisfaction, and poor physical and emotional/mental health…. workaholism was not related to higher levels of performance or job satisfaction; rather, it was related to many negative outcomes such as burnout, job stress, lower job satisfaction, and poorer emotional/mental and physical well-being.”
-Malissa Clark et al., “All Work and No Play?”

Researchers note that work addiction doesn’t necessarily lead to better performance. That makes sense because we’re all human and have limits. At some point, there are diminishing marginal returns for the extra work put in.

Workaholics may get a short-lived rush from completing an important project, but they quickly turn their attention to the next item on their to-do list, placing them squarely on the hedonic treadmill.

Workaholism also leads to lower life satisfaction and more life regrets. In her work as a palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware noted the top regrets of people who were in the process of dying. The second most common regret among her patients was this:

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

Her point here isn’t that hard work is bad in and of itself.

The problem is when we let our work crowd out so many other important things such as our health and close relationships with family and friends. By working too much, we’re optimizing for one aspect of our lives (our work) while harming other important aspects.

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 Secondary Effects of Workaholism

Unfortunately, the negative effects don’t stop there. There are also secondary effects of work addiction that spill over into other domains.

For starters, workaholism can lead to secondary addictions (e.g., to alcohol, drugs, pornography, etc.).

According to empirical research, work addiction is also related to poor family relationships, family dysfunction, and marital dissatisfaction. Writer John Eldredge likened it to having an affair with his work.

It can lead to neglecting children or missing family events and milestones (e.g., the birth of a child, sports tournaments, dance recitals, graduations). (See my article, “Five Words that Changed Me as a Parent.”)

Work addiction in parents can lead to problems with their children’s mental health. According to a 2022 study of 527 Lithuanian workers, “perceived work addiction of both mother and father was related to higher levels of work addiction of their adult child.”

And what are the opportunity costs of all these extra hours spent working instead of engaging in other worthy endeavors? For example, how can we take care of our aging parents and grandparents or struggling relatives if we’re so consumed with our work?

Also, our communities and nations suffer when many people are addicted to work. How can people find time to build community and participate actively as citizens when they’re working so much?

The physical exhaustion associated with work addiction can also lead to ethical lapses. According to former President Bill Clinton, “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.”

What’s more, workaholism may be contagious in some workplaces. According to researcher G. Spruell, “Workaholism practiced by even just one member of a work group can suck the spirit right out of the team” and can cause “destructive competitiveness among coworkers.” Overly demanding leaders can create a toxic culture of workaholism in their organization, leading to dissatisfaction, resentment, burnout, absenteeism, high turnover, lower performance, and great personal damage and regret among workers.

 

What to Do About Workaholism

Addressing the problem is difficult because many workaholics are in denial about their addiction (see “Self-Deception: Why We Do It and How to Stop It”)—and because many workplaces reward people for workaholic behavior.

“…work 16 hours a day, and you’ll probably get a promotion.”
-Arthur Brooks, “The Hidden Link between Workaholism and Mental Health”

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to address work addiction:

Track our time. Carefully log how we spend time for several days (or a week). Then go back and review which activities give us energy and a sense of meaning, versus which ones drain us or seem pointless. Consider whether the amount of time we’re spending working versus addressing other important priorities accurately reflects our core values.

Be brutally honest with ourselves. Stop avoiding and pretending. Decide to push past self-denial and face the reality and implications of our choices.

Ask those who know us best. Sometimes, it’s hard for us to see or admit but all too clear to others.

Set boundaries on our work time. Set a weekly maximum number of hours and limit email to certain hours, except under extraordinary circumstances. According to a February 2023 Pew Research Center study, workers with higher incomes and postgraduate degrees were most likely to say they regularly respond to work emails and messages outside of work hours. Though many people are rightly concerned about the exploitation of lower-income workers, it seems that many upper-income workers and managers are exploiting themselves.

Focus on only a few key priorities each day. Avoid the trap of being overly ambitious with expected accomplishments each day. That can set us up for a cycle of stress and overwork. Being realistic about daily and weekly accomplishments can help a lot. (Consider using the Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, and without moving to the next task until the current one is complete.)

Schedule important, non-work priorities. This can help make sure that other important priorities don’t get crowded out of our busy schedules.

Be intentional about time away from work. When we’re used to working hard, it can be easy to become unintentional and passive when we have free time. There’s nothing wrong with chilling out, but if we let it turn into mindless numbing with too much binge-watching or doom-scrolling, it will only make us more anxious and tired. Meanwhile, we’ll have lost important opportunities to connect with family and friends and to do fun things.

“Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing.”
-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist and author

Think about who we’re giving so much of our lives away to—and whether they’re worth it. In her article, “The Wages of Overwork,” writer and journalist Ann Helen Petersen writes, “Leaders are more than happy to exploit workers’ most anxious or engrained inclinations towards overwork.”

Make sure we’re giving enough time to the important people in our lives. According to research, our close relationships are the most important contributors to our happiness and quality of life.

Address the underlying issues that cause us to seek refuge in overwork. Do the inner work of discovering what’s causing us to engage in overwork and what we’re running from. These insights can give us clarity about the problem(s) we must address.

Be clear about our purpose and values. This helps us focus on what’s most important in our lives.

Develop good habits of recovery, renewal, and self-care such as:

Shift our focus from ego and personal achievement to connection with and service to others. Work addiction is often a selfish and lonely way of life. When we stay focused on connection and service, we can avoid getting trapped by our ego.

Remember our mortality. We will all die, and we don’t know when. Remembering this can help us determine what’s important in our lives right now.

Work with a therapist or join a support group (e.g., Workaholics Anonymous).

Regularly review how we’re doing in all the important areas of our lives. (See my Quality of Life Assessment—which you can set up for regular reminders.) By reviewing each area (e.g., family, health, friends, education, work, service, activities, finance), we can see which ones are neglected and problematic—and then take appropriate action.

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls… work, family, health, friends, and spirit. Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will never be the same.”
-Brian Dyson, former CEO, Coca-Cola Enterprises

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.

 

Coda: The Cautionary Tale

Remember Gerald starting into the abyss at 2 a.m. in his London office after years of overwork? Here’s what happened next:

“Right there, I realized that I wasn’t doing what I needed to do with my life. Then I went home and gave myself grades as a father, husband, friend, community member, and businessperson, and I only got one A—and the A was as a businessperson. I said that’s the last time in my life I’m going to look in the mirror and give myself those grades, period.”
-Gerald Chertavian**

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you suffering from or at risk of work addiction?
  2. How is it affecting your health, relationships, and quality of life?
  3. What will you do about it?
  4. Which of the above practices will you start with?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles & Traps to Workaholism

 

Postscript: Quotations on Workaholism

  • “If you think your busyness is some kind of prestige symbol, think again.” -Chris Brogan
  • “Busyness is not a marker of intelligence, importance, or success. Taken to an extreme, it is much more likely a marker of conformity or powerlessness or fear.” -Christine Carter
  • “You cannot be really first rate at your work if your work is all you are.” -Anna Quindlen, writer
  • “Overwork sucks us into a negative spiral, causing our brains to slow down and compromising our emotional intelligence.” -Annie McKee, author and advisor to top leaders
  • “Everyone knows that if a child’s parent dies, the child will suffer with sadness, loss, and possibly depression. No one thinks about this being the case when a child loses a parent to success.” -Jonice Webb with Christine Musello, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect
  • “No matter how much value we produce today—whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets—it’s never enough. We run faster, stretch out our arms further, and stay at work longer and later. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a Sisyphean race we can never win.” -Tony Schwartz, journalist, author, founder, The Energy Project
  • “My worry was that I would become addicted to success. It’s a delicate and dangerous zone—the interface between success and significance—to get as much success as you can without getting captured by it, becoming its prisoner.” -Bob Buford, Half Time
  • “Every addiction arises from an unconscious refusal to face and move through your own pain. Every addiction starts with pain and ends with pain. That is why… there is so much unhappiness, so much pain… They bring out the pain and unhappiness that is already in you.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “Human beings have always employed an enormous amount of clever devices for running away from themselves, and the modern world is particularly rich in such stratagems. We can keep ourselves busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people, and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. More often than not we don’t want to know ourselves, don’t want to depend on ourselves, don’t want to live with ourselves. By middle life, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” -John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal

 

Sources:

  • Andreassen, C. S., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2014). Psychometric assessment of workaholism measures. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 29(1), 7–24.
  • Morkeviciute M., Endriulaitiene A. Understanding Work Addiction in Adult Children: The Effect of Addicted Parents and Work Motivation. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Sep 8;19(18):11279.
  • Spruell, G. 1987. Work fever. Training and Development Journal, 41: 41-45.

* We should note that in today’s economy, many people choose to work nontraditional hours, as opposed to the standard Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Of course, choosing to do so isn’t in and of itself a sign of work addiction.

** Gerald Chertavian and his team built that company, Conduit Communications, into one of Britain’s fastest growing companies, eventually having more than 130 workers in several countries and earning more than $18 million in annual revenues. Six years later they sold it for a significant return and made millionaires out of many of their colleagues in the process. He later founded YearUp, a national 501(c)3 workforce development organization committed to ensuring equitable access to economic opportunity, education, and justice for all young adults—no matter their background, income, or ZIP code.

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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!

What Keeps Us from Moving On?

What Keeps Us from Moving On? by Gregg Vanourek

We can get set in our ways in our life and work, falling into the trap of not moving on from something when we should. It may be a job or career that’s no longer a good fit. Or a relationship that’s not working anymore. It could be a chapter in our life that needs to make way for a new one. Or a social group that we’ve outgrown.

It’s common to fall into the trap of not moving on—of holding on too long to a bad or suboptimal situation, relationship, job, or path and not advancing forward.

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 Keeps Us from Moving On?

There are many reasons we don’t move on. For example, we can be:

  1. afraid of the unknown
  2. waiting for the right time (which never seems to arrive)
  3. unwilling to take reasonable risks
  4. unclear about what we want instead
  5. accustomed to the current situation, even if it’s not great
  6. hoping the current situation will get better, despite signs to the contrary
  7. dreading the change process, with its hassles, stress, and emotional toll
  8. afraid the new situation will be worse
  9. good at rationalizing our current situation
  10. not confident enough in our ability to create a better situation
  11. worried about what other people might think if we make changes
  12. wanting to avoid hurting or inconveniencing others with our changes
  13. overestimating the problems caused by making changes
  14. skeptical that there’s a better future out there for us, causing us to settle for what we have
  15. feeling hopeless or helpless
  16. limited by low standards and expectations for ourselves
  17. not seeing high-quality alternatives out there
  18. inhibited by the natural human tendency toward “loss aversion” when thinking about making some changes
  19. overthinking things
  20. struggling to muster the energy needed for change
  21. feeling like we’re so far along our current path that it would be foolish to make a change now (i.e., “sunk cost fallacy”)
  22. having a hard time deciding what to move on to, sometimes aggravated by “choice overload
  23. trying to do too many things at once, preventing us from gaining traction in any one thing
  24. feeling as though it’s too late to make the needed changes
  25. conflicted about moving on, with different signals from our head and heart
  26. preferring a poor relationship to the anticipated pain of being alone
  27. subject to manipulation by people who are taking advantage of us, keeping us resigned to our current situation
  28. lacking clarity about some essential things that could help us decide what’s next (clarity about things like our purpose, core values, and vision of the good life

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 Problem with Not Moving On

Clearly, many things can prevent us from making changes and moving on. Most of them are phantoms in our head. Unfortunately, this can lead to painful consequences, including:

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

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you in the trap of not moving on from a bad or suboptimal situation, relationship, or job?
  2. Have you thought about the cost of not making changes and what that will leave you with?
  3. What will you do about it, starting today?
Some of us think that holding on makes us strong;
but sometimes it is letting go.”
-Hermann Hesse

 

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 Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Moving On

  • “The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short.” -Abraham Maslow
  • “In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” -Warren Buffett
  • “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 year it gets harder to change.” -Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • “Every worker needs to escape the wrong job.” -Peter Drucker
  • “The recipe for staying stuck is to try to do too many things at one time.” -Todd Herman
  • “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
  • “The most reliable predictor of what you’ll be doing five minutes from now is what you’re doing now…. The most reliable predictor of who you’ll be five years from now is who you are now.” -Marshall Goldsmith in The Earned Life

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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!

The Trap of Losing Yourself

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

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

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

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

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.

 

When Warren Lost Himself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His answers to those questions were illuminating:

Yes. No. No.

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

But no, he wasn’t happy.

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

The next question that came up was equally surprising:

Are you ready?

Ready? For what?

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

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

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

 

How We Lose Ourselves

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

 

1. We can lose ourselves in work and busyness.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Do we really want it?

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

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

 

7. We can lose ourselves in a relationship.

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

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

 

When Losing Ourselves Is a Good Thing

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

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

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

 

Reflection Questions

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

 

Tools for You

 

Related Traps

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

Take the Traps Test

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

 

Postscript: Inspirations

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

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!

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.

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, 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!

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

 

 

 

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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

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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!

The Great Re-Evaluation

The pandemic has called the question about our work—about how it fits into what we want in our lives. It’s made millions of us stop, look around, and wonder.

Enter the Great Resignation.”

In September, 4.4 million Americans (about 2.9% of the national workforce) left their jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In August, it was 4.3 million. About 4 million in July. (In September 2020, the number was about 3.3 million.) According to research from Visier, the annualized resignation rate is about 25 percent.

According to a Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 workers around the world, 41 percent of workers were considering quitting their jobs or changing their profession this year.

“When we come into contact with life-threatening events, we tend to reflect on death and consider whether we are happy with our lives or whether we would like to make changes to them. The pandemic forced (people) to take stock of their lives and gave them the opportunity to reimagine it.” -Anthony Klotz, the professor at Texas A&M University who coined the phrase “Great Resignation”

 

Why Are People Resigning?

The Great Resignation isn’t a monolith. The vastness of this phenomenon obscures the complex and intensely personal set of factors driving it among individuals.

There are often several reasons people leave a job—a complex interplay of factors. Some common reasons:

  • Dissatisfaction with manager
  • Dissatisfaction with pay
  • Insufficient recognition (according to the Gallup Organization, 65 percent of people don’t feel appreciated at work)
  • Lack of respect or dignity at work
  • Poor working conditions
  • Lack of social connection with colleagues
  • Feeling like a small cog in a large machine
  • Lack of meaning at work
  • Disconnect with personal values
  • Burnout

During this pandemic, many resignations have been driven by fear of catching Covid-19 or by frustration with organizations not taking worker safety seriously enough—and by staffing shortages that have placed extra burdens on workers over a long and stressful period.

For some, the pandemic has stoked resentment about lack of care and support, about poor treatment, and about dangerous working conditions.

For others, it has reignited curiosity about other options or motivation for a dream job.

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.

 

Varying Resignation Rates

Within the larger context of the Great Resignation writ large, resignations have varied greatly by industry and sector. In August 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 65 percent of the total resignations came from food and hospitality. Indeed, 6.8% of workers in the food service sector quit in just that month—the highest of any sector. (Service industries tend to have higher resignation rates.)

The health care sector has also seen high resignations rates (not surprising due to the strain these workers have been under for so long during the pandemic). Resignations also increased in the tech sector but decreased in the manufacturing and finance sectors.

According to a global analysis of more than nine million employee records from more than 4,000 companies:

  • “Resignation rates are highest among mid-career employees” (between age 30 and 45), “with an average increase of more than 20 percent between 2020 and 2021.”
  • Resignations decreased for workers aged 20 to 25 and for workers in the 60 to 70 age group

 

Different Situations

We should keep in mind the differences between people who were forced to quit due to the need to take care of children while schools were closed, or due to terrible or dangerous working conditions, versus those who chose to quit so they could pursue something better, such as higher pay, an ability to keep working remotely, a dream job, a new venture, an early retirement, or a career break. According to a July survey by Digital.com, 32 percent of working Americans who quit their jobs started a new venture.

The situation is in flux. This history is still being written. For some, the Great Resignation is a leap of faith toward something better (or the hope of it). For others, it’s a flight from an untenable situation.

Either way, the question has been called. How will we respond? How will we navigate our way through this time of upheaval and possibility?

 

A Great Re-Evaluation

In the end, it may be more than a Great Resignation. It’s also a Great Re-Evaluation for many of us.

Of course, such a re-evaluation doesn’t have to lead to quitting your job. It can mean bringing more of you to your current work (and family, friendships, and community engagements)—something we should have been doing all along.

It seems that reverting to old habits and patterns would be a cop-out at a time so rife with change and possibility. What kind of life and work do we want to create? And what’s stopping us from doing so?

What’s your take on the great re-evaluation? How are you seeing things?

 

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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!