The Trap of Dissatisfaction–And Its Surprising Upside

“I can’t get no satisfaction.” -The Rolling Stones

We all go through hard times in life, with setbacks and disappointments. It only becomes a trap if we experience a chronic sense of dissatisfaction—not being content or at peace with what we have.

It’s a trap if we develop an enduring sense of disappointment, of never feeling at peace. Or a chronic craving or dwelling on things we lack. In this state, we’re missing a sense of acceptance, of contentment, of serenity.

Such dissatisfaction can be a sign of maladaptive perfectionism—when our personal performance standards are hopelessly high and we’re extremely self-critical in judging ourselves. (See my article on “The Perfectionism Trap—And How to Escape It.”) It can also lead to a negative spiral when things don’t go as we hoped. In this spiral, discouragement accompanies any imperfection. Not a good place to be.

Some people get addicted to the dramas and disappointments of life. It becomes part of their identity. They use them to rile up their ego with outrage or grievance. It can give them a strange sort of satisfaction in the moment, but overall they’re really just making themselves miserable for large swaths of their life.

“Most people are in love with their particular life drama…. The ego runs their life. They have their whole sense of self invested in it.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

 

What Leads to Dissatisfaction

There are many external triggers of dissatisfaction, but what causes people to fall into the trap of chronic dissatisfaction in which they view life through a lens of disappointment or bitterness?

Here are some of the most common sources of such dissatisfaction:

  • Resisting what happened to us in the past and hanging on to it instead of letting it go.
  • Getting so caught up in hoping for a better future that we neglect the present moment or discount it because it hasn’t yet brought us our desired future.
  • Not distinguishing between our needs and wants, and then lamenting that we haven’t yet attained things which turn out to be fanciful or unnecessary. (Note: We should also be mindful of the doom loop that keeps us in jobs we don’t like in order to meet those supposed “needs.” See my article, “Golden Handcuffs: Stuck in a Job You Don’t Like?”)
  • Getting swept up in “negativity bias.” (Researchers have discovered that negative things like troublesome feelings or frustrating social interactions often influence our mental state much more powerfully than positive or neutral things.)
“Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals.” -Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage
  • Having a “scarcity mindset”—a pervasive sense that we don’t have enough (time, money, happiness, etc.), flowing from an often subconscious belief that life is a zero-sum game with a brutal competition for scarce resources.
  • The unrealistic and pernicious expectation that we’re supposed to be happy all the time. In our culture today, we tend to worship at the altar of happiness. Whenever we encounter negative emotions like frustration, sadness, disappointment, or regret, we assume something’s wrong with us, and that it needs to be fixed (often with medication or numbing behaviors). (See my Happiness Series.)
“Happiness is not a mental state that can be permanently won…. By misunderstanding happiness, the modern conception increases the likelihood of disappointment.” -Nat Rutherford, University of London
  • Falling into the “expectations trap”: When there’s a gap between our current versus expected life satisfaction, and when we go beyond aspirations and into the realm of attachment to our expectations, we feel disappointment or judge our lives negatively, even though our life may actually be going quite well. It stems from what Buddhists call “the wanting mind,” a major source of our own suffering.
  • Engaging in unfair and unhelpful comparisons. Many of us fall into the comparison trap fairly often, comparing ourselves to others on things that are fairly superficial. Even worse, we tend to compare ourselves to an unrealistic standard, such as the richest person we know, or the most outwardly successful or beautiful. A recipe for disappointment.

 

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 of Dissatisfaction

How do we know if we’re in such a dissatisfaction spiral? Here are six of the most common signs of it:

  1. Never feeling successful enough.
  2. Constantly feeling behind.
  3. Overwork and burnout in a relentless and grasping pursuit of success, driven by a need for recognition or approval from others.
  4. Resentment at our station in life or at the success of others.
  5. Recurring thinking patterns about being a victim in a world that’s hopelessly unfair.
  6. Habitual patterns of complaining about things, so much that it becomes a routine that defines our relationships with certain people and would leave a gaping hole in that relationship if we didn’t have things to complain about. These neural grooves can be deep in our brains and take time to reprogram.

So far, we’ve seen the signs and causes of negative dissatisfaction spirals. But we should pause here and note an important nuance: while dissatisfaction can make us miserable if taken too far, it also has some surprising and important upsides.

 

Not So Fast—The Important Upsides of Dissatisfaction

What are the potential upsides of dissatisfaction? It can be a source of motivation and urgency for us, helping us move forward and drive progress.

Dissatisfaction can provide needed motivation to change. To overcome.

“Until you get dissatisfied, you won’t do anything to really move your life to another level. Dissatisfaction is a gem. If you’re totally satisfied, you’re going to get comfortable. And then your life begins to deteriorate.” -Tony Robbins

There’s a signaling function at work here. Chronic dissatisfaction can serve as a sign that there’s a deeper problem in our lives that needs attention. It radiates angst so we’ll pay attention.

In some case, it can also serve as a conduit, via painful feelings and disturbance, to great music and art. We’d be crazy to wish that on ourselves, but we humans are resilient, and sometimes our creative powers are enhanced by dark and painful experiences.

So let’s clarify that, while we can use dissatisfaction as motivational fodder when necessary, we want to avoid the dissatisfaction doom loop that has us walking around in a fog.

There’s a beautiful tension here. We can do both. We can love our lives as they are, as Hal Elrod entreats us, even while we’re working on creating the life of our dreams.

 

What to Do

How to avoid or escape the trap of chronic dissatisfaction? Here are 21 of the best dissatisfaction destroyers that we know of:

1. Let go of our reactive, automatic, negative thought patterns that only make things worse for us in already difficult situations (e.g., rumination).

2. Recognize our negative thoughts when they appear, let them go, and rewire them by bringing in newer, better thoughts, over and over again, until new thought patterns appear.

3. Focus on what we have instead of what we lack, and on what’s going well instead of only on what’s not (remembering that we have a negativity bias to compensate for).

4. Cultivate an abundance mindset, recognizing that things like love, happiness, connection, and opportunity can be renewable resources when approached wisely.

5. Engage in centering practices, like deep breathing, meditation, savoring, and raising our gaze to the sky or horizon, helping us regain perspective and calm.

6. Recognize that happiness doesn’t come from our circumstances being perfect or always in line with our expectations but rather from crafting our life and work so that we lead a good life as we define it.

7. Avoid setting unrealistic expectations.

8. Let go of rigid expectations about how things will go and leave more room for the unexpected—and even challenges, recognizing that they can help sharpen and improve us.

9. Recall that outcomes are outside our control and that we can only control our own actions and mindsets.

“You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” -Marcus Aurelius

10. Cultivate a growth mindset (a belief that our intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed, which tends to come with an appreciation for challenges instead of resentment of them).

11. Focus on serving and giving to others instead of whether we’re satisfied or not.

12. Cultivate a gratitude practice in which we regularly return to the things we’re thankful for.

13. Design our work and leisure activities to facilitate more “flow” states in which we’re so absorbed in activities that we lose track of time. In such a state of optimal experience, dissatisfaction is impossible.

14. Build more of our passions into our life and work.

15. Apply our strengths to projects, groups, and causes that feel meaningful.

16. Rewrite the story we tell about ourselves from one of disappointment and lack to one of appreciation and hope.

17. Stop taking things so personally; we all face ups and downs, and it turns out that we’re not actually the center of the universe.

18. Work at being more accepting of things as they are, as opposed to how we predicted or hoped they would be.

19. Develop practices for detaching from heated situations and rising above them without getting engrossed in them, including meditation or mindfulness practices.

20. Recognize that being judgmental—about ourselves as well as others—is a trap that only leads to misery (for us and others).

21. Reduce the call of our ego (which is focused on accumulation, praise, winning, success, and control) by tapping into the call of our soul (which is grateful for the abundance of life and not interested in petty dramas or comparisons with others).

“Fulfillment is not a matter of self-improvement. It involves a shift away from the ego’s agenda, turning from externals to the inner world. The soul holds out a kind of happiness that isn’t dependent on whether conditions outside are good or bad.” -Deepak Chopra

 

Final Thoughts

In the end, we can use dissatisfaction when it suits us to light a motivational fire, but not so much that we walk around in a fog of angst all the time, lamenting the sorry state of our lives or the things we don’t have. Is that really a good way to answer the gift of life?

Here’s the key: use dissatisfaction to fuel us when necessary, and don’t let it vanquish our spirit.

If we can learn to let go of the chronic dissatisfaction that follows many disturbances, or at least reduce its effect and frequency, perhaps we can create our own personal weather system around our overactive minds more conducive to enjoying our days and uplifting others.

 

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* Featured image source: Adobe Stock.

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Postscript: Inspirations on Dissatisfaction and Serenity

  • “It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is…. When you live in complete acceptance of what is, that is the end of all drama in your life.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “Satisfied needs do not motivate. It’s only the unsatisfied need that motivates.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “We are all more blind to what we have than to what we have not.” -Audre Lorde
  • “Chronic dissatisfaction is how you sense that you are living a lie.” -David Deida
  • “What a liberation to realize that the ’voice in my head’ is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” -Lao Tzu
  • “Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
  • “To become mindfully aware of our surroundings is to bring our thinking back to our present moment reality and to the possibility of some semblance of serenity in the face of circumstances outside our ability to control.” -Jeff Kober
  • “We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious. If we smile at someone, he or she will smile back. And a smile costs nothing. We should plague everyone with joy.” -Sri S. Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali

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

How to Build Confidence in Yourself and Your Leadership

confidence leaning back unsplash

Confidence is an enigma for many of us. We know it can help us in many ways. And we hold it in high regard, knowing it can make a big difference.

Yet we tend to view it as something innate–something some people have and others don’t.

The truth is that, while some people have more of a disposition toward confidence than others, it’s something we can all build systematically.

And we should.

Why? When we’re confident, we have conviction that we can succeed.

Contrary to what many people believe, confidence isn’t a fixed trait. We’re not either born with it or missing it. We can acquire confidence and build it over time. As we improve and develop mastery, we build confidence.

Our confidence can go up and down, and we can have high confidence in some areas and low confidence in others.

 

The Good Kind of Confidence

Note that we don’t want confidence for its own sake–confidence without the merits that cause us to earn it. What we really want is a realistic appraisal of our abilities so that we have an appropriate measure of confidence to match our abilities. And we want to build our confidence over time by improving our abilities and performance.

Confidence isn’t the same as arrogance. Arrogance is an attitude of superiority. When we’re arrogant, we exaggerate our importance. And confidence is certainly not narcissism (when we’re so absorbed in our own life that we ignore the needs of others around us).

Many people struggle with low confidence, for many reasons, including tough life experiences, temperament, cultural background, and more.

When we have low confidence, we pay a price, including: missing out on new opportunities, not stepping into our true power, and lowering our chances for success.

 

The Benefits of Confidence

Your success will be determined by your own confidence and fortitude.” – Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama quote

Confidence has all sorts of benefits. For example, confidence can:

  • help improve our health and wellbeing
  • boost happiness, joy, and peace of mind
  • increase our chance of success in work and/or school
  • reduce fear and anxiety
  • boost attractiveness
  • help us remain open to learning and growing
  • increase motivation to continue practicing in pursuit of goals
  • help us gain credibility
  • increase our ability to make a strong first impression, put others at ease, and influence others
  • help us be more open to trying new things
  • lead to healthier relationships
  • help us develop greater resilience and our ability to perform well under pressure
  • increase our leadership capacity and effectiveness as well as executive presence, since followers tend to respond better to confident leaders
  • boost creativity and increase our willingness to take creative chances

Of course, confidence isn’t enough to set us up for success. We also need preparation, skill, effort, experience, resources, creativity, strategy, creativity, persistence, and even good luck sometimes. But without confidence, we may decline to begin or try. In that sense, confidence is essential for success over the long haul.

 

Take the Traps Test

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

 

How to Build Confidence

photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

Self-confidence can be learned, practiced, and mastered—just like any other skill.
Once you master it, everything in your life will change for the better.”
– Barrie Davenport, author

Now that we know confidence is pliable, not fixed, and that it comes with so many important benefits, the next question is: How do we build it?

There are many things we can do to build confidence, including:

  • focus more on areas of our capability and achievement, and less on areas of weakness and struggle
  • set and meet goals that lead to personal and professional accomplishments
  • switch off negative self-talk, self-criticism, and limiting beliefs
  • swap in positive thoughts for negative ones
  • face our fears and in the process build a sense of agency and capability
  • stop the unhealthy practice of comparing ourselves to others (and consider taking a break from social media, which tees up unrealistic comparisons)
  • continue learning, growing, developing, and building new capacities—working on areas where skills aren’t yet up to standards
  • engage in consistent self-care practices, since these give us grounding and energy
  • speak up for ourselves (self-advocacy)
  • stop thinking in terms of fixed traits (e.g., “I’ve always been bad at math” or “I’m not a confident person”) and start thinking in terms of different people with different interests, skills, and abilities—along with a growth mindset (noting that we can all develop our intelligence, abilities, and talents)
  • think about a time when we felt high confidence and ask how we’d act if we were feeling that way now

There are certainly other things we can do in addition to those noted above, and some of them vary by person or situation. For example, some people can use good posture and even “power poses” to boost confidence (see Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about this).

For others, it helps to dress in ways that can boost confidence, to visualize success, or to use affirmations about our dreams and capabilities. We’re wise to experiment and find out what works best for us.

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage.
If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it.
Go out and get busy.”
– Dale Carnegie

 

What Confident People Do

When we feel confident, we act differently, and that novel behavior can lead to dramatically different outcomes. For example, confident people tend to:

  • make decisions more quickly
  • maintain optimism
  • take risks
  • admit mistakes
  • accept responsibility for choices and actions
  • avoid the trap of blaming others
  • celebrate others’ successes
  • experience fewer instances of envy and jealousy
  • laugh at themselves without beating themselves up, which can be endearing
  • accept compliments, instead of awkwardly deflecting them

 

On Leadership and Confidence and Self-Efficacy

Confidence can contribute significantly to leader effectiveness, but especially when we have realistic perceptions of our effectiveness. Self-awareness is essential.

Unfortunately, many leaders are overconfident about their leadership abilities. According to researchers (Leanne Atwater and Francis Yammarino), this leads to many problems, including: unrealistic optimism, dismissal of criticism, blindness to flaws, lack of effort made to overcome weaknesses, and even narcissism.

By contrast, when leaders have good self-awareness and agree with the ratings of their followers, they’re better candidates for promotion and less likely to struggle with leadership derailers.

According to research by Bandura (1997) and by Luthans and Avolio (2003), confident leaders are more likely to welcome a challenge, to persist when they encounter obstacles, and to succeed.

 

Final Thoughts

We’ve seen that confidence has many important benefits—and that we have much more agency over our confidence levels than most people think. So why not engage in regular practices that will boost our confidence while uplifting our mental state and our ability to succeed and make positive impacts in the world?

With realization of one’s own potential and self-confidence
in one’s ability, one can build a better world.”
– The Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

The Dalai Lama quote

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Reflection Questions

  1. Do you currently feel confident about the areas that matter most to you now?
  2. In what areas would you like to build your confidence?
  3. What will you do, starting today, to build your confidence in certain areas?

Wishing you well with it, and let me know if I can help.

 

 

 

– Gregg Vanourek

 

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

 

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Postscript: Inspirations on Confidence

  • “Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” – Mahatama Gandhi
  • “Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings.” – Samuel Johnson
  • “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.” – Norman Vincent Peale
  • “One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.” – Arthur Ashe
  • “Confidence doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s a result of something … hours and days and weeks and years of constant work and dedication.” – Roger Staubach
  • “With confidence, you have won before you have started.” – Marcus Garvey
  • “When you have confidence, you can have a lot of fun. And when you have fun, you can do amazing things.” – Joe Namath
  • “As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • “People who ask confidently get more than those who are hesitant and uncertain. When you’ve figured out what you want to ask for, do it with certainty, boldness, and confidence.” – Jack Canfield
  • “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” – Vincent Van Gogh
  • “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” – Richard Bach
  • “If I have lost confidence in myself, I have the universe against me.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence, you have won even before you have started.” – Cicero

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Trap of Blaming Others

When things aren’t going your way, it may be tempting to deflect attention from your own role in things and blame others. Perhaps you’re blaming your spouse. Or boss. Perhaps you’re blaming a friend or colleague. Or the economy or inflation—or politicians, the media, or a rival political party. Your parents, or your circumstances.

Blaming may give you a feeling of satisfaction as you look outside for responsibility and wallow in the unfairness of it all. But that feeling is fleeting. In the meantime, you haven’t moved forward at all. In fact, you’ve moved backward.

No good comes from blame.” -Kate Summers

 

Signs of Blaming

How to tell if you’re blaming others? When blaming, you’re likely:

  • holding others responsible for your own frustrations and problems
  • expecting others to change to suit your needs
  • showing defensiveness
  • causing emotional escalation with the person and issue at hand
It is far more useful to be aware of a single shortcoming in ourselves than it is to be aware of a thousand in somebody else.” -Dalai Lama

 

The Problem with Blaming Others

kids blaming each other

Wherever you find a problem, you will usually find the finger-pointing of blame. Society is addicted to playing the victim.” – Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Though it may feel good in the moment, blaming comes with many problems:

  • Most importantly, it doesn’t work. You don’t move forward in any way, shape, or form when you’re blaming. (“The blame game is a waste of time. Any time you’re busy fixing blame, you’re wasting energy and not fixing the problem.” -Rick Warren)
  • It often backfires, making things worse.
  • Blaming robs you of your own agency.
  • It makes people defensive.
  • Blaming damages relationships. (People don’t like it at all when they’re the target of blaming.)
  • It reduces your productivity and effectiveness.
  • Blaming often entails lying—bending the truth to minimize or eliminate your own responsibility while exaggerating the fault of others. As such, it harms your credibility.
  • You suffer the most, not the person you’re blaming.
  • Blaming leads to escalation into bigger issues—especially when it’s unfair blame or blame that misses important contextual factors because you don’t have all the information you need.
  • You don’t learn from mistakes since you’re focused on the fault of others.
  • Blaming can lead to other negative emotions—such as anger, resentment, or even hatred or rage—which are even worse.
  • It can rob you of your potential influence on others.
  • Apparently, blaming can be contagious, leading others to fall into this trap as well in a downward spiral.
Blame is fascinating—it shapes our lives. It can be a benign way of positioning ourselves, a gentle joust or banter, or it can be poisonous, hurtful, or devastating for its victims. It can tear apart marriages and fracture work relationships; it can disable major social programs; it can inflict damage on powerful corporations; it can bring down governments; it can start wars and justify genocides.” -Stephen Fineman, The Blame Business

 

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.

 

Why You Blame

It’s natural and common to play the blame game. But that doesn’t mean it will serve you well. Your brain my subconsciously leap to blaming by default. What’s going on here?

Blaming is an odd combination of defense mechanism and attack strategy. You’re defending your precious ego by attacking another person with the assignment of fault. It’s a way to avoid or release negative emotions.

Blaming preserves your self-esteem by helping you avoid responsibility for mistakes. You want to be right and win the argument to protect your fragile ego. By blaming others, you feel like you can escape guilt and responsibility.

Blaming is also a form of social comparison, allowing you to feel superior and gifted with greater social status, at least in the situation at hand.

Also, blaming can come with perfectionism, giving us a way to maintain our illusion of perfection as we find fault in others instead of ourselves.

 

How to Avoid the Blame Game

So far in this article, you’ve seen what blaming is, the signs of blaming in action, the many problems with it, and why we do it so much.

But you can’t stop there. You need to know what to do about it—and what to do instead. Here are six top tips for avoiding the blame game:

  1. Stop ruminating on the problems at hand and turn your attention instead toward something more positive.
  2. Practice empathy and try to understand the context, motivations, and feelings of the other person. Work to account for the other person’s perspective. Ask questions and explore their perspective.
  3. Focus on finding a solution, not a scapegoat. In the end, that’s most important.
  4. Instead of assigning all the blame to another person, try a “50-50” split instead: assume equal responsibility for the problem, or at least joint responsibility. Ultimately, the allocation of blame matter much less than resolving the issues well.
  5. Focus on collaboration, not blame. Consider ways in which teaming up to address the issues may benefit you both and avoid unnecessary emotional potholes.
  6. Take full responsibility for your life, choices, behaviors, and outcomes, even if there are outside factors present (as there always are). It’s a powerful practice that will serve you well.

Final Thoughts

Though blaming is common and natural, don’t trade in it. It’s a trap. Blaming gets you nowhere fast and will even take you backward and cause damage. By avoiding the tram of blaming, you can improve your mental state, quality of life, relationships, leadership, and effectiveness.

It’s always easy to blame others. You can spend your entire life blaming the world, but your successes or failures are entirely your own responsibility.” -Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist

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Reflection Questions

  1. Are you playing the blame game?
  2. Is it serve you well—or harming you?
  3. Which of the top tips for avoiding blame will you try, starting today?

Wishing you well with it.

 

 

 

Gregg Vanourek

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding the Blame Trap

  • “When we blame, we give away our power.” – Greg Anderson
  • “To grow up is to stop putting blame on parents.” – Maya Angelou
  • “One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those who are not present. In doing so, we build the trust of those who are present.” – Stephen R. Covey
  • “You become a victim when you blame yourself or others for some problem or error.” – Jay Fiset, Reframe Your Blame, How to Be Personally Accountable
  • “A loss is not a failure until you make an excuse.” – Michael Jordan
  • “Blame is the demonstrated lack of self-respect choosing to deposit one’s negative actions onto others to reinforce one’s view of being of good, fair, and approved.” – Byron R. Pulsifer
  • “Stop the blame game. Stop! Stop looking out the window and look in the mirror!” – Eric Thomas
  • “Blame means shifting the responsibility for where you are onto someone or something else, rather than accepting responsibility for your role in the experience.” – Iyanla Vanzant

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Powerful Pull of the Prestige Magnet

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching is not only engaging with students about the subject at hand but also how it may contain deeper lessons that apply to their life and work. The class readings are a reliable vehicle to those insights. One of my favorite insights recently comes from Paul Graham, the programmer, entrepreneur, writer, and investor behind the acclaimed tech startup accelerator, Y Combinator. In his article, “How to Do What You Love,” he writes about the dangers of prestige and the prestige magnet:

“You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” -Paul Graham
Paul Graham

This notion of a prestige magnet has stuck with me (and many of my students), in part because I think it’s so universal and insidious.

The peril of the prestige magnet is that it can pull us into a strange and unhappy vortex in which we’re avidly pursuing prestige while making ourselves—and often those around us—miserable in the process. A dangerous downward spiral.

 

Signs of the Prestige Magnet in Action

You may think that you’re not susceptible to the pull of the prestige magnet. You may be thinking, I’m not self-centered. I’m not overly ambitious or too concerned about status and prestige.

Most likely, though, you’d be wrong. Our brains are brilliant at helping us deceive ourselves.

“There are two kinds of egotists: Those who admit it, and the rest of us.” -Laurence J. Peter

Here are some telltale signs of the prestige magnet in action:

  • Wanting a pair of cool sneakers or jeans to impress your friends when you’re a teenager.
  • Enjoying the signaling of social status through the car you drive, the part of town you live in, or where you go on vacation—and the attendant social media posts broadcasting it.
  • Secretly hoping that or enjoying it when your degree, profession, title, or organization conveys status to you.

Let’s be honest. We all want prestige—or have wanted it at some point. It’s baked into human nature.

In a recent “How to Build a Life” column for The Atlantic, Arthur Brooks notes recent studies indicating that the biggest goal in life for American children aged 10 to 12 is fame, and a survey of British children found that “YouTuber” was the most coveted career choice.

Evolutionary psychologists note that we can acquire social status either through dominance or prestige (or both). It’s important because high-status individuals tend to receive more protections from their social group, appear more attractive (giving them reproductive advantages), obtain more resources, and have better health and longevity.

Meanwhile, many of us go through an education system that points to prestige pursuit as the standard recommended option (so ingrained that it’s often simply assumed and not even explicit), and we live in a culture that prizes, and sometimes idolizes, status and wealth.

 

Take the Traps Test

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

 

How the Prestige Magnet Can Warp Our Lives

Clearly, there are advantages of social status, and we shouldn’t hold it against people for deriving benefits from their hard work, commitment, courage, or creativity. Far from it.

But there are also disadvantages, some of which are not only costly but also underappreciated.

Here are nine of the main disadvantages:

1. Career Choices

The prestige magnet can keep us from doing what we really want to do, or what we’re better suited to do, or from pursuing our dreams. It can pull us into career fields for the wrong reasons that don’t hold up over time, and with high switching costs (or even a sort of lock-in effect). I recall how popular and prestige-soaked the fields of consulting and investment banking were when I was getting my MBA. The point isn’t that there’s anything wrong with those professions but rather whether those jobs were a good fit for all those classmates and whether there wasn’t a phenomenon of social contagion at work. (And yes, I dipped my toes in those waters too. Let me be clear: I struggle with this trap, among many others, as well.)

2. Addiction

We can become addicted to the pursuit of prestige and its close cousins (success, fame, wealth, etc.), with all the implications that addictions carry, including crowding out other important areas of our lives, like health, relationships, and peace of mind.

3. Happiness Effects

By pursuing prestige, aren’t we placing parts of our happiness and sense of self-worth into the hands of others, including people we don’t even know or like?

4. The Expense

Pursuing prestige can be expensive, from costly universities to the pricey cars, homes, neighborhoods, and lifestyles that put us on a financial hamster wheel, sprinting to try to keep up. Getting nowhere fast. It can be exhausting—and financially precarious if things go awry.

5. Hidden Costs

Prestige often comes with hidden costs, including:

    • feeling trapped in jobs we don’t like, sometimes with colleagues or bosses we don’t like
    • working excessive hours (many prestigious firms pride themselves on this, as a sort of twisted bragging right)
    • burying ourselves in spreadsheets or presentation decks
    • wondering if our sacrifices are worth it
    • experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression

6. Career Damage

Those who are chasing status and prestige can come across as self-centered and self-serving, which can impair their teamwork and leadership effectiveness, because it’s off-putting. It can even take people on a path to becoming a toxic leader.

7. Identity Effects

If we’re consumed by a hunger for status and prestige during our career, where is that likely to leave us when we retire or if we change jobs or need to stop working? Are we okay with who we are even without the recognition or status? Do we need to be viewed as successful to feel content or happy?

8. Relationship Pain

Being in hot pursuit of prestige can keep us away way too much from those we love, from our spouse or significant other to our children, parents, or close friends. How will we view those tradeoffs and compromises later in life?

9. Regret

Following the prestige path is likely to lead to painful regret down the road, with a rude reckoning for our choices.

We can note here that many of these disadvantages, in the larger scheme of things, are problems of privilege. Many people struggle with much nastier problems, like surviving and feeding their families. Still these problems of the prestige magnet come with real pain and damage for many, and they’re found on all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum.

So now we must ask, what to do about it?

 

How to Demagnetize the Prestige Magnet

From science class, we may recall that physical magnets can be demagnetized via certain techniques. For example, via high heat. Or a reverse field. We can even hammer the magnetism out of it. Best of all, we can leave the magnet untouched for long periods of time, and demagnetization will occur naturally over time. Like magic.

The prestige magnet can also be altered. Here are ten ways to address it:

1. Why

Step back and consider why you’re pursuing prestige, including whether there’s some sort of pain, loss, or hurt in your life that you’re trying to numb—and whether you might address it better by going to its roots.

2. Who

Think more critically about who you’re trying to impress. Who are they? How much do they truly matter to you? How likely is it that they’ll matter to you long in the future? Are they really so concerned about you, or are they more likely to be caught up in their own concerns, including their own prestige magnet?

3. Work

Instead of dwelling on how you stack up, focus on the work itself. Get lost in the process and concentrate on creating value for the intended beneficiaries. Become a craftsman and focus on slow, steady, and systematic improvement.

4. People

Spend your time with people who are comfortable with who they are regardless of the vagaries of status—and who care more about your heart and soul than your status and prestige.

5. Service

Serve others. Leave the prestige pursuit behind and focus on helping others. Be part of a community and contribute to something larger than your own personal wants, needs, and insecurities. If you’re in a position of authority, consider practicing servant leadership, a counterintuitive and revolutionary approach to leadership that emphasizes serving others first, including developing them and helping them accomplish things they never thought possible.

6. Purpose

Discover and pursue your purpose, or something that feels significant or meaningful to you, or that captures your heart. This will get your out of your head and into a project or endeavor that motivates you and benefits others. If you’re in a position of authority, consider taking on our triple crown leadership quest—a commitment to building an organization or team that’s excellent (achieving exceptional results and positive impacts for all stakeholders), ethical (doing the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard), and enduring (standing the test of time and operating sustainably).

7. Gratitude

Be grateful for what you have. Incorporate gratitude practices (e.g., prayers of thanksgiving, meditation, a gratitude jar) into your life. And determine what is enough for you so you don’t catch the “disease of more.”

8. Creation

Build or create something: a side hustle, blog, passion project, memoir, garden, novel, startup, or social venture—whatever captures your interest and gets you lost in a state of flow.

9. Mortality

Think about your death. That’s right. As morbid as it is, remembering that you’re mortal—and given an unknown time span on this Earth—can help you remember what’s truly important in life—and what’s not.

10. Resolve

Decide and declare that you don’t need validation from others to determine your worth. Change your focus from worrying about what others may think of you to putting your head down and being the best person you can be, growing and giving as best you can every day.

The prestige magnet has its pull on many of us these days. Thankfully, though, there are many things we can do to dull its effect while still thriving in our chosen endeavors.

 

Reflection Questions 

  1. How strong is the prestige magnet in your life?
  2. What can you do to reduce its downsides without eliminating its upsides?

 

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Related Traps

This prestige magnet trap doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s related to many of the other traps we’ve been addressing this traps series, 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.

 

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Postscript: Inspirations on Prestige and Ego

  • “Ego is the enemy.” –Ryan Holiday
  • “The bigger your heart, the more you love, the more you control your life. The bigger your ego, the more you’re scared, the more others control your life.” –Maxime Lagacé
  • “Egotism sucks us down like the law of gravity.” -Cyril Connolly
  • “Don’t worry about looking good; worry about achieving your goal.” –Ray Dalio
  • “The only way to escape the corruptible effect of praise is to go on working.” -Albert Einstein
  • “We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.” –Steven Pressfield (from The War of Art)
  • “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.” -Colin Powell
  • “Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious.” -Paul Graham
  • “When the ego dies, the soul awakes.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “The foundation of the Buddha’s teachings lies in compassion, and the reason for practicing the teachings is to wipe out the persistence of ego, the number-one enemy of compassion.” –Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
  • “The ego is a veil between humans and God. In prayer all are equal.” -Rumi

 

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, 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Getting Good at Overcoming Fear

Fear. A terrible feeling. Something to avoid.

Right?

Not so fast.

Fear can actually be turned into a powerful asset and opportunity, if understood and addressed properly. Can we get good at overcoming fear?

First, what is it? Fear is a feeling of distress or dread caused by a sense of impending danger or pain. It’s a powerful, primitive emotion. A warning that we need to pay attention.

We need fear to survive, and it has served us well through the ages. But it can also be one of the biggest obstacles in our lives.

We can go through our whole lives trying to avoid the things we’re afraid of, dramatically altering our experience of life.

In that sense, fear is like a force field keeping us in our comfort zone.

How strong is its hold over us?

What lies beyond our fears?

How do we find out?

 

What Are We Afraid Of?

First, let’s understand what we’re afraid of.

Of course, some people have a phobia (an extreme or irrational fear or aversion of something), such as fear of the dark, heights, flying, spiders, and snakes.

But here, we’re focused on the everyday fears in our lives, work, and social settings that hold us back. It turns out, we have many such fears, including a fear of:

  • abandonment or loneliness
  • change
  • commitment
  • conflict
  • losing control
  • death
  • embarrassment (including fear of looking bad, and of public speaking)
  • failing
  • getting hurt
  • inadequacy, or being judged as not being good enough, or being blamed
  • missing out (FOMO)
  • making mistakes
  • pain
  • regret
  • rejection
  • losing status
  • trusting others (and being taken advantage of)
  • uncertainty and unknowns

Entrepreneur and author Ruth Soukup notes that our fears often come not only with negative traits but also positive ones. For example, if we’re afraid of making mistakes, it can lead to procrastination and perfectionism but also high-quality work that’s well organized and error-free. If we fear being judged, it can lead to people-pleasing and failing to set boundaries but also to being a team player who’s thoughtful and fun to be around.

The story is complex. Fear has a ghastly reputation, but it turns out that it isn’t all bad. Far from it. To accept that key insight, first we need to understand what it is, how it works, and why it exists.

 

Fear Is a Physiological Phenomenon

Fear isn’t something only for cowards. It’s part of being human. Fear is universal. We all experience it.

Fear is hardwired into our neurobiology, starting in the part of our brain called the amygdala. The feeling of fear is a state of high arousal designed to protect us from harm. It’s a survival response that has evolved over the ages.

When we’re afraid, we become hyper-alert. Our nervous system sets a cascading fear response into motion: our breathing accelerates, and our heart rate and blood pressure rise. Also, our body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline—sometimes in a flood. Our pupils dilate. Blood flows into our limbs so that we can respond aggressively to a threat by fighting or fleeing.

With all these physical and chemical reactions, we experience impairment of the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that handles reasoning, judgment, sensation, perception, memory, creative association, and voluntary physical movement. As a result, we don’t think as clearly, and it’s harder to make good decisions. We become preoccupied with the threat.

If left unchecked, fear can become debilitating. It can prevent us from functioning at our best—or even at all.

 

Take the Traps Test

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

 

Reframing Fear

Clearly, it’s important for us to learn how to manage fear to avoid situations where it debilitates us. This leads us to two key insights:

1. Fear is often a paper tiger.

The fear of what may happen is often worse than the reality of what actually happens, or what may. It’s a bit like a movie playing in our head—coming from a man in the projection room at the back of a theater.

A fierce tiger appears on our mental screen. The animal seems powerful, with menacing fangs and a terrible roar. Our skin crawls. The hair on our arms stands up. But the tiger, in most cases, is only a scared cat with its own fears.

We experience a raging physiological thunderstorm of fear as if it’s the truth and based in reality. In fact, it’s only an anticipatory reaction to a perceived threat designed to get us ready for combat or avoidance. In the swirl of the storm, we have a hard time distinguishing between what’s real and what’s only possible. Fear is the step in between.

Often the alarm system is overly vigilant and too quick to escalate the alert levels. It gets carried away. We become accustomed to fleeing at the first alert. The synapses in our brain lay an escape path of backward movement: Retreat. Withdrawal. Over time, this becomes habitual and unconscious. We just do it. We avoid. Or we run. So we never move forward in the areas holding us back.

2. Fear signals an opportunity for breakthroughs when we’re able to see it clearly.

It’s a protective layer serving as a boundary between stasis and transcendence. Most people approach the layer and then turn and run.

But learning how to sit with it is the master maneuver. We must learn to recognize that the tiger is a paper one. Because then we can go forward instead of turning back. And that’s where the good stuff is: the challenge, the learning, the development.

 

Overcoming Fear: How to Manage Our Fears

So how to do this? How to proceed anyway despite this onslaught of biochemical alerts? Here are 12 steps to help you get good at overcoming fear:

  1. Spend time with your fears. Study them. Write about them. Get comfortable with them.
  2. Get gradual exposures to your fears. (That’s what Navy SEALs and NASA astronauts do.)
  3. Prepare for high-pressure events that tend to trigger your fear alert system. By doing so, you will lower the chance of running into problems and feeling out of control. Practice and role-play in challenging situations. Place yourself in settings that challenge you and see how you can survive, learn, and grow. It helps to have a growth mindset.
  4. Visualize success. Paint a mental picture of overcoming obstacles and achieving your objectives.
  5. Gather information to reduce the fear of the unknown. Fear often shrinks or disappears in the face of facts and scrutiny.
  6. Name the fear and analyze it rationally, including whether there’s a deeper fear behind the immediate fear. (For example, a fear of making a mistake in a presentation can be amplified by an underlying fear of being rejected by the group, or not being valued by others.) Understand it. Embrace it. Use it as fuel for determined action.
  7. Recall that the fear is usually much worse than the things we’re actually afraid of. Get in the habit of comparing actual outcomes to the worst-case scenarios your amygdala is freaking out about. Note that your amygdala only comprises about 0.3% of your brain’s volume. Don’t let the 0.3% wag the 99.7%.
  8. Try not to panic. The goal is not to be fearless, as that’s virtually impossible biologically, but rather to learn how to manage your fear and still function effectively. Deep breathing can help calm your mind and body.
  9. Have a deeper why—a purpose worth wrestling your fear for. (For example, you may face a great challenge at work with a project or initiative that will test your self-worth and resilience but you wisely attach it to your role as a provider in your family and how you can be a role model for your children.)
  10. Gain perspective and look at the fear in the larger context. (For example, although it may hurt your pride and sense of social standing if you fail on a project, you know that you’ve built up a lot of credibility over the years through your competence and diligence—and that there will likely be many more opportunities to try again in the future.)
  11. Face the fear and move through it (not away from it). Give yourself experience with confronting and overcoming your fears. This will help build your fear resilience muscles. You’ll start to become a brave person—through your decisions, habits, intellect, and force of will.
  12. Ask for help. You don’t have to do it alone. We all need help sometimes! (By the way, showing vulnerability by asking for help builds connection.)

In the end, recall that fear is part of being human. It has served us well over the ages, but it also holds us back. If we can learn to “punch fear in the face,” as Jon Acuff put it, we can do so much more of what’s important in life. Be bolder. And get good at overcoming your fears. Your future self will thank you for it.

Reflection Questions on Overcoming Fear

  • Which fears are holding you back?
  • How long have they kept you fenced in?
  • What opportunities lie on the other side of those fears?
  • What will you do about it?

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

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

two hands in golden handcuffs

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

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

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

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

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

 

What’s Really Going On

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

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

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

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

 

Related Traps

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

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

 

Take the Traps Test

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

What to Do about It

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

First, reduce spending and start saving to free up some margin in your life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection Questions

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

 

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

 

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Postscript: Inspirations for Escaping the Golden Handcuffs

  • “It’s better to fail trying to do what you really care about than to succeed at something else.” -Mark Albion
  • “Work can provide the opportunity for spiritual and personal, as well as financial, growth. If it doesn’t, we are wasting far too much of our lives on it.” -James A. Autry
  • “So many of us choose our paths in life out of fear disguised as practicality.” -Jim Carrey
  • “I don’t have a problem with what you do, that’s your choice. What I have a problem with is you lying to yourself about why you’re doing the things you’re doing. You have a choice.” -Jerry Colonna
  • “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “Every worker needs to escape the wrong job.” -Peter Drucker
  • “Money sometimes costs too much.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if you just improve the socio-economic status of people, everything will be OK, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” -Victor Frankl
  • “And then there is the most dangerous risk of all—the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” -Randy Komisar

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Are You Trapped by Success?

success trap--man on a hamster wheel

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

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

 

1. Addicted to Success

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

 

2. Success Can Lead to Overwork

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

4. Locked into the Wrong Thing

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

 

5. Stuck in One Phase of Life

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

 

6. Never Feeling Successful Enough

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

 

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.

 

7. Resistance to Being Imperfect

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

 

8. The Burden of Success

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

 

9. The Illusion of Circumstances

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

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

 

10. The Myth that Success Is the Point of Life

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

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

 

11. Success Can Take Us Away from Ourselves

As we get caught up in the image, in the prestige, in the chase, we can drift away from our core, from who we really are and what we value. We can get so caught up in the chase that we compromise our integrity on the way to the top. And we can get so driven that we lose sight of the things that capture our hearts. We can lose our artistry and our soul. Or we can become success robots, following social programming instead of pursuing our calling.

 

12. Success Can Take Us Away from Others

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

 

13. The Comparison Game

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

 

14. The False Metrics of Success

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

 

15. Narrow Views of Success

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

 

Reflection Questions

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

 

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More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

 

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

Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Traps of Overidentification with Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Take the Traps Test

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

What to Do If Your Identity Is Wrapped Up in Work

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

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

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

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

 

Reflection Questions

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

 

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Postscript: Inspirations on Life, Work, and Identity

  • “Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” -Epictetus
  • “‘Can I be comfortable in my own skin regardless of what’s going on around me?’ And that to me is the definition of true success.” -Peter Crone
  • “People who can tolerate the painful discrepancies of the between-identities period, which reflect underlying ambivalence about letting go of the old or embracing the new, end up in a better position to make informed choices. With the benefit of time between selves, we are more likely to make the deep change necessary to discover satisfying lives and work and to eventually restore a sense of community to our lives.” -Herminia Ibarra

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

 

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.

 

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

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Mental Prisons We Build for Ourselves

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Though we like to think of ourselves as free, many of us are confined to a mental prison we’ve built for ourselves.

Our most vicious jailer is our unhealthy “self-talk”—our inner critic that savagely sabotages us with haunting doubts and harsh judgments. We’re our own worst enemy.

We’re a prisoner of our “monkey mind”—feeling unsettled or restless and easily distracted by thoughts that bounce around like agitated apes. Often, we’re dwelling on the past or worrying about the future—always neglecting the present moment.

Most of our mental prisons are fictional stories our minds invent to prevent us from potential suffering. The sad secret, though, is that the suffering is wildly unlikely to occur outside our overactive imaginations. Our mental prisons are fear factories.

“My favorite cartoon shows two haggard captives staring through the bars of a prison window. The odd thing is that there are no walls on the prison, the two men are simply standing in the open, holding bars to their own faces with their own hands.”Martha Beck in Steering by Starlight

Sometimes our mental prison is the need we feel, often flowing from childhood, to gain approval and be liked or admired, or it’s the prison of the expectations of others (or, more accurately, what we presume those expectations to be, often wrongly).

Here’s the thing: We think we’re struggling with the outer game but it’s actually the inner game that’s tripping us up.

“Happiness is an inside game, literally and neurochemically.”Shirzad Chamine, author

 

The Toll of Our Mental Prisons

These prisons are harmful in countless ways:

  • Lower confidence, sense of wellbeing, and joy.
  • Decrease in motivation and performance.
  • Distorted perceptions: we’re looking at reality with an overlay of past memories and hurts as well as future hunches and worries, skewing our senses.
  • Loss of our sense of control, agency, and responsibility—sometimes by blaming all our troubles on a single source (such as an ex-spouse, or an addiction), when in reality there are multiple factors contributing to problems (including our own mindset and behavior).
  • Learned helplessness”: a well documented phenomenon in which we give up after a number of futile attempts at something, eventually surrendering our agency even when there may be potential solutions and overlooking opportunities for change.

 

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 Building Blocks of Our Mental Prisons

Building our own personal confinement is a strange endeavor, yet all too common. What drives it?

It begins with root causes that are exceedingly difficult to overcome because they’re often subconscious. First is depending on circumstances for our happiness: “If and when X happens,” we believe, “then I’ll be happy.” The logic seems sound, but it’s deeply flawed. We’re terrible at knowing what will truly make us happy and fulfilled over time, causing us to spend time on the wrong things. Also, with this logic, we’re placing our happiness in the hands of too many factors outside our control. The key is to learn to be happy and well regardless of our circumstances.

Second is our automatic emotional reactions to events, preceding our rational brain’s ability to interpret the situation from a higher level of consciousness and with a broader perspective and openness to different interpretations and possible responses.

There are also more mundane but also significant contributors:

“Most people today live in relatively constant distress and anxiety. This is related to a low-grade but perpetual fight-or-flight response… in reaction to the challenges of life.” -Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence
Shirzad Chamine

In her book, Mindfulness, psychologist Ellen Langer identifies several causes of mindlessness that also inhibit our mental wellbeing:

  • Having a narrow self-image, such as defining ourselves solely by our work (e.g., as a project manager, bookkeeper, or customer service rep) as opposed to all of our multifaceted identities (for example, son or daughter, mother or father, friend, colleague, artist, gardener, athlete, etc.). Being overly invested in one part of our lives is risky because it’s likely to go up and down over time—and can even disappear entirely.
  • Having false beliefs about common things. Example: conflating old age with poor health. While they’re correlated, they’re very different, and there are many examples of people who thrive mentally, emotionally, and physically in their later years.
  • Preoccupation with expected outcomes that sometimes fail to materialize (based on many factors outside our range of influence), instead of a healthy focus on the process.
  • Making faulty comparisons with others based on the outcomes they have (e.g., wealth, accomplishments) instead of the process they used to get them.

Our Mental Saboteurs

Shirzad Chamine, an executive and best-selling author of Positive Intelligence, has done important work that can help us understand how we’re sabotaging ourselves with our thoughts.

He identifies nine “saboteurs,” which are “automatic and habitual mind patterns” that harm our ability to function effectively. As you read them, note which ones challenge you:

  1. Judge: finding fault with self, others, or circumstances
  2. Victim: focus on painful feelings as a way of earning attention or empathy
  3. Pleaser: flattering, recuing, or pleasing others to gain acceptance
  4. Avoider: putting off or avoiding difficult tasks or conflicts
  5. Stickler: excessive need for perfection, order, and organization
  6. Restless: needing perpetual busyness and never being content with what is
  7. Controller: anxiety-based need to control situations or others
  8. Hyper-achiever: depending on achievement for self-acceptance
  9. Hyper-rational: excessively analytical processing of everything, including relationships
  10. Hyper-vigilant: excessive vigilance that never stops, seeing danger around every corner (Source: Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence)

 

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

Enter Carol Dweck and her pathbreaking research on mindsets. Dweck is a professor at Stanford University who studies motivation, personality, and development. She distinguishes between two mindsets:

  1. Fixed mindset: Belief that intelligence, abilities, and talents are fixed. People with a fixed mindset tend to:
    • Want to look smart
    • Avoid challenges
    • Ignore useful negative feedback
    • Feel threatened by the success of others
    • Plateau early and achieve less than their full potential
  1. Growth Mindset: Belief that intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed. People with a growth mindset tend to:
    • Want to learn
    • Embrace challenges
    • Learn from criticism
    • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others
    • Reach ever-higher levels of achievement

It makes an enormous difference whether we approach a situation with a desire to look smart or a desire to learn. Our mindset is especially evident in our reaction to failure:

Do we dread the prospect of failure because we view it as an embarrassing reflection on our competencies? Or are we open to the prospect of failure because we view it as a sign that we’re stretching ourselves in new areas?

Dweck notes that mindset plays an important role in virtually all aspects of our lives, from school, sports, and business to parenting, relationships, and more. Our mindsets shape our:

  • enjoyment of challenging tasks
  • goals and ideas about what we’ll strive for
  • honesty when confronted with situations where we may not look as good as we’d like
  • performance on tasks

We’re all born with certain predispositions, and our mindsets can vary in different areas in our lives, but here’s the good news:

“Can mindsets be changed? Can they be taught? Yes.” Carol Dweck, psychologist

 

How to Escape Mental Prison

If mental prisons are common to the human condition, what have we learned about ways to break free? Much, it turns out.

For starters, a surprising intervention involves breath work to change our physical and mental state: breathing deeply and intentionally, as with “box breathing.”

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

We also want to start noticing our thoughts more—observing the strange things that pop into our heads and spotting the negative patterns that reappear. It helps to label them (e.g., “My ‘controller’ is making me feel anxious, or “I’m being overly judgmental again”).

 

More Actions We Can Take

  • Focusing on what we can control, and not worrying about the rest.
  • Exploring different aspects of the issue with a sense of curiosity and fascination.
  • Remaining open to new possibilities and alternate interpretations.
  • Avoiding the trap of catastrophizing (assuming the worst or exaggerating our flaws).
  • Changing our context to bring a different perspective and renewed energy, especially to a place that provides sanctuary.
  • Replacing our inner critique with a more charitable and helpful narrative.
  • Cognitive reframing: shifting our mindset to look at a situation or relationship from a different and more helpful perspective, such as redefining a problem as a challenge or puzzle that we become curious to solve.
  • Playing: it often changes our physiology by moving us into a state of deep engagement or flow.
  • Taking action: there’s freedom in action, and it reveals fear for the false phantom it is.
  • Choosing what to think and be mindful about. Many people become passive victims of the random thought-stream in their minds instead of engaging their “observer” or deeper perspective and employing their ability to choose which thoughts to keep and which to dismiss as unproductive or unwelcome.
  • Giving ourselves grace, acknowledging that nobody’s perfect and that the point of life is not to try to appear perfect or successful to others.

 

Reflection Questions

  • Is your self-talk too negative?
  • Are you disrupted my “monkey mind”?
  • What will you do to start arranging your escape from mental prison?

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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————————————-

Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Break Out of Mental Prison

  • “When you fight life you lose but only 100 percent of the time.” -Byron Katie
  • “To me, real success is where I can be at peace in the midst of chaos.” -Peter Crone
  • “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment.” -Byron Katie
  • “The mind is restless, Krishna, impetuous, self-willed, hard to train: to master the mind seems as difficult as to master the mighty winds.” –The Bhagavad Gita
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “Everyone fails…. There is one other little question: ‘Did you collaborate in your own defeat?’” -John W. Gardner
  • “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “What a liberation to realize that the ‘voice in my head’ is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.” -Eckhart Tolle

Books that Will Help Free Your Mind and Mindset

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

 

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.

 

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

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Do You Have Margin in Your Life?

Many of us are always “on” these days, running from task to task. Never-ending demands. Frenetic pace. We fill every available moment with activity or scrolling through our digital feeds. The problem: We don’t have enough margin in our lives.

Young hustlers making it happen. Working parents managing the household. Climbing the corporate ladder or growing our small business or nonprofit. Perpetual busyness.

It feels heavy always going at this pace. We get exhausted.

It’s not common to talk and think in terms of margin in our lives. But it’s needed now more than ever. A margin is the border between things, like the margin on a page. Filling every page up to the max just gets overwhelming.

 

The Consequences of Not Having Margin in Life

The consequences of not having margin are severe: lower quality of life, less happiness and fulfillment, and lower performance at work over time.

“If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the Information Age, it’s a lack of reflection. Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting. We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision-making, rather than just reacting to problems as they arise.”General James Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense and four-star Marine Corps General

It can damage to our health and relationships—and our soul. Not having enough margin in life can lead to burnout and a sense of emptiness. It takes time away from the things we enjoy, such as hobbies or time with friends. And it prevents us from exercising enough. Notably, it also induces us to stress-eat, binge-watch, or skimp on sleep.

 

The Benefits of Margin in Life

Having margin gives us room to breathe, to reflect and renew. To “sharpen the saw,” as author Stephen R. Covey wrote. With margin we can rise up and view things with perspective. We can reactivate our creativity and wisdom.

When we have breathing room, we can start to see where we’re going wrong—where we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with dysfunctional behaviors. We begin to see the possibilities for change.

Without margin, we keep our heads down and keep ploughing forward, stuck in the same traps and not even admitting it to ourselves. Sometimes we’re too busy and distracted to notice.

What to do with the margin we carve out in our lives? With it, we can:

  • reflect on what’s important
  • assess how things are going
  • see if there’s a gap between the life we have and the life we want
  • consider new ideas for closing that gap
  • experience mindful living in the present, without fretting about the past or worrying about the future

 

Why Is Having Margin in Life So Hard?

It sounds simple enough, but it’s not an easy feat in today’s world of dizzying distractions and cunning algorithms designed to hijack our attention with chemical manipulations in our brains. At bottom, they’re not giving us a better life but an escape from it.

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop. Exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”Sean Parker, first president of Facebook and co-founder of Napster

The evidence is alarming. Average daily digital content consumption (including time spent on social media, news sites, and streaming) is now just under seven hours (six hours and 59 minutes), according to a recent Forbes report.

This can lead to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “psychic entropy,” a condition of inner disorder in the mind, often including a chaotic mental review of things that impairs our effectiveness. He writes that it “involves seeing more to do than one can actually accomplish.”

It’s especially difficult if we’re trying to please everyone and not learning to set boundaries and say no—a big challenge for some people. In turn, this leads to us becoming overcommitted and falling into a death spiral of too much anxiety without the mental and emotional fortitude to deal with it and too much work volume without enough deep work to handle it.

“Slow down and remember this: Most things make no difference. Being busy is a form of mental laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”Tim Ferriss

For some, a compulsion to achieve, win, or achieve recognition or status prevents us from carving out enough margin in our lives. This can lead to workaholism, a state of addiction to work in which we can’t switch it off or stop thinking about it. Another factor is being overly optimistic about what can get done by when—wearing “rose-colored glasses,” as they say.

Take the Traps Test

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

How to Get More Margin in Your Life

So, how to get more margin in our life? It helps to acknowledge the problem first, perhaps flowing from an assessment of how we’re spending our time and determining the areas in which it’s not time well spent. (Yes, there are apps for that.)

Perhaps most importantly, we must get clear on what’s important to us, starting with our values (what we value most in life—and the behaviors that manifest those things), purpose (our reason for being, or what infuses our life with meaning and significance), and aspirations for our life and work. Modern movements like essentialism and minimalism can help us avoid the trappings of overconsumption and overscheduling while distilling things to the essential few that enrich our lives.

It’s essential to establish clear and challenging criteria for what to say “yes” to and to get better at saying “no” to many things that come across the transom in our lives. As author Greg McKeown advises, “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”

Next, we need to build renewal into our days, giving us a sense of serenity instead of that precarious state of anxiety from the cumulative effects of overwork, stress, poor sleep, and not taking caring of ourselves or connecting enough with others. There are limits to our energy. We need good habits of rest and renewal.

“In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” John W. Gardner

Even better if we can find “sanctuary” in our lives—places and practices of peace that restore our hearts. Places of quiet and tranquility. Beyond the striving, beyond the chase, beyond the willfulness, there’s an acceptance, a yielding, a comfort with the present moment and a willingness to see things for what they are and ride with the flow of life. It’s the serenity beyond the stress and struggle.

It helps to schedule margin into our lives: put it on our calendar and protect it. We must regain control of all the things that eat into margin, such as email or Slack, meetings, smartphones, interruptions, and messy workspaces. Also, we need to get better at anticipating and preventing distractions, thereby creating the conditions for focus, flow, and deep work.

We should also look for smaller things we can do—quick and easy hacks that help us preserve margin. In his book, Indistractable, Nir Eyal, recommends the “ten-minute rule”: waiting ten minutes before giving in to an urge to check our phone as a pacification device.

 

Reflection Questions

  • Do you have enough margin in your life?
  • How is lack of margin harming your wellbeing, relationships, or work?
  • What steps will you take, starting today, to reclaim your life and the margin it requires?

 

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Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Build More Margin in LIfe

  • “I love a broad margin to my life.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • Margin is “time to make room for change.” -Jeff Sapadafora, author and coach
  • “What do we want more of in life?… It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough. More presence. More clarity. More insight. More truth. More stillness.” -Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key
  • “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
  • “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” -Ovid
  • “All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence…. Silence is the general consecreation of the universe.” -Herman Melville
  • “We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.” -Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

 

Books that Will Help Change Your Life with More Margin

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!