Feeling Behind? It May Be a Trap

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

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

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

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

Panic Choices

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

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

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

90,000 Hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

Switching Costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choice Overload and Career Transitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we face a dilemma:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Normal? Not So Fast

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

But back to normal? Not so fast.

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

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

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

What kind of life do I want?

What kind of life have I been living?

What changes would I like to make?

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

Common Traps of Living:

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

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

We must begin, though, with an honest appraisal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now is your chance. Will you take it?

Reflection Questions:

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

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

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

Tips for New Graduates on Life, Work, and Making Big Decisions

With graduation season upon us, new graduates have much to celebrate after navigating a brutal year. Now they face a big transition from school to work (or further school, or gap year, or other pursuits). Here are tips to help them craft their life and work–and make big decisions that will serve them well.

Your work now is to find your work. Don’t commit prematurely to the first path you walk. Don’t over-invest in or over-identify with a professional area without having pressure-tested the reality of it against your initial conception of it. Don’t satisfice. Create an intentional process for your search—a quest to discover your calling—and use “low-cost probes” to try things so you can learn where there is a good fit with your strengths, passions, values, purpose, and opportunities, and where there isn’t. Work hard in what you do, but don’t forget to work on finding what you want to do and where you can make a difference.

Avoid making choices for the wrong reasons. You’re probably under a lot of pressure, both from yourself and others. As you look at work options, consider not only external motivations such as income and status but also internal ones such as meaning, values, and fulfillment. You’ll spend lots of time at work, so be intentional about finding a good fit for you. Don’t get caught up too much in climbing mode (focusing so much on climbing the ladder of success, and on achievement and advancement) without also complementing that with discover mode (discovering who you are, what you love, and what you long to do in the world).

Work on something that matters. Your days, weeks, and months all add up to something called your life, so make sure it’s something you’re excited about now and that you’ll be proud of when you look back. How will you have served others and made a difference?

Choose work where you can drink lessons out of a fire hose—where you can learn a ton from great people and daunting challenges. Invest in learning, growth, and development, and lean into challenge. These pay big dividends that compound over time.

Lead your life—your whole life—including your professional endeavors, your health, mind, body, spirit, relationships, education, and whatever else you choose to pursue in life. Do you think you can presume to lead others without learning to lead yourself first?

Play the long game. These days it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing the short game. Our culture is geared toward it. With our devices, we’re developing the attention span of a gnat. We swipe and scroll. We get fidgety with a few seconds of down-time. The power of the long game is astonishing.

There will be a reckoning for your choices. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind, with so much to capture your attention. Don’t forget to look up and see the larger sweep of things. Some day in the future, you may find yourself wondering:

How did I get here?

Is this what I wanted?

Did I choose this?

Is this a good life for me?

Get good at taking stock of the path you’re on. And be brutally honest with yourself. Better to face hard questions now. They get harder the longer you wait. Be like the buffalo and run into the storm, not away from it.

Here’s to celebrating all you’ve done so far, thanking all those who’ve helped you get where you are, and blazing your own path in life with courage and conviction. You’ll thank yourself for it someday.

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

The Comparison Trap

We all fall into traps in life. One of the most common is the comparison trap: constantly comparing ourselves to others and judging our worth by how we stack up—mostly on things that are superficial and unimportant:

Where do I live?

What do I drive?

How much do I make?

Where do I fall in the social hierarchy?

According to researchers, this kind of comparative thinking is common:

“…the urge to make comparisons is strong. Our research has found that more than 10% of daily thoughts involved making a comparison of some kind.” -Dr. Amy Summerville, “Is Comparison Really the Thief of Joy”

I suspect it’s only getting worse in the age of Instagram and TikTok.

As always, there’s some nuance here. This kind of thinking can motivate us to work harder to improve. We can draw energy from a sense of competition and striving.

The problem, though, is that this kind of thinking can significantly detract from our sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” -Theodore Roosevelt

“Social comparison is a big part of how people measure worldly success, but the research is clear that it strips us of life satisfaction.”Arthur C. Brooks, social scientist and writer

One reason is that we tend to use unrealistic comparison points, such as the best person we know in an area, such as wealth or fitness. Naturally, then, we fall short in a side-by-side review.

Of course, we can’t be the best in everything. What’s more, our self-review can be brutal. And that means we’re sabotaging ourselves.

Another issue: the point of life is not to be the best (or the richest, or most famous, powerful, or beautiful), and certainly not to be the best at everything. Talk about unrealistic.

Also, we’re all living our own lives, with our own unique context, challenges, values, and aspirations. Life can be hard enough without us feeling like we have to beat someone at their game.

A better formula: You be you, and I’ll be me. I’ll play my own game. (And hopefully I’ll choose the long game.)

“…let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.” -Romans 12

If some comparing is inevitable (often generated involuntarily by our mischievous brains), one key may be our mindset: do we view our abilities as fixed (and thereby feel bad if someone is better than us at something), or as malleable if we work hard and smart, thereby motivating to learn, grow, and develop?

Fortunately, researchers have identified many ways we can train our brain to be happier:

  • We need to move our bodies, and when we do so we can build strength, endurance, and energy. It causes positive reactions in our bodies that affect our mood, and it helps us sleep well (also critical for physical and mental health).
  • According to researchers, being grateful for what we have can have powerful effects on our quality of life, including improved well-being, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and physical health. Activities such as gratitude journaling or writing gratitude letters to those who have helped us can have surprisingly strong and lasting effects.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness. Researchers have found many benefits from mindfulness practices, including improvements in mental and physical health as well as performance.
  • A clear sense of why we’re here or what makes our lives feel meaningful or significant.
  • Fully feeling and enjoying positive experiences, and thereby extending them.
  • Contributing to others, in ways large or small, including simple things like acts of kindness.
  • Writing / Journaling. Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help people create meaning from them. And it can be a creative outlet for emotional catharsis.
  • Goals and Progress. Having a deep commitment to and progress on lifelong goals, including small wins and a sense of movement and direction, can be invigorating.

Ultimately, a great antidote to the comparative trap is what Father Robert Spitzer, former President of Gonzaga University, has called a contributive ethic, including working toward the greater good.

Instead of walking around comparing ourselves to others, why don’t we walk around wondering how we can help? And why can’t we make this a habit, perhaps becoming our new default and crowding out those vexing comparative distractions?

Why compare when instead we can contribute?

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”Marcus Aurelius

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

Are You Drifting through Life?

“Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.” -Henry David Thoreau

How did I get here?

Is this what I wanted for my life? Is this what I chose?

Life can be messy. Many of us go long stretches of our lives on autopilot. We sleepwalk through our days.

It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau

One of the common traps of living is drifting: getting carried along by the current of outside influences, without traction on our deeper aims.

At some point, we stop and take stock, only to find that we’ve been wandering aimlessly.

Even while busy and pressed, we’ve been passive. Or reacting. Or settling.

Given these tendencies, we need to pause and take stock. Begin with questions:

  • Are you clear and intentional about a deeper purpose, about upholding your core values, and moving toward a compelling vision of what a good life would be for you, your family, your friends, your colleagues, and your community?
  • Are you demonstrating agency? Initiative? Ownership? Responsibility? Action?
  • Are you proactive?

If you don’t like the answers to these questions, don’t beat yourself up. The good news is that you’ve now regained your awareness. Go easy on yourself, but commit to taking your life back.

Next, as you think through what to do, avoid the trap of analysis paralysis. You don’t need a perfect plan for how to fix everything.

What you need most of all is to start.

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

Guard Your Heart

A year into the pandemic, we’re reminded of how important it is to guard your heart.

Here we mean our metaphysical heart, our sacred center. Parker Palmer said it beautifully:

“I’m using the word ‘heart’ as they did in ancient times, when it didn’t merely mean the emotions, as it tends to mean today. It meant that center in the human self where everything comes together—where will and intellect and values and feeling and intuition and vision all converge. It meant the source of one’s integrity.”

So many of us these days have suffered anxieties, losses, hardship, or tragedies. All added on a baseline of busyness and burnout. With frazzled days and heavy loads. With negative self-talk judging harshly. With fear and uncertainty.

This year, our hearts have taken a beating.

The effects on our health, relationships, and work can be devastating.

So we must guard our hearts, preserving every ounce of hope, wonder, awe, gratitude, and love we can muster.

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” -Proverbs 4:23 (King Solomon)

Why does heart matter so much?

We need it in our lives. We need it to stay grounded and faithful that we can survive, that we can learn the lessons life is offering.

We need it in our relationships, often frayed or neglected during hard times.

We need it at work, with opportunities to connect with colleagues also facing ghosts or demons.

We need it in our leadership, especially during hard times. In his adaptive leadership framework, Ron Heifetz of Harvard University encourages us to maintain a “sacred heart” and avoid numbing our soul with cynicism or defeatism.

How to guard your heart?

For starters, develop resilience through disciplined self-care. There are many possibilities, so choose the ones that resonate with you:

  • Breaks
  • Conversations
  • Exercise
  • Fun
  • Games
  • Gratitude
  • Hobbies
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Music
  • Nature
  • Relationships
  • Savoring
  • Serving
  • Sleep
  • Stargazing
  • Writing or journaling
  • Yoga

Some of the most powerful heart defenses come bottled in larger themes: Live purposefully. Preserve your vitality. Stay connected to people. Serve others. Take time for renewal.

If your heart is asleep, dormant from years of neglect, reawaken it.

If your heart is closed, crack it open.

If your heart is cold, bring it warmth.

If your path forward is hazy, ask your heart to light the way. We see things with our heart that we can’t see otherwise.

Guard your heart.

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

Are You Playing the Long Game?

These days it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing the short game. Our culture is geared toward it. With our devices, we’re developing the attention span of a gnat. We swipe and scroll. We get fidgety with a few seconds of down-time.

The power of the long game is astonishing, but the short game is alluring. We see it in many realms.

We see it in business. Clayton Christensen noted, “If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find a predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification.”

We see it in startups. Steve Blank notes that many startups incur what he calls “organizational debt”: “all the people/culture compromises made to ‘just get it done’ in the early stages of a startup.” Common examples: a lack of good onboarding and training, missing job descriptions, chaotic compensation, puny HR budgets, and more. While these compromises can help keep the cash burn rate down, they “can turn a growing company into a chaotic nightmare.”

We see it in our climate. We’re making a harrowing gamble with our children’s future as we fail to address the gathering dangers of climate change.

We see it in our health. Many of us are sitting longer, eating poorly, sleeping less, and pinging through life in a state of perpetual busyness or burnout.

We see it in our relationships. Caught up in our careers, we lose touch with family and friends—something we’re likely to regret. Australian nurse Bronnie Ware, working in palliative care, found that two of the top regrets of people as they approached their death were: wishing they hadn’t worked so hard, and wishing they had stayed in touch with their friends.

We see it in parenting. Years ago, a colleague of mine, also a father of young children, said a few words that changed me as a parent: “They’re only young once.”

We see it in our careers. When we’re young and in school, we face pressures about what we’re going to do next, with expectations from parents and peers, and without much basis for making big decisions. Too often we make big decisions based on the pressures of the moment in ways that don’t stand the test of time. We follow the herd into that high-status profession. Or we choose solely based on the paycheck.

We see it in life. One day there will be a reckoning for the choices we’ve made. Did we fall into the following short-game traps?

Conforming to what others expect.

Drifting through life without direction.

Staying in a job we don’t like.

Getting nowhere (or nowhere good) in a professional hamster wheel.

Deferring our dreams because it’s “not the right time.”

Settling forgood enough.”

Continuing to climb even though we’re on the wrong ladder.

The idea of playing the long game isn’t new. Thousands of years ago, Aristotle advised, “Plan with your whole life in mind.”

Now more than ever we need to reorient our life and work to the long game.

Questions for Reflection:

  • In what areas—business, health, relationships, parenting, careers, life—are you playing the short game?
  • What ideas do you have to start making changes?
  • Who can you connect with for help and accountability?

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

Designing Your Work for Flow

 

We’ve all heard of flow—that remarkable state of being in the zone and operating at our best. Many of us have experienced it.

But what exactly is it? And how do we get into it?

First, we note that the deep concentration and absorption associated with flow is becoming much harder to attain these days with all our alluring devices and their dopamine-driving distractions.

Just when we need it most, it’s becoming more and more elusive.

Complete Absorption

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor now at Claremont Graduate University, has dedicated much of his life to studying flow. In his interviews with athletes, artists, chess players, and rock climbers, he found that many of them moved into a state of flow—a “state of complete absorption in an activity and situation.”

Why did he call it “flow”? Many of the people he interviewed described the experience as if a rushing current of water carried them along. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic captures it beautifully:

“Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of writing, I feel like I am suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks that you find in a big airport terminal… I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along—something powerful and generous…. I lose track of time and space and self…. I only rarely experience this feeling, but it’s the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don’t think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love.”

Csikszentmihalyi characterizes flow as a state of “optimal experience”—of almost effortless attention and peak performance. In flow, he says, we feel “a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.”

Flow changes everything. Once you experience it, you’re changed forever, having glimpsed a different way of working. After jockey Red Pollard’s come-back ride aboard Seabiscuit at the famous “hundred grander” at Santa Anita, a spectator said Pollard looked like “a man who temporarily had visited Olympus and still was no longer for this world.”

In flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi, “Attention is fully invested in the task at hand, and the person functions at his or her fullest capacity…. You’re so involved in what you’re doing you aren’t thinking about yourself as separate from the immediate activity. You’re no longer a participant observer, only a participant. You’re moving in harmony with something else you’re part of.”

Nature of Flow

What is flow, exactly? Flow involves three elements:

  • Complete absorption in an activity
  • Lack of anxiety about losing control
  • Altered sense of time

The last one is a telltale sign. Recall those times when you’re so engrossed in the activity that you’re astonished when you discover how much time has passed in the meantime. It feels timeless.

The Body and Brain in Flow

Flow isn’t just a poetic description of a magical state but also a bona fide physiological phenomenon. When in flow, according to researchers, our heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and our facial muscles relax. Neurological studies show that the brain expends less energy during flow compared to when it’s wrestling with a problem.

Flow is associated with a decrease in “psychic entropy”: an anxious state of mind, common for many of us, in which our brain is stuck in a frustrating loop of concern and disarray, with fragmented attention. With that dialed down or switched off, we’re able to engage fully and enjoy the experience.

Flow and Performance

How does flow affect performance? According to Csikszentmihalyi, “a host of studies have found a strong positive relationship between flow and performance.” He notes that flow is positively associated with artistic and scientific creativity, learning, effective teaching, peak performance in sports, and even skill development. The latter is important, because it means that the more we can get into flow, the better we can get at our chosen activity.

According to the research, flow experiences are fairly rare, but almost any kind of activity—work, studies, hobbies—can produce them. So how do we achieve flow?

Conditions for Flow

According to the research, there are three necessary conditions for flow:

  • Clear set of goals
  • Clear and immediate feedback (so we can tell if we’re advancing toward our goals)
  • Balance between perceived challenges and skills, warranting our full attention (otherwise we’d get bored with too little challenge and anxious with too much challenge)

Here’s where things get really interesting. Flow is not some mystical state bestowed upon us by flow gremlins. It’s a mental state that we can invite by designing our work and context to meet these conditions.

Most of us live and work in a context today that makes achieving flow about as likely as winning the lottery. To invite flow, we need to get disciplined and systematic about doing what computer scientist Cal Newport calls “deep work”: working for extended periods with full concentration on a single task, free from distraction.

How to do this? In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he recommends that we decide where we’ll work (a pleasant, quiet place) and for how long and how (with rituals, rules, and standard processes). We also need breaks built into our day to allow us to recharge—and to let our subconscious mind wander.

Perhaps most importantly, we must minimize distractions.

Distractions block flow and open the floodgates to psychic entropy. Too many of us have surrendered to a life of shallow work and distractions.

What could we do with a life of deep work infused with flow?

Questions for Reflection:

  • When have you been in a state of flow?
  • What was the context, and what were you doing?
  • What ideas do you have for designing your work—and that of your team, if you have one—to invite flow?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from his books, check out his Free Guide. Or check out his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship.”

Founder-Venture Fit for Entrepreneurs

With startups, many people focus on what entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen calls “product/market fit”: “being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” It’s a great point, and too many ventures fail or founder because they never find it.

But not nearly enough attention is paid to what I call “founder/venture fit”: when the venture matches well with the founder’s (or co-founders’) knowledge, strengths, passions, and values. Some have written about similar ideas—“founder-market fit” or “founder fit”—but too many aspiring entrepreneurs miss this critical point.

Serial entrepreneur and investor Brad Feld wrote: “I’ve come to believe that—especially among first time entrepreneurs—founder market fit is much more important than product market fit at the inception of the company.”

When we survey the startup landscape, we see founder/venture fit in spades:

We see it with Elon Musk, who grew up fascinated by technology and physics, learned to think deeply about “first principles,” and became unsettled by dark scenarios about the planet’s future without bold action, big bets, and breathtaking innovation. Looking back, he said, “I really was thinking about this stuff in college…. I like to make technologies real that I think are important for the future and useful in some sort of way.”

We see it at Spotify, where co-founder Daniel Ek combined his two passions growing up (music and technology).

We see it with Oprah Winfrey, who found a brilliant and personal way to “Turn your wounds into wisdom,” as she says.

We see it with Virgin’s Richard Branson, who exudes personality and fun in all his endeavors.

We see it at GoPro with founder Nick Woodman’s love of adventure and entertainment: “It comes down to how much authentic passion you have for something.”

We see it at Patagonia with Yvon Chouinard’s background in rock climbing and environmentalism. At Patagonia, they “use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Thinking back about his early days with Paul Allen at Microsoft, Bill Gates mused, “We just loved writing software.”

So what are we to make of this? Tech entrepreneur and investor Chris Dixon notes that “founder/market fit can be developed through experience: No one is born with knowledge of the education market, online advertising, or clean energy technologies. You can learn about these markets by building test projects, working at relevant companies, or simply doing extensive research.”

He adds this important note as well: “founders should realize that a startup is an endeavor that generally lasts many years. You should fit your market not only because you understand it, but because you love it — and will continue to love it as your product and market change over time.”

And how do we gauge whether we (or others) have it? James Currier from NFX, a seed-stage venture firm, identified4 Signs of Founder/Venture Fit”:

  1. Obsession: he counsels founders, “don’t start a company unless you can’t not do it… unless you can’t sleep at night and your brain is exploding with the idea.”
  2. Founder Story: a compelling “why” inside the founder that resonates with the venture’s target customers.
  3. Personality: a nature and set of interests that resonates with peers and customers.
  4. Experience: knowledge and experience can surely help, but he notes that “too much experience is not always a good thing. Certainly, we do look for founders who have enough industry experience that they understand the market. But not so much experience that they don’t have any disruption left in them…. Too much knowledge is a blocker to innovation.”

Too many aspiring entrepreneurs want to be founders for reasons that may not serve them well or stand the test of time—reasons like a desire for recognition or fame.

Entrepreneurship isn’t for the faint of heart. For many, it will require an obscene amount of commitment, persistence, and resilience—the kinds that usually flow from a true sense of purpose, calling, and conviction. Do you burn for this idea, for this cause, for this opportunity to generate value and have impact?

The entrepreneurial path is both exhilarating and exasperating. You’re wise to find a great fit at the outset.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards).

To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from his books, check out his Free Guide. Or check out his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship.”