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?
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.)
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.
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 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.
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
- Breaking the “Trance of Unworthiness”
- Getting Good at Overcoming Fear
- Burnout and the Great Resignation
- Beware the Disease of More
- Golden Handcuffs—Stuck in a Job You Don’t Like?
- Are You Trapped by Success?
- The Conformity Trap
- Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work
- The Mental Prisons We Build for Ourselves
- Do You Have Margin in Your Life?
- The Trap of Deferring Dreams and Postponing Happiness
- The Trap of Caring Too Much about What Other People Think
- Tired of Settling? How to Light Your Life and Work on Fire
- The Problem of Going It Alone
- Choice Overload and Career Transitions
- The Comparison Trap
- Are You Drifting through Life?
- Guard Your Heart
- Are You Playing the Long Game?
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!