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. 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.

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. 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. 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? What about contributing to something greater than ourselves, to our family, our community, our world, or a worthy cause? What about character and integrity? 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. We can get so driven that we lose sight of the things that capture our hearts. We can lose our artistry and our soul. 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. 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?

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self leadership, success.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg 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”). Sign up for his monthly newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

The Conformity Trap

One of the biggest traps we face as we make decisions about life and work is the trap of conforming to societal expectations or conventional paths instead of blazing our own path in life.

Conformity entails behaving in ways similar to others or according to their wishes instead of relying on our own judgment or preferences. We see this all time. We tend to mirror the body language and communication styles of our peer groups.

Our penchant for conformity comes from a strong desire to fit in with the group. It can be conscious or unconscious, and it doesn’t require overt pressure. The pressures can be indirect and subtle yet still powerful (or even misperceived—manufactured by our anxious brains).

As humans, we feel a strong, almost primal need to be accepted and viewed favorably by others. It’s a powerful urge baked into our biology, presumably because we found safety in the group that helped us survive despite all the risks we’ve faced over the ages, most of which are more pronounced and dangerous when we’re alone.

Willing to Go Along

To see how powerful the effects of conformity are, consider the classic experiment by Dr. Solomon Asch, a Polish social psychology researcher, who gave people cards with lines of different lengths on them and had them judge which line was the same length as the target line. When people were tested individually, the success rate was of course near perfect (99%). It was a no-brainer. People could see the lines right in front of them with their own eyes.

But when people were tested in a group setting and there were secret people planted in the experimental group who were instructed by the researchers to give wrong answers, it caused many subjects of the experiment to ignore what they saw with their own eyes.

Overall, they agreed with the wrong answer from the majority about the length of the lines a whopping 37% of the time. So the error rate went from 1% to 37% on a simple and obvious task due to group influences. The point is not that their vision was altered but rather that they were willing to go along with something they clearly knew wasn’t right to remain accepted and in agreement with the group.

Excellent Sheep

“They’re anxious, timid, and lost… heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it. They’re violently averse to risk as a product of being shackled by their academic success.” -William Deresiewicz

In his book, Excellent Sheep, teacher and author William Deresiewicz describes how this problem shows up in elite universities. He heard the term “excellent sheep” from one of his students. It describes a phenomenon in which students “feel toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression,” are in a “constant state of competition,” feel a need for “compulsive overachievement,” go through “endless hoop-jumping,” and are loaded up with schoolwork and extracurriculars and stressed out and miserable most of the time.

The result: a stunning amount of them end up going into the same well paying, high-status, professional careers, dutifully following the herd and the wishes of their shepherds. Yes, problems of privilege, but still problems.

Consider the response of a former student of mine when asked in survey about top challenges faced:

“We feel the pressure of achieving high grades in school, having a job, doing extracurricular work such as volunteering to build up a CV, having a social life, and exercise—all at the same time. Social media makes it seem as if everyone is totally capable of juggling twenty balls at once, emphasizing only positive experiences. Nowadays, the only thing that is important is ‘measurable’ success. Anything you cannot put on your CV or on social media doesn’t count anymore…. Because of all these measurements, I feel like I am only extrinsically motivated. And I don’t want that. I want to be intrinsically motivated and block out everything that others or society expect of me—but do the things that I want to do because I value them.”

The Problem with Conformity

“Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable. You want to be able to do what you want to do in life.” –Janet Wojcicki, professor, University of California at San Francisco

The problem is that this conformity urge can interfere with our ability to make good decisions—decisions that keep us safe or that leave our character intact.

Bronnie Ware identified the “top regrets of the dying” after years of work as a palliative nurse caring for people in the final weeks and days of their lives. The top regret she noted was this:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

These conformity and pressure patterns start early and continue with great momentum throughout our lives. Common examples during adolescence include pressure to do the following to fit in:

  • bullying, racist, or sexist behavior (going along with it or looking the other way)
  • casual sex
  • alcohol or drugs
  • ditching school or vandalism
  • cheating and cutting corners (according to researchers, we’re more likely to engage in unethical behavior when we see others succeed at it)
  • feeling that our parents will only be satisfied if we do what they want us to do, regardless of what we want, and following their preferences toward safer and more lucrative and prestigious careers (note also that they may have felt similar pressures from their parents, and so on, in some sort of endless family loop; making things worse, we’re conflicted because we love our parents and don’t want to disappoint them but we also want to find our own path in life).

Consider this message from another former student:

“I am facing a few obstacles at the moment, and most of them are related to what is expected of me, especially by my family. I have always been a very good student at school, I got the highest grades throughout high school, I was valedictorian at my graduation, I got into a top university for my bachelor’s degree and my master’s, and I have been working full-time and part-time during my studies as well. I’ve always heard from everyone around me that I would make a great businesswoman, that I would get in to ‘any of the top companies’ I wanted. And now that I’m at that point, I don’t know if that’s the type of success that will make me the happiest…. So at the moment, my major obstacle is internal; do I risk disappointing them for not following the path they would expect me to? Or do I accept the fact that I might end up working somewhere that is not a true ‘fit’ for me to make others happy?… Another obstacle I have is internal; I don’t want to fail. And I am terrified of failing. And this fear of failure is putting limits to what I will allow myself to do…. I am scared of taking a step in the wrong direction.”

When we conform, we can lose our individuality and uniqueness. What’s more, we feel anxiety about having to maintain an image of near perfection.

It’s important to note that conformity is not all bad. We evolved with a desire for it for good reasons, and there are some benefits of it.

For example, it can make our lives simpler and easier because we don’t have to worry as much about being judged harshly by our peers. It also gives us something of a safety net we can fall into when we’re anxious.

The Second-Order Effect of Conformity

Here’s the problem that rarely gets noticed. We move through different social circles during our lives: from childhood and teen friends to early-career colleagues and neighbors, to new people we meet at work or in new places we live or visit, including our spouse or partner’s friends.

Sometimes we make decisions about work to impress certain people and fit in, but we won’t even be in touch with those people in a few years. As we age, we can be shocked by how little it matters what some of those people think, when back in those early days it felt like the weight of the world was upon us. And yet we make big decisions that are hard to change based on those often superficial and unhelpful influences.

The effects of conformity can be long-lasting and hard to unwind, given the switching costs of trying to make big changes later (like a change in career or college major).

What to Do about It

So the forces of conformity are powerful and hard to resist. What to do about it? Here are a half-dozen tips:

First, know yourself. That begins with knowing your story—and weaving it into a cohesive narrative based on the patterns you’ve seen in your life and especially drawing on your sense of purpose, values, strengths, passions, and aspirations. It also means learning from challenges, setbacks, and tragedies but not letting yourself be defined or limited by them.

Second, embrace your uniqueness as part of your identity. That way, you can explain your nonconformity with the group using your difference in a way that fits with your core identity—with who you really are.

Third, build up your courage—the courage you’ll need to resist the Siren call of conformity. How? By practicing hard things. By doing what you think you can’t. Start with something small. See how often it turns out that fears were phantoms, and that the worst cases imagined almost never materialize—and how resilient and resourceful we can be when we need to be. The good news is that, as we develop an increasing ability to withstand criticism and fight against the pressures of conformity, our confidence increases and we develop a clearer sense of our identity and uniqueness. It can turbocharge our life and work.

Fourth, find support from people who value you for your uniqueness and differences—and who don’t pressure you to fit into to conventional boxes. (And be sure to reciprocate.)

Fifth, stop spending time with people who put you in uncomfortable situations. Terminate the toxic in your life.

Sixth, and most importantly, JUST BE YOU. Stop following the crowd and blaze your own path in life. It may make the difference between a lifetime of fulfillment versus regret.

Reflection Questions

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

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Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding the Conformity Trap

  • “Our deepest calling is to grow into our authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be.” -Parker Palmer
  • “There is nothing more genuine than breaking away from the chorus to learn the sound of your own voice.” -Po Bronson
  • “But there is something that’s a great deal more important than parental approval: learning to do without it. That’s what it means to become an adult…. You won’t be able to recognize the things you really care about until you have released your grip on all the things that you’ve been taught to care about.” -William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep
  • “To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.” -Robert Louis Stevenson
  • “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself.” -Friedrich Nietzsche
  • “Middle-status conformity leads us to choose the safety of the tried-and-true over the danger of the original.” -Adam Grant in his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
  • “Any day of the week I would choose to be ‘out’ with others and in touch with myself… than to be ‘in’ with others and out of touch with myself.” -Portia Nelson
  • “Every time you don’t follow your inner guidance, you feel a loss of energy, loss of power, a sense of spiritual deadness.” -Shakti Gawain
  • “Cowardice asks the question ‘Is it safe?’ Consensus asks the question ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks, ‘Is it right?’” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular… but because conscience tells one it is right.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg 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”). Sign up for his monthly newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

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.

“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

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

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?

 

What to Do About It

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? 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:

  • Are you identifying too much with your 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

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains and speaks on life design 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). Sign up for his monthly newsletter for inspirations, articles, tools, and opportunities.

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

 

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

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 and embrace challenges. 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 yourself 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?

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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

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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 manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

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.

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.

The problem: We don’t have enough margin in our lives.

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

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. It 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. It prevents us from exercising enough. It induces us to stress-eat, binge-watch, or skimp on sleep.

The Benefits of Margin

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 This 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.

What to Do about It

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. 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

  • “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

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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 manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

The Trap of Deferring Dreams and Postponing Happiness

One of the most common—and costly—traps of living is the trap of deferring dreams and postponing happiness. We do it, we tell ourselves, because it’s not practical or “the right time.”

So what happens in the meantime? We endure work without enjoying it. We suffer through the days. We become resigned to the dysfunctions of our work, and habituated to its anxiety and stress. We sacrifice health, family, and dreams for the job. We neglect precious relationships with family and friends with the rationalization that we’ll make up for it later.

We wait. Hmmm….

Waiting for that “Perfect Time”

“People wait. They wait for the elusive day when they’ll finally have enough time (guess what? — you never will), enough education (there’s always more to know), enough money (no matter how much you make, someone will always have more)…. People wait until that fateful day when they wake up and realize that while they were sitting around paying dues, earning their keep, waiting for that elusive ‘perfect time’ their entire life has passed them by.”Richie Norton, The Power of Starting Something Stupid

For some, this means enduring a mediocre or even miserable, stress-filled present on the bet that if we keep grinding it out today (this year… this decade…), we’ll magically arrive in happiness heaven at some point.

Don’t misunderstand: hard work is good. Paying dues can be valuable. Not everybody is blessed with options.

But here’s the reality: If we spend our days deferring our dreams and postponing our happiness, then our life will be, well, one of deferred dreams and postponed happiness. Too often, the dreams and happiness never materialize. We put them off until it’s too late, or we burn up too much time in deferral mode.

Life is too precious and short to wait. It comes with unknown contents and duration. Is it really worth the wait?

According to Emma Seppäla of the Yale School of Management, “This theory of success, the idea that in order to be successful you have to postpone or sacrifice your happiness, is simply false.”

Why Is This So Hard?

Of course, we understand the dangers here conceptually, yet we still end up falling into this trap of waiting, deferring, and postponing. Why?

First, we undervalue ourselves, subconsciously believing we’re so flawed that we’re not yet worthy of happiness. Sometimes, we learn these self-beliefs or worldviews from our family, born in a different time or with a different outlook.

Second, we fear failure. Our brains are wired for it. We submit to our risk aversion. As we mull our decision whether to wait or go for it, we overweight the cost of potential failure while underweighting the value of failure (from what we’ll learn and the pride we’ll feel for having tried) and neglecting altogether the cost of regret (the anguish associated with looking back and wondering about missed chances).

Third, we’re paralyzed by uncertainty about how to venture forth into the murky territory of our hopes and dreams. There are a couple factors at work here:

  • The “paradox of choice” (with anxiety coming from choice overload, causing “analyis paralysis”), as noted by psychologist Barry Schwartz
  • The belief that we have to find the one “perfect idea” and make the one “right choice,” with advance certainty that all will work and that it will go according to plan. (The reality is that it almost never does.)

An important note: postponing happiness also means postponing purpose—one of the most important drivers of a fulfilling life. True happiness comes not just from savoring the simple pleasures but also from connecting with others in deep, reciprocal relationships and contributing to something larger than ourselves, whether a family, neighborhood, organization, community, nation, cause, or planet.

Related Traps

There many related traps resonant with this trap of deferring dreams and postponing happiness, including:

  • Drift: getting carried along by time, circumstances, and outside influences—eventually wondering, “How did I get here?”
  • Empty: feeling empty about what we’re doing, without passion or joy
  • Fear: holding back or not trying due to fears about failure or threats to image
  • Golden handcuffs: financial or lifestyle choices that inhibit us from doing what we want (for example, being financially tethered to a job that’s not a good fit)
  • Hedonic treadmill: working harder and gaining more wealth or possessions without increasing happiness or fulfillment (a professional hamster wheel)
  • Inertia: sticking with a sub-optimal path, often because the switching costs are high
  • Settle: compromising or settling for “good enough”
  • Sleepwalk: going through the motions of life and feeling “half-awake”

There’s no magic formula for determining the right time to make a change—or how to go about it. But we do know that if we don’t chase our dreams and aspirations, they’ll die a cold and lonely death from neglect. Is that what we want for our lives?

The most important thing, then, is first to decide to avoid that fate and second to get started.

Reflection Questions

  • Do you have dreams you’re deferring?
  • What are you postponing?
  • What can you do, starting today, to begin pursuing your aspirations?
  • What are you waiting for?

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Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Avoid this Trap

  • “There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, ‘Yes, I’ve got dreams, of course. I’ve got dreams.’ Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they’re still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box.” -Erma Bombeck, columnist and humorist
  • “Am I doing things that allow me to live the way I want, serve the way I want, and be the parent I want to be? The last thing we wanted to do was live in a way that was talking about tomorrow instead of living it today.” -Stacey Boyd, entrepreneur
  • “There comes a time when you ought to start doing what you want. Take a job that you love. You will jump out of bed in the morning. I think you are out of your mind if you keep taking jobs that you don’t like because you think it will look good on your resume. Isn’t that a little like saving up sex for your old age?” -Warren Buffett, investor
  • “Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time.” -Albert Camus
  • “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” -Chinese proverb
  • “People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.” -Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” -Meister Eckhart, German theologian, philosopher, and mystic
  • “I think the fiercest question of all is this one: What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant? …. You might demand of it, ‘Why should I go through all the trouble to make something if the outcome might be nothing?’ The answer will usually come with a wicked trickster grin: ‘Because it’s fun, isn’t it?’ Anyhow, what else are you going to do with your time here on earth—not make things? Not do interesting stuff? Not follow your love and your curiosity?” -Elizabeth Gilbert, author and journalist
  • “The way to live our vision on a daily basis is to understand that right now is the only time we have.” -John Hanley
  • “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” -Sydney J. Harris, journalist and author
  • “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” -Steve Jobs, entrepreneur
  • “During the first period of a man’s life the greatest danger is: not to take the risk.” -Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher
  • “A lot of times we’re driven and limited by perceived risk. But perceived risk is unrelated to actual risk. Real risk is not starting a business you are passionate about. Real risk is staying at a job that isn’t fulfilling; wasting your life.” -Jim Koch, founder, Boston Beer Company
  • “The most dangerous risk of all—the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” -Randy Komisar, tech executive, entrepreneur, and author
  • “If you truly love life, don’t waste time because time is what life is made of.” -Bruce Lee, martial artist, actor, and director
  • “Instead of your heart beats faster, why not you just act faster a bit; instead of just thinking about it, why not do something about it? Poor people fail because of one common behavior: their whole life is about waiting.” -Jack Ma, entrepreneur
  • “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” -Carl Sandburg, poet and biographer
  • “In the time of your life, live.” -William Saroyan, novelist and playwright
  • “It’s not at all that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well. But when it’s poured down the drain of luxury and neglect, when it’s employed to no good end, we’re finally driven to see that it has passed by before we even recognized it passing. And so it is—we don’t receive a short life, we make it so.” -Seneca, On the Brevity of Life
  • “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” -Shakespeare
  • “I must change my life, so that I can live it, not wait for it.” -Susan Sontag, writer, philosopher, and teacher
  • “Do not wait till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” -William B. Sprague, clergyman
  • “All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us.” -J.R.R. Tolkien, English writer, poet, and academic

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Gregg Vanourek is 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 manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

The Trap of Caring Too Much about What Other People Think

We humans are social animals. We’re wired to think about our role in the group and about how others think of us. It matters in our families, friendships, and work relationships. We can’t survive and thrive without tending to these relationships.

But there’s also a big trap here. The problem is when we’re so influenced by what others think—or, to be precise, what we think others will think—that it causes us to make choices that won’t serve us well over time. We avoid the short-term pain of a possible loss in status in exchange for the long-term loss of missing out on better things.

This dynamic can cause us to drift away from who we really are and what we really want to do. To drift toward the safety of what others expect. We can lose bits of ourselves as we seek approval from or try to please others.

These are common traps. And painful ones.

“The unhappiest people in this world are those who care the most about what other people think.”C. JoyBell C., writer

To be clear, it’s not that expectations are bad. They’re needed, and they can be helpful in many ways. The problem is becoming addicted to approval or fenced in by others’ expectations.

Haunted by Expectations

I see this again and again—and especially among young people early in their career. As they navigate through the dark and disorienting maze of career options, they’re haunted by the expectations of their parents—and of teachers, coaches, and peers: Be a doctor. Or lawyer. Or architect. Join the family business. Choose a profession. Go for salary and status. Climb the ladder. (Regardless of who you are, what you love, and what you long for.)

There’s a deceptive calculus at work here. The benefits of the approval flowing from those safe and respectable options can turn out to be shallow and fleeting. We can find ourselves in a career filled with things we don’t like—or even resent—and we’ve signed up for about 80,000 hours of it (the average amount of work people do today over a lifetime). So how does that bargain look now?

Meanwhile, there may be other costs: Paperwork. Time sheets. Bureaucracy. Boring meetings. Energy-sapping colleagues. Lousy bosses. All for what?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with being a doctor, lawyer, architect, or whatever, or with joining the family business, or pursuing a traditional career path IF—and here’s the rub—IF it’s a good fit for you. The key is that it’s your choice and that you’ve tried it and found it to be a good fit for you. That it fills you up with energy more often than it drains you.

Of course, not everyone has a choice. Sometimes we’re buried in debt or mired in financial stress and insecurity, or lacking better options. Many people face structural or institutional barriers or biases. But we usually have more choices than we think. It often comes down to our courage and agency, and to our imagination and hustle, despite the obstacles.

My sense is that we tend to overweight the external factors of approval and status early in life, while the intrinsic motivations quietly and steadily grow in importance as we grow older.

Avoiding this trap of getting pushed off course by the expectations winds is especially hard during transitions, because taking a step back to chart a new course summons potent fears of judgment and disappointment from others, though the reality may be that many are excited or even a bit envious about our new adventure (and most probably won’t even notice or think twice).

The Costs of Caring Too Much about What Others Think

When we’re in this mode of being driven by outside expectations, we tend to:

  • have a hard time communicating forthrightly when there’s disagreement or debate
  • struggle with setting boundaries
  • work too much and feel overwhelmed
  • experience anxiety and stress
  • feel resentment
  • avoid doing things that call to us
  • pass up on potential opportunities

The need for achievement-based approval can become a compulsion. We become approval addicts looking for our next hit, and then the next. When does it end?

Life is too precious and short to let others determine our path.

It gets worse: The expectations of others are a terrible guide for deciding what’s right for us in our own particular context. Those expectations can be unrealistic, or even contradictory. What are we supposed to do with that? If we try to please everybody, we’ll fail miserably. No matter how hard we may try, we can never do things just as others might want or expect.

By surrendering to the Siren call of people-pleasing, we violate a silent sacred pact with ourselves, denying our nature and denigrating our integrity, leading to a downward spiral of self-doubt and inner turmoil.

Why Is This So Hard?

It’s easy to understand this problem conceptually, harder to self-diagnose because it’s emotionally charged and sometimes subconscious, but very difficult to address properly. Why?

For starters, we’ve been doing this for our whole lives—a tough habit to break. It’s been part of our conditioning as children—seeking the attention and approval of our parents and striving again and again to demonstrate our worth. When we did what was expected, we basked in soothing acceptance.

Our brains and bodies seek the chemical rewards of this stimulus-response feedback loop from our neurotransmitting hormones. This loop began in early childhood and it’s etched deep into our neural pathways. According to the late leadership expert Edward Morler, the stages of human development include moving from a focus on “Am I good enough?” in childhood to a healthier focus on “I am enough” in mature adulthood.

Related Traps

This excessive need for approval can also manifest is many related traps, including:

  • getting too caught up in “climbing mode”
  • constantly comparing ourselves to others and judging our worth by how we stack up
  • conforming to societal conventions or conventional paths instead of blazing our own
  • holding back or not trying due to fears about failure or threats to image
  • feeling that others are racing ahead with more clarity or success while we lag behind
  • sticking with a sub-optimal life or career path because we’re afraid of what others will think if we step off the treadmill and start over
  • being short-sighted about what matters in life
  • not setting proper boundaries or articulating needs due to a need to be liked
  • being consumed by a hunger for status, prestige, or approval
  • pretending to be someone we’re not
  • becoming addicted to work

How to Stop this Downward Spiral

Okay, so we know it’s a big problem. What to do about it? Here are 8 things we can do to stop this downward spiral:

  1. Acquire more self-awareness (in part by paying attention to our instincts and listening to our inner voice)
  2. Develop a clear and compelling personal purpose, values, and vision so that we’re clear about our deeper why, what’s most important to us, and what we want for our life
  3. Cultivate self-acceptance: Appreciate what we have and do well while shutting down our unrealistic inner critic
  4. Take time before saying yes to a new task or commitment and have clear and high standards for what we’ll spend time on
  5. Gain perspective: How much will what they think matter in a week, a month, a year, a decade? In the final analysis?
  6. Experiment with what it feels like to experience disapproval, sitting with it and getting a sense of how much it matters (if at all?)
  7. Notice how people may respect us for setting boundaries and for being clear and committed to our goals and aspirations
  8. Imagine and pursue the freedom and power on the other side of this mental block—the gift of finally letting ourselves be who we really are and long to become

“The most freeing experience of my life thus far has been to… be unapologetically myself, and to stand in my own light.” -Hannah Rose, therapist and writer

Reflection Questions

  • Are you caring too much about what other people think in some areas of your life?
  • Which ones?
  • Which action steps above will you start taking?
  • Who can you turn to for help or accountability?

 

Don’t waste your time on earth

doing the work of others.

Do your own work.

The sweat of your soul,

 

The lightness in the center of your heart

will tell you

when you are on course.

 

The swiftness of your breath

will slow to match

the tidal pull of moonlight.

 

You will ski effortlessly

down the slope of each day

calling your own name

softly to the trees.

-Elizabeth Carlson, poet, “Don’t Waste Your Time”

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Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Avoid this Trap

  • “Being dependent on approval—so dependent that we barter away all our time, energy, and personal preferences to get it—ruins lives.” –Martha Beck, author
  • “The first step toward change is to refuse to be deployed by others and to choose to deploy yourself.” –Warren Bennis, leadership author
  • “I was driven by the expectation that I needed some type of profession. [I was also] driven by parental expectations and by looking at my peers.” –Warren Brown, entrepreneur
  • “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” –Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “I was dying inside. I was so possessed by trying to make you love me for my achievements that I was actually creating this identity that was disconnected from myself. I wanted people to love me for the hologram I created of myself.” –Chip Conley, entrepreneur and author
  • “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically—to say ’no’ to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.” –Stephen R. Covey, author
  • “The problem comes when people are so eager to win the approval of others that they try to cover their shortcomings and sacrifice their authenticity to gain the respect and admiration of their associates.” –Bill George, leadership expert and author
  • “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” –Steve Jobs, entrepreneur
  • “Listen to your heart above all other voices.” -Martha Kagan
  • “‘Finding yourself’ is not really how it works. You aren’t a ten-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. ‘Finding yourself’ is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.” –Emily McDowell, writer and entrepreneur
  • “So long as you’re still worried about what others think of you, you are owned by them. Only when you require no approval from outside yourself can you own yourself.” –Neale Donald Walsch, author
  • “Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable. You want to be able to do what you want to do in life.” –Janet Wojcicki, professor, Univ. of California at San Francisco

I do my thing and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you, and I am I,

and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.

If not, it can’t be helped.

-Fritz Perls, Gestalt Prayer

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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 manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

Tired of Settling? How to Light Your Life and Work on Fire

Settling for “good enough” instead of what you really want? Getting comfortable with the ordinary? Letting others treat you poorly? Suffering through a poor work situation? Tired of working with people who don’t want to excel or don’t share your values? Playing small, even though you know there’s something bigger possible for you?

Time out. This is your life. Your one and only life, with an uncertain duration and no guarantees. Time to take it back.

“There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa

Why Do We Settle?

If you’re settling, you’re not alone. It’s a common trap. There are many reasons we settle:

1. Fear: We’re afraid of looking bad, of not living up to expectations, of failing. We fear what other people will think or say. So we let these fears box our choices, keeping us squarely in the safe and conventional spaces even though we long for something more. The kicker is that we’re often misreading people and conjuring scenarios of their disappointment and rejection when in fact they’re not even thinking of us, or they have a wildly different take. Too often, we’re just listening to phantom voices in our head whispering about unlikely worst cases.

“So many of us choose our paths in life out of fear disguised as practicality.” Jim Carrey, actor, comedian, writer, producer

2. Self-Deception: We’re brilliant at hiding the truth from ourselves. We rationalize: It’s only for a while. What choice do I have? In these excuses, we hide from the distressing realization that we’re settling for something less than desirable.

“The worst of all deceptions is self-deception.”Plato, classical Greek philosopher

3. Conformity: We yield to parental expectations, social norms, and conventional paths instead of blazing our own path. We worry about the harsh judgment we think may come if we stand up or stand out, so we shrink back into the facelessness of the crowd. Sure, there’s safety in the crowd. But also boredom—and regret.

4. Inertia: Change is hard. We get stuck in the quicksand of questions: What to do instead? How to decide? How to make it work? Can I really give up the safety of what I have now? The “switching costs” (of changing jobs, careers, degrees, locations, etc.) can be high—especially in the short term, with no way to know the long-term payoff. So we stick with a lesser path because it’s easier to stay the course. But at what cost in terms of lost opportunities and sense of pride and satisfaction for testing our mettle and venturing forth into the terrifying beauty of possibility?

“Never be passive about your life…  ever, ever.”Robert Egger, social entrepreneur, activist, and author

5. Not tending to the fire: We’re all born with a zest for life (see how babies and children experience the world) and a capacity for dreaming big (go back and visit your childhood dreams). These aspirations require energy, but too often we’ve let that energy fizzle out over time by burying ourselves in busywork, escaping into mindless distractions, numbing ourselves, and making excuses.

There are indeed big obstacles. Not all are fortunate enough to have choices, or a savings cushion, or the ability to escape poverty, financial insecurity, or other debilitating hardship. But these questions are relevant to all, regardless of circumstances, because even in the hardest circumstances we have agency and possibilities for change, whether by hard work, grit, adjusting our approach, or upgrading our skills and outlook.

Often the real issue is lack of clarity about what we want and how we can move forward in the face of uncertainty. Trepidation about being who we really are. Setting the bar low so we won’t be disappointed if we fail to reach it. We lack a clear and compelling why. We have no audacious aspiration to rekindle the fire.

That’s not all. More things contribute to settling:

  • We avoid difficult tasks or conflicts
  • We’re too busy reacting to events instead of driving them
  • We lack confidence about our abilities and prospects for success
  • We’re not seeing the big picture and get caught up in the moment
  • We put things off until later

The Flip Side: Dangers of Not Settling?

We should pause here and note that there’s a danger of taking this line of thinking about not settling too far. We can get so focused on striving for something better that we lose our capacity to be grateful for what we have now. We can get caught up in obsessively chasing success due to an unhealthy need for validation and recognition for achievements.

There’s a danger to some of swapping a life of settling for a life of anxiety and workaholism, detached from family, friends, health, and the simple pleasures: nature, hobbies, quiet time. We can risk losing our capacity for quiet reflection, mindfulness, and pausing for renewal. We should be wary of getting too caught up in “climbing mode.”

Ceaseless and obsessive striving can prevent us from living a full life with a healthy array of meaningful aspects, like marriage, family, career, health, friendships, community, and more. In his book, On Settling, social philosopher Robert E. Goodin notes that if we settle on some things, we’re better positioned to concentrate on others that are more important. Otherwise, our efforts may be too diffuse and never gain traction.

We can have bold aspirations for a better future but still be grateful for what we have and not too attached to a future outcome that’s unlikely to solve everything in our life and bring us unending joy. Life doesn’t work that way. Writer Chris Guillebeau creatively flips the script from the “pursuit of happiness” to what he calls the “happiness of pursuit.”

So yes, we mustn’t turn our striving into a compulsive crusade. But for many, the bigger danger is settling.

The Icarus Deception

The myth of Icarus is relevant here. You may recall the warning Daedalus gave to his son, Icarus, after constructing wings from feathers and wax to escape Crete: “Don’t fly too close to the sun.”

The big danger is hubris, right? Of having the sun melt your wings of wax if you get too full of yourself and fly too high.

But author Seth Godin points out that Daedalus warned Icarus first of the danger of complacency—the danger of flying too low such that the damp sea affects his wings and causes him to crash into the water. The first danger is about flying too low. We must guard against that too.

So what to do?

How to Stop Settling

There are several things we can do to stop settling and reignite the flame in our life and work:

1. Take full responsibility. Be a “LIFE Entrepreneur,” taking ownership of your life, and recognizing your agency. Take your life back. Stop making excuses. No one’s coming to the rescue.

“Some people don’t just live: they lead a life. They don’t sit around waiting for a lucky break. They create opportunities. They go after their dreams and bring them to life…. They develop a vision of the good life, devise a plan for how to attain it, go for it, and check their progress along the way. As with any great effort, their work is never done but ever-evolving and, often, inspiring to those around them. Welcome to the territory of life entrepreneurs.” -Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives

2. Summon the courage to try. Act in spite of your fears. That of course sounds easier than it is in practice. How to punch through the fear? It helps to realize that most fears are phantoms, unlikely to play out in real life like the nightmare in our head. Also, be sure to account for the cost of coming to the end of your life and looking back with regret for not trying. It also helps if you do what’s next on the list below, to give you a sense of drive and direction:

3. Develop a clear and compelling personal purpose, values, and vision so that you’re clear about where you want to go in your life and work, and how and why:

  • Purpose: why you’re here, and what gives you a sense of meaning and significance—including by serving others
  • Values: what’s most important? What are your core beliefs and principles that guide your decisions and behavior?
  • Vision: what you aspire to achieve in the future, and what success looks like for you

4. Start. Get momentum by trying things. Learn what works (and what doesn’t) and notch small wins. Use this to build toward taking massive action.

5. Build vitality. Develop physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health, wellness, energy, and strength. Be intentional about nourishing habits, rituals, and routines, with visual cues to remind you about what to do and where and when. Choose intentionally what you do, with whom, and what you consume. Eventually you become the kind of person who doesn’t settle without having to think about it so much.

6. Let go of limiting beliefs. Change your mindset. Upgrade your mental operating system. How? Spend time with people you admire. Read books that challenge and inspire you. Take courses that help you develop new skills and abilities. Listen to uplifting podcasts. Work with a mentor, coach, or therapist to shed vestiges of the past that no longer serve you.

7. Set and maintain high standards for yourself. As with our children, we tend to rise or fall to the standards we set. Set deadlines. Focus on results. Hold yourself accountable. Be systematic about learning, development, and continuous improvement. Be clear about the kind of life you seek and commit to it. Choose the life you want, and then get to work crafting it with a hopeful and determined heart.

Temperature Check

How’s your fire? Is it burning hot, lukewarm, or flaming out? If you’re settling, resolve to do what you can with what you have to start turning up the heat.

Reflection Questions

  • Are you settling in any important aspects of your life (family, health, career, etc.)?
  • If so, what will you do about it? When and how?
  • Who can you ask for help?
  • What works for you when it comes to reigniting the flame?
  • What are you waiting for?

For a related trap and how to overcome it, see “Are You Drifting through Life?”

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Postscript: Quotes on Settling

  • “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • “Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.” -Les Brown
  • “If you decide to live in the arena, you will get your ass kicked. You can choose comfort, or you can choose courage, but you can’t have both.” -Brene Brown, researcher and author
  • “The secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky, Russian novelist and philosopher
  • “There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, ‘Yes, I’ve got dreams, of course. I’ve got dreams.’ Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they’re still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box.” -Erma Bombeck, American writer
  • “We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for… many facets of our own oppression.” -Audre Lorde, American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist
  • “We ask ourselves, ‘How am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” -Marianne Williamson

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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 manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

The Problem of Going It Alone

One of the silver linings of this ruthless pandemic has been what it has reminded us about our longing for relationship, for connection, for human touch. What was suddenly stolen was dearly missed and now cherished.

Close connection with family and friends and a sense of belonging are the most important building blocks of a life well lived. Yet today we have forces driving us apart.

One is a culture of excessive individualism and egocentric living, a sense that life is all about us. It’s the trap of being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves. If we’re fortunate enough to live a comfortable life with our needs met, one danger is that we can “cocoon” into our big homes with big yards with more stuff than we need and wall ourselves off into social isolation.

Here we encounter the emptiness of egocentric living. By contrast, we can pursue the meaningfulness of relational commitment, of being there for others and letting them be there for us.

Burnout and Overwork

Another problem is our culture of burnout and overwork. In his wonderful book, How Will Your Measure Your Life?, written with his colleagues James Allworth and Karen Dillon before he passed away, Clayton Christensen wrote:

“…there is much more to life than your career…. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work–and far too little on the person they want to be at home. Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years. What this leads to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families–starving one of the most important parts of our life.”

Happiness Is Social

There’s a mountain of research demonstrating the importance of relationships, belonging, and social connectedness to our happiness. Take the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a massive longitudinal study of hundreds of people for about 80 years now. Writing about the study in The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported, “The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history,” including interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

The subjects continue to be studied to this day. They’re evaluated at least every two years by questionnaires, information from their doctors, and interviews. Researchers gathered information about their mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality.

When asked what he’s learned from the study, psychiatrist and professor George Vaillant (a psychiatrist who led the study for decades) wrote: “Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

“All you need is love.”The Beatles

Sources of Happiness

In another study, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. What did they find? Wealth? Beauty? Fame? Fitness? No, the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest 10 percent: the strength of their social relationships. In their book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener write: “…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”

According to summary findings on happiness from Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and other researchers she’s studied (from her book, The How of Happiness), the happiest people:

  • Devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships
  • Are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have
  • Are often the first to offer helping hands to co-workers and others
  • Practice optimism when imagining their futures
  • Savor life and live in the present moment
  • Exercise regularly
  • Are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., teaching children their values)
  • Show poise and strength when coping with challenges

(Note how many of those activities involve relationships.)

According to researchers who evaluated data from the World Values Survey, which surveyed people in more than 150 countries about their life satisfaction, the top factors that account for about three-fourths of reported well-being are:

  • social support
  • generosity
  • trust
  • freedom
  • income per capita
  • healthy life expectancy

(Note how many of these factors are social. The link between life satisfaction and social connection has held up very well across time and place, according to the World Happiness Report 2015.)

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life. And that is true at any age…. We are each other’s safety nets.”Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Isolation

Alas, the flip side is also true. Isolation can become a downward spiral, fostering discontent and shame, leading to further isolation. It turns out that going it alone through hard times and transitions, though an instinct for many, is a recipe for more hardship.

“Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.”Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined

Truth be told, staying connected to others can be hard at times. It doesn’t help that we have so much political division and distrust, with so many people dismissing or dehumanizing others who have different views. Our age of political contempt, partisan warfare, and take-no-prisoners tribalism is surely not helping.

Vulnerability and Connection

Many of us also struggle with vulnerability, with asking for help. We fear feeling uncomfortable and a potential loss of social status if we admit that our lives are not Instagram-perfect. So we resort to superficial conversations that feel safer, neglecting the deeper territory of openness and self-disclosure through meaningful dialogue.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”Brene Brown, researcher, speaker, and author

What’s needed, though, is more of what design thinkers call “radical collaboration,” which can be thought of as collaborating much more than you normally would—proactively seeking mentors, coaches, friends, peer groups, and people to learn from and ask questions.

The problem of going it alone in times of trouble or transition is that it doesn’t work very well. A better approach: reach out and connect. Share. Listen. Help, and accept help. You and your family, friends, and colleagues will be glad you did.

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Postscript: Quotes on the Importance of Relationships

  • “In everyone’s life, at some time, an inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” –Stephen R. Covey, author, executive, and speaker
  • “Belonging begins with safety…. this is a place and a relationship where you feel safe enough to be the real you.” –Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life
  • “Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.” –Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve 
  • “Being in a state of in between means being in some state of loneliness. Being neither here nor there often feels like being nowhere. Which is why connecting with others is so central to getting through one of these times. Human beings like to share.” –Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring our lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people.” –Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?
  • “Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you came across your identity: in the work of your hands, your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others—this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality—your life in others.” –Boris Pasternak, Russian poet and novelist (Doctor Zhivago)

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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 manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

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 manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek