How to Avoid the Trap of Focusing Too Much on Others’ Needs

Daily life can be demanding. Work. Family. Bills. Deadlines. Dishes. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, especially if you fall into the trap of focusing too much on others’ needs.

This challenge is common among caregivers like nurses and teachers. Also, many women struggle with it, in part due to all the expectations they encounter around nurturing, caregiving, and supporting homes and families. But it can affect anybody, especially those wired to give. This trap can result in empathy overload, compassion fatigue, and giver burnout.

Signs of being too focused on others’ needs include difficulty setting boundaries, struggling with saying “no,” internalizing others’ emotions, feeling responsible for fixing other people’s issues, and losing yourself in relationships. These habits can become ingrained.

 

The Problem with Being Too Focused on Others

Focusing too much on others’ needs can lead to neglecting your own needs, harming your health, and feeling exhaustion or burnout. It may also pull you away from pursuing your own goals. It may even lead to an addiction to helping others that inhibits your own healthy functioning.

Take the Traps Test

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

 

How to Avoid the Trap of Focusing Too Much on Others’ Needs

What to do about it? Here are 14 things you can do to avoid this trap:

1. Recognize that sacrificing yourself to help others isn’t sustainable. Be warned: troubles lie ahead if you continue down this path.

2. Create separation and distance between yourself and others when needed. Remove yourself from these situations when you can.

3. Designate times to enjoy life free and clear without the press of outside needs and obligations. Go for a walk. Read a book. Watch a movie. Choose activities that bring you joy. Make time for renewal and sanctuary.

4. Get better at setting boundaries and saying “no.” State clearly that you can’t help right now. Since you’re human, you have limits. Honor that so you can thrive personally and have the energy to continue helping others.

5. Develop a shield. University of Miami psychologist Heidi Allespach advocates for medical residents to cultivate what she terms a “semi-permeable membrane” around their hearts. This counsel extends to anyone grappling with compassion fatigue. She explains, “Without enough of a shield, everything just comes in.”

6. Reduce the extent of your assistance when needed. Remember that looking after someone doesn’t equate to swooping in to save them. Understand that even the smallest gestures can have a significant impact. People can feel upheld and comforted even by small acts of kindness and connection. They might not even need or want a ton of help. Sometimes, a simple visit, call, text, or meal can mean a lot.

7. Enlist the support of others, ensuring you’re not alone in providing help. Bringing a network of helpers is likely to lift the person’s spirits and ease your own load in the process.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

8. Clarify what you need from others and ask for it directly even as you’re providing help. Don’t hesitate to articulate your own needs and requests while also being generous towards others. Master the art of advocating for yourself so you can continue helping effectively.

9. Try “cognitive reappraisal”—reframing how you see a situation involving someone in need. Rather than assuming people will suffer or fail without your assistance, imagine how they might cultivate fresh coping mechanisms that will help them help themselves in the future.

10. Imagine a friend experiencing compassion fatigue (and feeling guilt for not being able to help more). You’d probably advise them to give themselves grace and take care of themselves first.

 

11. Prioritize self-care practicesEat well. Move your body. Get a good night’s sleep and make sure you have a good and regular sleep routine. Spend more time outside. Take regular breaks. Meditate. Try journaling. If you don’t take good care of yourself, how can you take good care of others?

12. Guard your heart and don’t let yourself get to the point of empathy overload or compassion fatigue. Pay attention to the emotions that arise when you witness others’ suffering. Allow these emotions to pass through you. Acknowledge them without clinging to them. This practice can help you stay grounded in the present moment with equanimity.

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

13. Connect with family and friends. The research unequivocally points to the profound advantages of healthy relationships. They play a pivotal role in enhancing your happiness and fulfillment.

 14. Preserve your time and energy for the others you care about and who rely on you. Focusing too much on assisting one person in need may hinder your ability to support others, including your family or colleagues. And it may detract from other important tasks.

 

In the end, the solution isn’t being selfish or neglecting others. It’s about taking care of yourself so you can maintain the energy and stamina to keep helping others.

 

Tools for You

Take the Traps Test

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

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Quotations

  • “Don’t lose yourself trying to be everything to everyone.” -Tony Gaskins
  • “Many of us find that we have squandered our own creative energies by investing disproportionately in the lives, hopes, dreams, and plans of others. Their lives have obscured and detoured our own.” -Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
  • “It’s OK to do what is YOURS to do. Say what’s yours to say. Care about what’s yours to care about.” -Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran minister

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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

This Is How to Stop Being a Victim: 18 Practices

Why me? Why can’t I ever catch a break?

If you’re in the habit of asking such questions, it’s a sign you may have a victim mentality. When you’re playing the victim, you believe that bad things you experience are the fault of others.

What’s more, you believe those bad things will keep happening, so there’s no point in changing. It feels like the world is against you.

There’s a difference between being a victim of real hardships (e.g., poverty, disease, trauma) and having a victim mentality. (1) With a victim mentality, you believe not only that you’re a victim of negative circumstances but also that you’re helpless in the face of them.

Such thinking may provide some psychic relief, at least in the short term. But what you’re really doing with this kind of thinking is sabotaging yourself.

A victim mentality is not only a problem for individuals, according to researchers. Groups and teams can also fall into this trap. That damages the culture, so leaders need to monitor and address this problem early and often.

Having a victim mentality comes with a substantial price. For example, it can:

  • drain your energy
  • bring frustration, anger, resentment, and bitterness
  • result in giving up and feeling self-pity
  • diminish your sense of agency
  • lead to withdrawing from friends, family, and colleagues
  • stop you from taking necessary actions
  • damage your mental and emotional wellbeing
  • be a gateway to other maladaptive behaviors, including numbing behaviors like abusing alcohol or drugs
  • become a vicious cycle, with poor responses to tough situations, inviting more problems and then ultimately feeling worthlessness and pointlessness

Take the Traps Test

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

 

How to Stop Being a Victim: 18 Practices

According to psychologists, victimhood is an acquired trait, not inborn. That means you have the power to overcome it.

Here are 18 ways to stop being a victim:

1. Avoid wallowing in negative emotions. Dark and gloomy feelings are natural, even universal. But that doesn’t mean you have to dwell on them. Catch yourself tuning into negative feelings and resolve to change the channel when you do so.

2. Change your self-talk. Analyze and question your beliefs. Dispute the idea that you’re a helpless victim. For example, ask whether your identity as a victim is true. Ask whether your current beliefs are useful or harmful. Then act accordingly.

3. Don’t ruminate on your problems. Focus instead on something more positive (e.g., what you’ve learned or what you’re looking forward to). (See my article, “What to Do About Overthinking, Rumination, and Worrying.”)

4. Recognize the patterns of when you lapse into victimhood. Be wary of those people or things and devise ways to avoid or address them. Recall the kinds of things that help you stop these downward spirals.

5. Develop a healthy view of yourself and your capabilities. Build your confidence by preparing well for challenges or big projects. Focus on learning and developing as you go.

6. Recall situations in which you’ve overcome adversity. You may be more resilient than you think.

7. Take an inventory of your strengths. Know what you’re good at—the things at which you excel most. Brainstorm how you can use your strengths to address challenges you’re facing. (See my article, “The Power of Knowing and Using Our Strengths.”)

8. Distinguish between yourself and your negative experiences. You are not what’s happened to you. Don’t assume the identity of a victim. Believe that you have the power to overcome your circumstances.

“I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”
-Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

9. Realize that you always have agency. Yes, life is sometimes unfair. It comes with pain, loss, and heartache. But that doesn’t mean you’re powerless in the face of hardship.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

10. Change who you spend time with. Avoid people who wallow in victimhood. Spend more time with positive people who take responsibility and proactively address problems as they arise.

11. Recognize that having a victim mentality is a form of self-sabotage. Resolve to transcend this thing that’s only prolonging your misery and holding you back.

12. Make a clear and firm decision to let go of the victim mentality. Why not choose to be happy and thrive instead?

13. Forgive. Forgive people who have harmed you—if not for them, for you. Maya Angelou called forgiveness “one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself.” And forgive yourself as well for past mistakes. Make peace with your past.

14. Take responsibility for your whole life and everything in it. That means everything, including the things that are unjust or unfair. (See my article, “The Power of Taking Full Responsibility for Your Life.”)

15. Be kind to others and find ways to serve them. By doing so, you’ll escape an unhealthy fixation on yourself and your dramas. The fixation feeds the victim mentality, while service starves it.

16. Engage in daily self-care practices. Create systems for this, make it easy, and develop good habits. That should include exercise, good sleep and healthy eating habits, and perhaps other practices like yoga, meditation, or deep breathing.

17. Develop a gratitude practice. This will interrupt your negative thought loops and place your feelings of self-pity in a larger and more accurate perspective. (See my article,The Trap of Not Being Grateful.”) When you focus on the good things in your life, it’s hard to feel like a victim.

18. Seek help from a therapist, counselor, or support hotline when needed. Options include:

Wishing you well with it.

Gregg

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on How to Stop Being a Victim

  • “Whatever has happened to you in your past has no power over this present moment, because life is now.” -Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author
  • “Once you have identified with some form of negativity, you do not want to let go, and on a deeply unconscious level, you do not want positive change. It would threaten your identity…. You will then ignore, deny, or sabotage the positive in your life.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “…what helps victims best is the development of a healthier self-concept.” -Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, “Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?”
  • “If it’s never our fault, we can’t take responsibility for it. If we can’t take responsibility for it, we’ll always be its victim.” -Richard Bach, writer
  • “…an individual’s sense of personal control determines his fate.” -Dr. Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
  • “Most people are in love with their particular life drama. Their story is their identity. The ego runs their life. They have their whole sense of self invested in it.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “The difference between the hero and the victim is the way they react to the pain they experience.” -Donald Miller, business executive and author
  • “…even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.” -Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor
  • “Turn your wounds into wisdom.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” -Napoleon Hill, author
  • “Constructive action is the opposite of victimized brooding.” -Dr. Robert W. Firestone, clinical psychologist
  • “…people suffering from the victim syndrome are prone to aggravate the mess in which they find themselves. Strange as it may sound, they are often victims by choice. And ironically, they are frequently successful in finding willing victimizers.” -Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, “Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?”
  • “A victim identity is the belief that the past is more powerful than the present, which is the opposite of the truth.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” -Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor

(1) If you’ve experienced trauma or abuse, try to disclose it as early as possible to trusted family members, friends, or trained professionals. That can lead to more support and quicker processing and healing.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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

This Is How to Overcome Perfectionism: 14 Approaches

Do you struggle with perfectionism? It’s a big problem today for many, including ambitious professionals and leaders. It’s also widely misunderstood, and even misappropriated as a badge of honor.

Perfectionism is a personal standard that demands or expects flawlessness. It typically includes overly critical self-evaluations and excessive concerns about harsh judgments from others.

Perfectionism entails striving for unrealistic or even unattainable goals. What follows, of course, is disappointment when you fail to achieve them. If you’re a perfectionist, you translate low performance into low self-worth.

The assumption behind it is that perfection is the only route to self-acceptance. Some people praise perfectionism as a desire for self-improvement, but in reality it’s much more about seeking acceptance and approval. It’s about conflating your identity and worth with your performance and accomplishments.

Here are signs that you have perfectionistic tendencies:

fixating on your mistakes
being overly critical of yourself
striving to be flawless
being overly cautious
seeking to control situations
getting defensive about feedback

Researcher Brené Brown suggests that perfectionism isn’t binary. Instead, she notes that we all fall on a continuum of perfectionistic tendencies, ranging from occasional and situational bouts of it to “compulsive, chronic, and debilitating” versions of it.

Take the Traps Test

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

 

The Downsides of Perfectionism

How does perfectionism affect you? In sum, it lowers achievement while bringing stress. Perfectionism inhibits your work, harms your relationships, and causes needless suffering, degrading your mental health.

It can fuel fear and frustration, as well as disappointment and discontent. It even takes away from your enjoyment of accomplishments because you’re focusing on the things you could’ve done better.

According to the research, it’s linked with psychological distress and low self-esteem, as well as with fear of failure and workaholism. By tapping into your fear, perfectionism can divert you away from your creativity and deeper wisdom.

You may feel like your perfectionism can help motivate you to do a great job on things but, at the same time, you suspect that it can invite anxiety into your life and turn people off around you.

It can get confusing, so you’re wise to distinguish between perfection (which is impossible in human pursuits) and perfectionism, and between the pursuit of excellence (which is positive) and perfectionism (which can be quite harmful).

Perfectionism isn’t the same as the pursuit of excellence or striving to be your best.
Instead, it’s a self-destructive expectation that you can be perfect.

 

What to Do About It: 14 Approaches

Thankfully, there are many things you can do to address your perfectionistic tendencies. Here are 14 practical approaches:

1. Distinguish between tasks that warrant perfection, or at least a very high standard of performance, and those that don’t. If you’re involved in brain surgery, airline repairs, or financial reporting, you need to get things right. But if you’re responding to an email or taking notes on a meeting, you don’t need to agonize over every word or phrase. A simple example: do your colleagues need a verbatim meeting transcript that’s beautifully formatted, or do they need short summaries with helpful headlines and bullet points for the key action items?

2. Think about the ratio of inputs to outputs. Consider things like your effort and time on the front end and then estimate how much they translate into real value for others on the back end.

3. Factor in the opportunity cost of your perfectionistic behavior. Recall that there are diminishing returns to continued work on something after a certain point. Think about better uses of your time. You can make a greater impact on more things if you use your time intentionally instead of slavishly giving in to your perfectionistic impulses.

4. Force yourself to get started on important things right away. That way, you’ll sidestep the avoidance problem that comes with perfectionism. Many perfectionists don’t get started on something unless they know precisely how they’ll do it and they can convince themselves it will be flawless.

5. Show early drafts of your work to others and request quick feedback. Mention that it’s just a draft and you’re looking for high-level feedback, not fine-tuned edits as if it were a final version. Ask them if it’s good enough. And if not, how close to being done is it, and what would make it so? Often, you’ll discover that your early draft is either good enough or close to it, and that it would be wasteful to spend many more hours honing it.

6. Reach out to a trusted friend when you’re having trouble getting started. Talk through your initial ideas. This will often help put things in perspective, organize your thoughts, and help you realize you do have something valuable to contribute. And often, they’ll provide not only ideas or input but also encouragement and inspiration.

7. Remind yourself that most things involve a process of getting a rough start, making improvements, and then making final tweaks. Don’t let the perfectionist in you fail to start because the first draft won’t be perfect. Take a page out of the lean startup methodology common in the startup world in which they start with a “minimum viable product” and release it out to the world so they can get early customer feedback and learn from it before spending too much time and effort on something.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

8. Give yourself a deadline. That way, you’ll avoid getting caught in an infinite loop of fixes.

9. Remind yourself that getting something done is more important than making it perfect. Recall the old saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

10. Flip the switch from negative self-talk to positive self-talk. Change the channel on your inner voice so that it focuses more on potential and growth and less on deficit and critique.

11. Focus more on process and not just results. Recognize that results aren’t always fully in your control. When you focus on the process, you’re more likely to get lost in your work and not freeze up due to fear of failure.

12. Adopt a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. In a growth mindset, you recognize that you can develop your intelligence, abilities, and talents—that they’re not static. Our mindset, according to the research, shapes our enjoyment of challenging tasks, ideas about what we will strive for, and performance on tasks.

13. Change your focus from perfection to progress. Use a checklist and regular reviews so you can see your advances (and celebrate them).

14. Remember that you matter and have worth regardless of how you perform on the specific task in front of you. Don’t fall into the trap of conflating your performance on everything with your self-worth. Recall that many great achievers got that way by stretching themselves, failing often, learning from their mistakes, and persevering through adversity.

Choose progress, not perfection.
Done is better than perfect.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you falling into the trap of perfectionism?
  2. How is it affecting you?
  3. Which of the approaches noted above will you try?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

Recommended Books

  • Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
  • Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha
  • Jennifer Breheny Wallace, Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic—And What We Can Do About It
  • Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential—And How You Can Achieve Yours

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Overcoming Perfectionism

  • “Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards.” -Professor Andrew Hill, York St. John University
  • “At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” -Michael Law, author
  • “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
  • “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen, writer

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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

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

This Is How to Develop Self-Awareness: 7 Approaches

Are you self-aware? It’s common for people to overestimate their self-awareness.

Being self-aware means having a clear and accurate understanding of yourself, including your feelings, motives, desires, core values, strengths, and weaknesses.

Do you have a realistic view of yourself,
including a good and true sense of how others perceive you?*

Based on multiple investigations with nearly 5,000 participants, organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich and her colleagues found the following:

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

Psychologist Daniel Goleman considers self-awareness one of the four domains of emotional intelligence (along with self-management, social awareness, and relationship management). What’s more, self-awareness is the foundation for the other three.

If you lack self-awareness, you’ll have blind spots that cause problems. For example, if you don’t know the reasons for your actions, you’re likely to keep making the same mistakes. Also, you’ll be less likely to take responsibility for them, damaging your credibility.

There are many benefits to having high self-awareness. For example, it can help you communicate more effectively, improve your relationships, and increase your happiness and fulfillment. It can help enhance your sense of personal control, improve your decision-making, increase your confidence, and augment your influence.

“…self-awareness is a predictor of success in leadership.”
-James Kouzes and Barry Posner, A Leader’s Legacy

Also, how can you expect to find good work that’s a good fit for you—and know what work you should avoid—if you don’t know your strengths, passions, and preferences, and if you don’t know what energizes you and what drains you? How can you avoid conforming to the desires of others if you don’t know your own heart?

“When you start thinking that you don’t know what to do with your life,
what you really mean is that you don’t yet know who you are.”

-Brianna Wiest, The Mountain Is You

Take the Traps Test

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

 

How to Develop Self-Awareness: 7 Powerful Approaches

Here are seven things you can do to elevate your self-awareness:

 

1. Engage in frequent self-reflection.

Reflect on meetings or other encounters and their emotional wake. Pay attention to what you love, what you long for, and what makes you come alive. This means sometimes getting out of “climbing mode” (striving to move up the ladder of success, focusing on achievement and advancement) and getting into what I call “discover mode” (learning about who we are, including our values, strengths, passions, and dreams, and what we can do in the world). Listen to your inner voice.

 

2. Take assessments.

They can facilitate not only your self-awareness but also your personal development. For example:

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

3. Ask for input from family, friends, mentors, and coaches.

Solicit honest feedback, not only about your behaviors and strengths but also about your weaknesses and blind spots. At work, this can include “360-degree reviews.”

 

4. Consider not only what you know about yourself but also what others know about you.

For this, check out the Johari Window, a framework that can help you identify what’s known to yourself (or not) and what’s known to others about you (or not). See below.

Source: Adobe Stock

How many people get to see your true self? Do you have blind spots—things that are known by others about you that you’re not aware of? Consider writing down ten words that describe yourself—your main characteristics. Then have people who know you well do the same for you. Compare the lists to see how much overlap there is (or isn’t).

 

5. Journal.

As you journal, reflect on your experiences and feelings. Seek insights and look for patterns.

 

6. Join or start a small group.

When run well, small groups can facilitate deep conversations about meaningful things. Make sure the conversation includes not only self-reflection but also input from the group. That way, participants will have a chance to consider new insights in a safe environment.

 

7. Make time for renewal and sanctuary.

Engage in daily restorative activities (e.g., meditation, yoga, or gardening). Find places or practices of peace that help you guard and recenter your heart. Without renewal and sanctuary, you’re likely to be too scattered and frazzled to maintain high self-awareness.

 

Developing your self-awareness will have powerful effects on your life, work, relationships, and leadership. It’s an investment that pays big dividends.

“’Know thyself’… is still the most difficult task any of us faces. But until you truly know yourself, strengths and weaknesses, know what you want to do and why you want to do it, you cannot succeed in any but the most superficial sense of the word.” -Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader

Warren Bennis quote

 

Reflection Questions

  1. How well do you know yourself?
  2. Might you be overestimating your self-awareness, like so many others?
  3. Are you asking for feedback regularly, and are you truly open and receptive to it?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

Related Articles

 

Related Books and Videos

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

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Self-Awareness

  • “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.” -Lao Tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher
  • “Know thyself.” -inscribed on the temple wall at Delphi, 6th century BCE
  • “If a man does not know himself, how should he know his functions and his powers?” -Michel de Montaigne, 16th century French Renaissance philosopher and writer
  • “Self-knowledge is best learned, not by contemplation, but by action. Strive to do your duty and you will soon discover of what stuff you are made.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer, poet, and scientist
  • “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.” -Witold Gombrowicz, Polish writer
  • “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” -Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • “The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’… Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening…. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
  • “To be aware of a single shortcoming within oneself is more useful than to be aware of a thousand in somebody else.” -Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
“Self-awareness is the foundation of authenticity. You develop it by exploring your life story and your crucible, and by understanding how these experiences shape you as a person and leader. You enhance it as you seek honest feedback from others. You refine it by adopting practices that help you remain mindful and aware, even amidst life’s chaos.”
-Bill George and Zach Clayton, True North: Emerging Leader Edition

 

* There are two types of self-awareness, according to researchers. The first type, internal (or private) self-awareness, is about how clearly you see yourself and whether you notice and reflect on your own internal state. The second type, external (or public) self-awareness, is about how aware you are of how you appear to others.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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

This Is How to Avoid Complacency

Have you become complacent? Have you been lulled into a state of easy contentment? Or are you at risk of not paying enough attention to potential problems? Is complacency preventing you from trying harder and making needed improvements?

It’s a common trap. Perhaps you’ve been complacent about your health—or the health of those you love? Have you been complacent about your work, team, leadership, or organization? Or complacent about your relationships? About democracy or the planet?

You may be struggling with complacency if you’re taking things for granted or if you have too much routine. Do things feel monotonous?

Are you sticking to what you know? Staying in your comfort zone and avoiding risk? Are you “phoning it in”? Have you stopped learning and growing? Is your ambition waning?

Perhaps you’re wondering,

Is this it?
Where did all my time go?
Isn’t there something more I should be doing with my life?

There’s nothing wrong with comfort per se, or with feeling satisfied. You probably want them in your life. The problem is when you have too much of them and lose your inner fire to fight for your dreams or your zest for life.

Complacency becomes a problem when it’s sapping your motivation, when it’s leading to inaction when action is warranted, when it’s detracting from your sense of hope, when it’s leading to mediocrity. Is it robbing you of future opportunities and benefits, or derailing your career?

 

14 Complacency-Busting Actions

Fortunately, there’s much you can do to avoid complacency (or to break through it when you’re in it). Here are 14 complacency-busting actions you can take:

1. Start acting with urgency. Like your time counts. Because it does—and probably more than you’re realizing now.

2. Invoke deliberate agitation. Try using what Tyler Hakes calls “deliberate agitation.” Think of it as shaking a snow globe. He writes:

“You let things settle into place just long enough and then shake them up. Watch to see if they fall into the same patterns or if something new and better emerges…. You deliberately and intentionally question things and change them before they become a problem. You remain vigilant in trying to improve so that way you don’t fall into the trap of complacency that leads to eventual failure.” -Tyler Hakes

3. Dream big. Think expansively about all you want to do in your lifetime in different areas, from family, relationships, and work to education, service, travel, and more. When you do that, you start to feel the powerful pull of your deepest aspirations.

4. Step out of your comfort zone. Has fear held you back from venturing forth and risking yourself? When you push yourself, take risks, and dare to have adventures, your blood races. You start to feel awake and alive again.

5. Strive for a BHAG—a “big, hairy audacious goal.” It can be a life goal or a work goal, but a true BHAG should take your breath away with how bold it is and how amazing it would be if you could make it happen.

“…there is a difference between merely having a goal and becoming committed to a huge, daunting challenge—like a big mountain to climb…. Like the moon mission, a true BHAG is clear and compelling and serves as a unifying focal point of effort…. people like to shoot for finish lines. A BHAG engages people—it reaches out and grabs them in the gut.”
-Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last

6. Build your top priorities and most important activities into your calendar. Doing so will ensure you make progress on your top goals. That way, you can not only develop good and productive habits but also become the sort of person who consistently gets big stuff done.

7. Enlist support. Consider recruiting an “accountability partner”—someone who can help keep you on track (such as a training buddy or someone you can send regular progress reports to).

8. Identify and remove barriers to change. When you’re stuck, it’s easy to become complacent and acclimatize yourself to the new situation. Why not get to work instead on identifying the major obstacles to progress and how to overcome them?

9. Notch short-term wins on meaningful work to build momentum. Draw on what researchers call the “progress principle”:

“…of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress—setbacks in the work. We consider this to be a fundamental management principle: facilitating progress is the most effective way for managers to influence inner work life. Even when progress happens in small steps, a person’s sense of steady forward movement toward an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one.”
-Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in The Progress Principle

10. Take full responsibility for everything in your life. Be what my co-author, Christopher Gergen, and I call a “LIFE entrepreneur.” You’re much more likely to thrive when you take ownership of your life and recognize your agency—when you take your life back. LIFE entrepreneurs go out and create opportunities for themselves. They intentionally craft a good life with good work, and they bring their dreams to life.

#11. Get clear on your personal purpose, values, and vision:

  • Your purpose is why you’re here. It’s what gives you a sense of meaning and significance—often by connecting with and serving others.
  • Your values are what’s most important to you—your core beliefs and principles that guide your decisions and behavior.
  • And your vision is what you aspire to achieve in the future—and what success looks and feels like for you.

12. Cultivate vitality. You’ll feel better and perform at a higher level when you develop physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health and wellness. Being intentional about productive and energizing habits will pay big dividends.

13. Let go of limiting beliefs. Ever been your own worst enemy? Have you locked yourself in a mental prison of judgment, negativity, and rumination? Never forget that you always retain the power to upgrade your thoughts, and it can help you avoid the trap of complacency.

14. Set and maintain high standards. You tend to rise or fall to the standards you set. Why not leverage deadlines, accountability, and high standards to propel you forward?

 

Related Traps

Complacency is common, and it can be deeply damaging. It also tends to come with several associated traps:

 

Final Thoughts

Are you letting the complacency trap rob you of quality time and experiences? Of achievement and passion?

It’s tricky because you probably want satisfaction and serenity, and not a life of frenetic striving or perpetual busyness.

Somewhere in between the extremes, there’s a healthy place of urgency to live intentionally, achieve important things, serve others, and cherish your days, not squandering your time in a cloud of complacency.

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

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent has complacency crept into some aspects of your life and work (or your family or organization)?
  2. What will you do to regain the motivation and urgency to escape this trap?

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Complacency

  • “The life you have left is a gift. Cherish it. Enjoy it now, to the fullest. Do what matters, now.” -Leo Babauta, author
  • “Complacency keeps you living a comfortable life… not the life you desire. Challenge yourself to do something different. Then, notice the new charged quality of your life.” -Nina Amir, author and coach
  • “The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.” -Benjamin E. Mays, minister
  • “I really try to put myself in uncomfortable situations. Complacency is my enemy.” -Trent Reznor, musician and singer-songwriter
  • “History and experience tell us that moral progress comes not in comfortable and complacent times, but out of trial and confusion.” -Gerald R. Ford, former U.S. president
  • “By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change organizations is to plunge ahead without establishing a high enough sense of urgency in fellow managers and employees.” -John Kotter, founder of Kotter International and Harvard Business School Professor
  • “Without a sense of urgency, desire loses its value.” -Jim Rohn, author and entrepreneur
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” -Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

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

How to Set Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Many people struggle with setting and enforcing boundaries. It requires knowing their preferences and breaking points. It means being willing to assert their desires and needs. This is hard for many people, either due to their upbringing or personality—or both.

There are many advantages that come with getting good at this. For example, it can help us protect our emotional wellbeing, grow as a person, develop greater self-respect and confidence, protect our time and energy, avoid burnout, earn respect from others, and prevent unnecessary relationship conflicts.

When we set boundaries, we’re helping others interact more effectively with us. Sometimes we’re setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. We’re getting clear on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

Boundaries help us function effectively. They allow us to enjoy our life and work while also giving us a sense of control over our lives.

When we don’t set and enforce boundaries properly and consistently, we’re more prone to anxiety, frustration, and resentment. We get overcommitted, perhaps falling into overwork, workaholism, exhaustion, or burnout.

Take the Traps Test

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

 

How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to get better at this. Here are 14 proven practices for setting and enforcing boundaries:

1. Recognize that setting and maintaining boundaries can benefit our lives greatly, including our work and our leadership. Given all the benefits, it’s well worth the effort. Also, it gets easier over time.

2. Realize that setting and enforcing boundaries is not just good for us but for everyone involved. Why? Because it creates clarity and generates mutual respect.

3. Avoid falling into the trap of overestimating the resistance that will come from setting boundaries. Our brains are good at generating fear and anticipating worst-case scenarios. Often, the reality is not nearly as bad as we fear when we get into worrying mode.

4. Stay focused on the higher purpose of setting boundaries instead of the down-side of the temporary awkwardness. When we set boundaries, it’s usually for a good and important reason such as protecting our wellbeing or reserving our time for our top priorities. In this light, it’s well worth a little temporary pain or awkwardness.

5. Evaluate our current boundaries to identify areas that need improvement. In particular, look for situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

6. Take an inventory of boundary crossings that have happened. Thinking about these instances, focus especially on the people, the situations, and how they make us feel.

7. Determine new boundaries that we want to set and recommit to or update old boundaries. Our core values and current goals and priorities should inform these decisions. If we’re new to setting boundaries or have struggled with it in the past, we’re wise to start small and build out from there.

8. Communicate boundaries clearly. Sometimes, the problem is that we’re expecting people to read our minds and just know our boundaries. It’s a recipe for frustration and failure. Sometimes, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I can’t help with that”). In other cases, we can leave it with a declaratory statement (“I can’t take that on”) or even just a simple “No.”

“No is a complete sentence.”
-Anne Lamott, writer

9. Be consistent in communicating and enforcing boundaries. This is key. It’s where the rubber meets the road. Without consistency, others are likely to get confused or forget, and that may take us back to square one. Better to do the hard work upfront and in the early stages until things start to take on a life of their own.

10. Develop our assertiveness, including getting better at saying “no” and saying it more often. We can focus on saying no to requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or advance our priorities. We can avoid spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, neediness, or narcissism. And we can decline opportunities or requests, so we don’t end up doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating things to others).

“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, chair and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

11. Be kind but firm. Ideally, we come across as thoughtful and considerate while still assertive and clear. Sometimes, a little humor helps.

12. Get clear about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. When we’ve done this inner work, it allows us to set and enforce boundaries.

13. Set boundaries on our work time. For example, we can set a maximum number of hours we’ll work each week. We can limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed. It helps to plan ahead—and be sure to identify and focus on our most important tasks.

14. Place boundaries around our emotional commitment to others. Boundaries aren’t just about our time. They’re also about the focus of our attention and emotions. It’s a trap to feel responsible for other people’s choices or their happiness or outcomes.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Conclusion

Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries isn’t a one-and-done deal. It’s an ongoing process that requires reflection and course corrections. As we proceed with it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and when to make exceptions based on new information.

As we choose our boundaries, we should bear in mind that other people will make different choices about their boundaries. What works for us may not work for others. So, we should respect other people’s boundaries even as we fight for our own.

Also, it’s a mistake to think about boundaries only in the negative—only as things that we and others can’t do. Why? Because when we get good at setting and enforcing boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we actually want to do and experience. By setting limits, we gain freedom. We free up our time and energy to live life on our terms.

“Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it.
You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.”

-Anna Taylor, author

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Traps

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings, American humorist
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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

Is This It? On the Disappointment of Success

For so long we’ve wished for it. Worked hard for it. Suffered for it. Our dream.

We clawed and climbed for it. Sacrificed for it.

One day, after all the trials and tribulations, we’re finally there. The treasure chest of our dreams is before us. We almost can’t believe it.

We pause, relishing the moment, and then open it.

What we find is astonishing.

It’s empty.

Empty.

EMPTY???

How can that possibly be?

But it is. The treasure chest is empty.

What we’ve encountered is the “arrival fallacy”—the assumption that once we accomplish a major goal, we’ll get lasting happiness or satisfaction. It’s a lie.

 

Examples All Around Us

We see it all around us.

 

We see it in former athletes.

Think of Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, with an astonishing 28 medals, 23 of them gold. He was World Swimmer of the Year eight times and broke 29 individual world records. He’s considered the greatest swimmer of all time—and perhaps one of the greatest athletes of all time.

After all that, he found himself in a depression after retiring from swimming and revealed that he had contemplated suicide. Is this it?

Think of Tom Brady. He won seven Super Bowl championships and was the most valuable player of the Super Bowl five times. When somebody asked him during his storied career which Super Bowl ring is his favorite, Brady replied, “The next one.”

Here’s Brady talking to journalist Steve Kroft:

Brady: Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, “Hey man, this is what is.” I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think: God, it’s gotta be more than this. I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be. I mean I’ve done it. I’m 27. And what else is there for me?
Kroft: What’s the answer?
Brady: I wish I knew. I wish I knew….

 

We see it in our accomplishments, like a promotion or raise.

We’ve been working so hard, and we believe those achievements will transform our lives for the better. Yet we’re disappointed when we see that the reality is often far different from our expectations.

“After a lifetime of trying, I finally had a book hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
It made me really happy… for about ten minutes.”
-author

 

We see it in retirees.

After looking forward to finally enjoying life after putting so much time into their work, many recent retirees hit the golf course or the beach and wonder, Is this it? According to researchers, the prevalence of depression among retirees is substantially higher than that of the overall older adult population. (1)

 

We see it in former executives.

Hubert Joly had remarkable success early in his business career. After making partner at McKinsey & Co. by age 30, he led EDS France, turned around Vivendi’s video games divisions, and became CEO of Carlson-Wagonlit Travel. He felt that he had reached the top of a mountain. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the hype. First, it came with all sorts of new problems and hassles. And second, it felt empty.

“The mountaintop felt desolate. The idea of success I had been chasing turned out to be hollow,
and I felt disillusioned and empty.”

-Hubert Joly, former chairman and CEO, Best Buy

 

We see it everywhere.

We see it in parents whose children have left the home. In retired military personnel. We even see it in kings.

Take the example of Abd al-Rahman III, the emir and caliph of Córdoba in southern Spain in the 10th century. Around age 70, he was reflecting on a life of remarkable worldly success: “I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies.” He thought about his incredible riches and all his honors, including the power and pleasure that waited on his call, as he described it. What did all of it add up to?

“I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot.
They amount to 14.”
-Abd al-Rahman III, the emir and caliph of Córdoba

Is this it? Fourteen days of happiness from 50 years of living in the best of circumstances?

Alas, getting what we want can be unsatisfying or even disappointing. It can feel like less than we imagined, not as Earth-shattering as we hoped. Why?

Take the Traps Test

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

 

What’s Going On?

Things are good, but we feel surprisingly empty. We wonder why we’re not happy and fulfilled. Maybe we lack motivation or enthusiasm for things. We feel purposeless. Maybe we lack energy, or we’ve lost interest in activities that we once found engaging.

There are a number of factors at work here:

 

Feeling lasting satisfaction is highly unlikely due to our evolutionary biology.

Given our biological makeup, we have an urge to keep pursuing more (lest we run out of food or shelter) and an inability to maintain any strong emotional state. We have a strong wanting drive that’s deeply baked into our nature.

A big part of what’s going on here is the frustrating but very real phenomenon of hedonic adaptation (also called the hedonic treadmill), in which we become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline as if nothing had occurred. We’re wired biologically to return to homeostasis. Whenever we experience change, our mind and body work hard to re-equilibrate. So, we return to the baseline. It’s the way we’re wired. And still we wonder: Is this it?

 

Our brain is working against us.

When we’re working toward something, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, motivation, and learning, in anticipation of the reward of achieving it. We get dopamine hits as we make progress toward the goal. What happens when we achieve our goal? Those dopamine hits fall away. (Ouch.) The result? We bounce from goal to goal in an endless pursuit of those hits, almost like chasing our tail.

 

When we reach the top, we may stop learning, growing, and challenging ourselves.

That’s a recipe for stasis and complacency. We also need variety to keep things interesting.

 

On our way to the top, we may have neglected important relationships in our lives.

That Faustian bargain may come back to haunt us.

 

After we’ve accomplished a goal, we can lose our sense of identity and purpose.

We have to reorient our focus toward something new, and perhaps redirect how we perceive ourselves. Not easy. (See my article, “Is Your Identity Too Wrapped up in Your Work?”)

 

Sometimes, the reality we experience at the top is a far cry from the dream we had.

Sure, there are likely to be perks of that promotion and raise, but there are also likely to be new hassles. Longer hours. More responsibilities. More cut-throat politics.

 

Contributing Factors

Often, there are contributing factors that compound the problem of disappointment. Here are some examples of common traps we fall into that make things worse.

 

Going for other people’s goals.

If we were exerting all that effort to please our parents or impress our neighbors or boss, it’s no wonder we find ourselves less than fulfilled at the end of it

 

Falling into the “expectations trap.”

When there’s a gap between our current versus expected life satisfaction, and when we become attached to our expectations, we feel disappointment, even though our life may be going well.

 

Engaging in unfair and unhelpful comparisons.

Many of us fall into the comparison trap fairly often—comparing ourselves to others on things that tend to be fairly superficial. Even worse, we tend to compare ourselves to unrealistic standards (i.e., the most outwardly successful or beautiful). It’s a recipe for disappointment.

 

Believing the common myths about happiness and success.

For example, the trap of believing that:

  • happiness comes from improving our circumstances
  • we’ll be happy when we’re successful
  • we’ll be happy when we have certain things
  • happiness is a destination
  • success is the point of life
  • we can measure success in dollars, possessions, and other things that bring us status and attention (2)

(See my article, “The Most Common Myths about Happiness.”)

 

Never feeling successful enough.

We can always do more. There’s always more to chase. (Back to the hedonic treadmill.)

 

Drifting away from ourselves in the pursuit of success.

We see the disconnection between who we really are and what we’re doing, and we feel it.

 

Drifting away from our family and friends in the single-minded pursuit of our success.

Meanwhile, it’s precisely those relationships that lead to the most enduring happiness and life satisfaction. We’ve been sabotaging them on our way to the top.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

What to Do About It

Though we’re wired this way, that doesn’t mean we’re helpless against this phenomenon and resigned to disappointment. Here are 15 things we can do to address it.

 

1. Learn to value the process and the journey instead of fixating on the end result.

Focusing only on the end result makes little sense. Are we supposed to endure four years of high school or college just so we can enjoy a two-hour ceremony? Suffer through months of training only so we can enjoy the instant it takes to cross the finish line?

 

2. Diversify our sources of happiness.

Make sure we have several irons in the fire when it comes to things that motivate us and bring us enjoyment. That way, when we’ve achieved a goal, we’re less likely to experience that drop-off of happiness and motivation, because we have other things that enrich our lives.

 

3. Make plans for what will follow our major initiatives.

Again, that will help us have something to look forward to. Otherwise, we may be destined to fall off the satisfaction cliff.

 

4. Mine the experience for learnings.

Instead of expecting to be lastingly happy from accomplishing something, review the experience for learning and growth. Think about what we liked about the experience—and what we didn’t. This will help us extract nuggets that we can apply as we redirect our focus toward other activities and new goals.

 

5. Recenter.

Sometimes when we’re in hot pursuit of a goal, we can lose ourselves in all that hustle. We become the single-minded, obsessed goal achiever and let other important parts of our life suffer or fall away. Now’s a good time to recenter and come back to the fullness of living whole.

 

6. Rediscover purpose.

Sometimes, when we’re pursuing a goal, we lose sight of our deeper why, our purpose. Our goal-pursuit is about ego, prestige, status, or vanity instead of about something bigger than ourselves like connection, service, or spirituality.

 

7. Give back.

If we’re caught up in disappointment about the lack of lasting happiness after a big accomplishment, it’s a sign that we’re too focused on ourselves. Change the focus to helping others. For example, ask the following:

What did we learn along the way that we can share with others? How can we teach it or otherwise give back to make the accomplishment even more meaningful and impactful?

German-American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson coined the term “generativity” and described it as a stage in our psychosocial development characterized by “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.” The idea is that, as we get older, we start focusing less on ourselves and more on nurturing and guiding young people as well as fostering the success of future generations. It resonates with what Swedish gerontologist Lars Tornstam called “gerotranscendence,” which is a shift in our understanding of ourselves and our role in things as we age, from a materialistic view of the world to a more transcendent one, with enhanced feelings of connection with past generations and lower interest in superficial social interaction.

 

8. Learn to savor life now.

This means noticing what’s going on around us and fully feeling positive emotions. In the process, we extend them and help encode them in our memory banks.

 

9. Realize that we never really arrive while we’re living.

Living isn’t about reaching some metaphorical finish line. Do we really believe that life is a race? Living isn’t about reaching some chosen level of success. Do we really believe that success is the point of life?

 

10. Reinvest in learning and growing.

Take a course. Read books. Listen to podcasts. Watch TED talks. Learn a new skill or language. Adopt a creative practice such as painting or poetry.

 

11. Establish a spiritual practice, ideally daily.

Engage in prayer, worship, contemplation, meditation, or yoga.

 

12. Cultivate a gratitude practice.

Return regularly to the things we have and to the things we’re thankful for. Being grateful for all we have is much wiser than expecting achievements to keep us continually satisfied.

 

13. Craft our work and leisure activities to facilitate “flow” states.

When in flow, we’re so absorbed in something that we lose track of time. In such a state of optimal experience, dissatisfaction is impossible.

 

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

Figure out what we’re good at (our strengths) and what we love (our passions) and creatively bake them into the fabric of our days.

 

15. Focus on everyday progress toward an ever-renewing set of meaningful goals and worthy activities.

That’s wiser than placing all of our hopes on ONE BIG ATTAINMENT.

As always, we’re wise to seek professional help from a coach, mentor, or therapist if we feel stuck in a rut or caught in a loop of dissatisfaction.

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

Conclusion

Some may conclude from contemplating the arrival fallacy that there’s no point in setting and pursuing goals. While understandable, that’s a mistake. We should continue setting and pursuing goals but change our focus from a fixation on goal achievement to enjoying (and mastering) the process along the way. We can change the focus from winning or achieving to who we become in the process of pursuing goals. Indeed, pursuing goals can be energizing, fun, and fulfilling. We can enjoy the process of learning, growing, and discovering how to address challenges along the way. Lasting, sustainable happiness is about good living day in and day out, teed up by intentional choices about what matters, not about achieving certain levels of success.

In the end, maybe we should stop chasing things like happiness, success, wealth, beauty, fame, power, prestige, comfort, and pleasure. These all have their merits, of course. But they’re destined to disappoint in the final analysis.

Why not focus instead on living a good life—on intentionally crafting a life we love and that fits our nature? A life of health, connection, and service. On crafting a life of purpose, learning, growth, integrity, and wisdom. A life of joy and savoring. And a life in which we work to make things better, with and for others.

Back to the treasure chest.

Maybe we were looking for the treasure in the wrong place? The treasure was with us all along, but we were so focused on the prize at the end that we missed what was before us.

Will we keep repeating the mistake?

 

Tools for You

 

Take the Traps Test

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

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations

  • “Is there anything in life so disenchanting as attainment?” -Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish novelist and poet
  • “As the days wore on, there was a part of me that felt empty… I had always believed that when you win a championship you’re transported to some new, exalted place. What I realized was that you are the same person you were before, and that if you are not content with who you are, a championship, or any accomplishment, isn’t going to change that.” -Ray Allen, NBA basketball star
  • “So I won an Olympic gold. And as I climbed down from the podium, the only thought I could think was, ‘What the hell do I do now?’ It was awful, absolutely terrifying. It was like death—the worst feeling I’d ever had.” -a client of Dr. Martha Beck, Harvard-trained sociologist, coach, and author, as told in The Way of Integrity
  • “When I was younger, I spent too much time obsessing over what would make me feel better or how I imagined a certain set of circumstances would magically transform my life and career.” -Judith Viorst, writer and author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
  • “I can’t get no satisfaction.” -The Rolling Stones
  • “Arrival fallacy is this illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness.” -Tal Ben-Shahar, teacher and writer
  • “People haven’t found meaning in their lives, so they’re running all the time looking for it. They think the next car, the next house, the next job. Then they find these things are empty, too, and they keep running.” -Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie
  • “Everyone has dreams, and they beckon with promises of sweet, lasting satisfaction if you achieve them. But dreams are liars. When they come true, it’s … fine, for a while. And then a new dream appears.” -Arthur Brooks, “How to Want Less,” The Atlantic
  • “The funny thing about having all this so-called success is that behind it is a certain horrible emptiness.” -Sam Shepard, actor and playwright
  • “To live for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.” -Robert Pirsig, philosopher and writer
  • “Never let success hide its emptiness from you, achievement its nothingness…. Your duty, your reward—your destiny—are here and now.” -Dag Hammarskjöld, Swedish diplomat
  • “Happiness is not a mental state that can be permanently won…. By misunderstanding happiness, the modern conception increases the likelihood of disappointment.” -Nat Rutherford, University of London
  • “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness: on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming at something else, they find happiness by the way.” -John Stuart Mill, English philosopher
  • “We need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.” -Albert Camus, French philosopher and author
  • “…our natural state is dissatisfaction, punctuated by brief moments of satisfaction…. The secret to satisfaction is not to increase our haves—that will never work (or at least, it will never last). That is the treadmill formula, not the satisfaction formula. The secret is to manage our wants. By managing what we want instead of what we have, we give ourselves a chance to lead more satisfied lives.” -Arthur Brooks, “How to Want Less,” The Atlantic
  • “The late-life crisis… really is a thing. Recent research has found that as many as one in three people over 60 will experience it in some form. The late-life crisis is characterized by dissatisfaction; a loss of identity; an expectations gap and the feeling that life has peaked, so it’s all downhill from here.” -Richard Leider and David Shapiro, Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful Aging
  • “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” -C.S. Lewis, British scholar, writer, and lay theologian
  • “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” -Luke 12:33-34 NIV

 

References

(1) Pabón-Carrasco M, Ramirez-Baena L, López Sánchez R, Rodríguez-Gallego I, Suleiman-Martos N, Gómez-Urquiza JL. Prevalence of depression in retirees: a meta-analysis. Healthcare. 2020;8(3):321

(2) Material things aren’t likely to boost our happiness in a sustained way, according to the research. What’s more, materialistic people tend to be less happy than others. They tend to have fewer positive emotions and lower life satisfaction levels, on average, not to mention more anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. (Source: Dacher Keltner and Jason Marsh, “How Gratitude Beats Materialism,” Greater Good Magazine, January 8, 2015.)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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

How to Stop Avoiding Things: 17 Practices

Struggle with avoidance? We all avoid things sometimes. It’s natural.

Do you tend to bypass that difficult task? Put things off until later—or never? Steer clear of that difficult somebody? Change that uncomfortable subject? Put off that hard conversation? Sidestep that brewing conflict? Maybe you put off going to the doctor to get that concerning symptom checked out.

It’s like your life is a game of dodgeball. When things get thrown your way, you dodge, duck, dip, and dive.

If you’re like others, perhaps you avoid things not only via your behavior but also in terms of your thoughts and feelings.

Avoidance is natural, a coping mechanism. But it can become maladaptive when it’s overused or used in the wrong circumstances.

Many people avoid too many things and too often. Sometimes it isn’t a conscious choice per se. It’s stimulus-response. Challenge-avoid.

The problem is that things often end up getting worse because of it. And it can become programmed behavior, a habit of sorts, affecting many things in your life, from your performance and leadership to your relationships and self-respect.

Avoidance may make things easier now, but over time things tend to fester, becoming much worse over time. For example, it can lead to even more anxiety and concern because you’ve allowed things to deteriorate further. Avoidance can also be frustrating to others, like spouse or colleague, and make things worse for them too, leading to new conflicts.

In the end, avoiding something leaves the core problem unaddressed. Avoidance can become a way of life, a bad habit pattern, a vicious circle.

Take the Traps Test

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

 

How to Stop Avoiding Things: 17 Practices

Given all these damaging consequences, the question arises: What can you do about it?

Here are 17 ways you can break the bad habit of avoiding things:

1. Start by noticing your avoidance behaviors. If you start looking for them, you can bring them into your consciousness and begin addressing them intentionally. Such mindfulness is an important first step.

2. Seek the root cause of your avoidance behavior. What’s the deeper why behind it? Continue asking why until you’ve hit paydirt and there are no more deeper reasons. There are many possible reasons. Perhaps it just feels easier to avoid things than to deal with them? Maybe you’re afraid of looking bad or failing so you decide to avoid it instead? Perhaps you believe you can avoid the anxiety associated with people or things if you avoid them?

3. Process your emotions. Giving yourself an emotional outlet will help you refrain from maladaptive avoidance. Resist the temptation to bottle your feelings up. Find ways to release them instead. Talk through your feelings or try journaling. Get some exercise to change your physiological state.

4. Divide the problem you’re avoiding into smaller, more manageable chunks. That way, you’ll see that it’s not as intimidating.

5. Start with an easy task or small encounter to get momentum. This can also help you develop confidence.

6. Look for ways to boost your motivation for a better result, one that would leave avoidance in the dust. For example, consider all the ways that avoidance is holding you back from personal or professional excellence (e.g., by harming your relationships or impeding your progress toward goals). Or give yourself small rewards for addressing things.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

7. Reframe a situation to note the positives and refrain from focusing only on the negatives. For example, turn a problem you’re dreading into a puzzle you’re curious about solving.

8. Quiet your negative self-talk. Give yourself some grace and don’t let avoidance become yet another reason to beat yourself up. Practice self-compassion and replace your negative self-talk with a more charitable interpretation (e.g., we’re all a work in progress).

9. Practice your communication skills. This will help prepare you to deal more effectively with tough situations as they arise. With good communication skills, you’ll be able to advocate for yourself more assertively, and you’ll be able to engage in what author Susan Scott calls “fierce conversations.”

10. Set a deadline for taking action. Commit to addressing it by a certain date and time so it doesn’t keep slipping into a squishy future that somehow never arrives.

11. Build action habits. Through consistent actions, you change your identity to a “doer.” You change your self-concept to someone who addresses things upfront instead of avoiding them. (See my article on “The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented.”)

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

-Dale Carnegie, writer and lecturer

12. Recognize that addressing something you’ve been avoiding can make you feel powerful. It can give you a sense of agency and accomplishment. Maybe it leads to momentum or greater confidence. Bear in mind that challenges can help you grow. They give you a chance to learn about yourself and others, all while developing your capabilities. With a growth mindset, you can view things that you previously avoided as opportunities for personal development and capacity-building.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

13. Work on your problem-solving skills. If you get in the habit of creatively exploring ways to solve challenges instead of avoiding them, you’ll build a valuable capacity for it and also your confidence when it comes to facing up to challenging situations in the future. You can do this alone or with a trusted friend or colleague. It may help to write down some ideas to prime your brain and serve as a reminder.

14. Develop your tolerance and flexibility. Build your tolerance of difficult emotions while acknowledging that there are some situations that may be too taxing for you, at least for now. If you have rigid ideas about the ways things need to unfold, it can make you anxious. Work on embracing the unexpected and appreciating the different ways people approach things—and all the different ways things can get addressed.

15. Work on improving your coping skills and strategies. Try deep breathing and self-monitoring. Engage your “observer: (practice watching your thoughts and developing your awareness of feelings, emotions, impulses, and recurring behaviors). Or get in the habit of moving from the metaphorical dance floor and getting on the balcony in difficult situations, as Harvard leadership expert Ronald Heifetz advises. That means stepping back from the action and observing what’s going on from a higher perspective. Check in with your feelings. Get curious about the situation and ask yourself gentle, possibility-opening questions (e.g., “How might I address this? What would my best self do in this situation?”).

16. Resist your urge to avoid when it appears. Commit to being the kind of person who deals with things and not falling into the trap of avoidance.

17. Get support. Ask for help from a friend, mentor, coach, accountability partner, small group, and/or therapist.

Which of these practices will you try?

 Wishing you well with it!

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Addressing Avoidance

  • “Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape.” -Dr. Alice Boyes, PhD, author, The Anxiety Toolkit
  • “Avoidance is the best short-term strategy to escape conflict, and the best long-term strategy to ensure suffering.” -Brendon Burchard, author
  • “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” -Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Many of us have a hard time asking for help.

Maybe we pride ourselves on being independent. Self-sufficient. A Lone Ranger.

There’s value in being self-sufficient, but when we’re too proud to ask for help it can be costly. It can keep us stuck in hardship and delay our advances, or lead to overwork and burnout. And it can inhibit close relationships with family and friends.

“Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Asking for help is an important skill that can aid us in all our endeavors, from living and loving to leading and learning. We’re wise to get good at it.

 

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Here are 10 things you can do to develop the useful skill of asking for help:

1. Notice that nobody succeeds without the help of others. Where would you be without the help of parents, teachers, coaches, teammates, colleagues, mentors, and friends?

2. Recognize that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. It means you’re committed to your goals and confident enough to show some vulnerability.

3. Realize that the alternative (not asking for help) means continuing your frustration and suffering.

4. Understand that your fears about asking for help are misplaced. Even the worst-case scenario probably isn’t so bad. Perhaps the person refuses to help or can’t right now. Maybe you feel a bit awkward or disappointed for five seconds. So what?

5. Recall that most people like to help others. It makes them feel good to contribute. Think about how you felt when you were asked for help. (1)

“How have you felt when you have helped others? I think we can agree that’s one of the great feelings, right?
Why would you deprive others of the same feeling?”

-Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life

6. Stop waiting so long to ask. Consider how much time you’ve already spent on the issue, whether it’s something you’re good at addressing, and whether there are better uses of your time and energy.

7. Trust others to set boundaries for themselves. They can always decline or chat further about the extent of help they may provide.

8. Tally the potential benefits of getting help. Maybe you’ll get fresh ideas or greater clarity about how to proceed. And in the process you may very well deepen your relationship with the person contributing.

9. Start small when trying this out and build from there. This will make it more manageable and less likely that you’ll abandon it.

10. Be open with others that it’s hard for you to ask for help, but you’re trying to get better. This will make it easier to ask when the time comes.

Take the Traps Test

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

 

Tools for You

 

Related Traps

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Seeking Help

  • “If I can leave you with only one piece of advice to increase your probability of creating an earned life, it is this: Ask for help. You need it more than you know.” -Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life
  • “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
  • “Economists call it the warm glow of giving, and psychologists call it the helper’s high. Recent neuroscience evidence shows that giving actually activates the reward and meaning centers in our brains, which send us pleasure and purpose signals when we act for the benefit of others. These benefits are not limited to giving money: they also show up for giving time.” -Adam Grant, Give and Take

 

References

(1) According to a 2022 study by researchers Xuan Zhao and Nicholas Epley published in Psychological Science, “Those needing help consistently underestimated others’ willingness to help, underestimated how positively helpers would feel, and overestimated how inconvenienced helpers would feel…. Undervaluing prosociality could create a misplaced barrier to asking for help when needed.” (Source: Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2022). Surprisingly Happy to Have Helped: Underestimating Prosociality Creates a Misplaced Barrier to Asking for Help. Psychological Science33(10), 1708–1731.) There’s also research noting that helping others may promote feelings of happiness, increase social connection and self-esteem, lower stress levels and blood pressure, and promote longevity. (Source: Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A. Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, Sally Zlotowitz, John McAlaney, Harvey Whitehouse, Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 76, 2018, 320–329.)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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

What I Learned about Life from Playing Sports

With all the action in sports lately, from college football championships to the NFL playoff hunt, it’s got me thinking about life lessons I’ve learned from sports.

No doubt we can learn plenty from sports about things like teamwork and group dynamics. But what does it teach us about life?

I’ve been an athlete my whole life, starting at age five on the soccer field and continuing through college athletics and beyond. I ran track in high school and played baseball, tennis, racquetball, and a little basketball while growing up. I loved running 10K races with my Dad and brother when I was growing up and dabbled in triathlon as an adult.

What are the lessons that have stuck with me from all these experiences?

 

There’s great power in having and pursuing a dream.

In sports, great motivation flows from the quest for a championship. And so it is in life.

What’s our quest? Our burning desire? What would be a good life for us? What motivates us down to our bones? Our dreams and aspirations can light us up and fill us up with hope and energy, prodding us to take more action in pursuit of our aims.

“Somewhere behind the athlete you’ve become and the hours of practices and the coaches who have pushed you… is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back. Play for her.”
-Mia Hamm, legendary U.S. women’s soccer champion

 

Hard work and dedication set us apart.

Growing up in southern California, I played for the Choppers, a select soccer team with players from around the area. Our coach was into fitness. Big-time. I don’t think he ever wore a shirt at practice. He was always buff and tan. And he worked us like dogs. He focused on fitness, not just skill work. We did pushups and sit-ups alongside our soccer drills. He often had us race each other to see who was the fastest and who had the most stamina and heart.

His lessons stuck with me when I played college ball. I was a good midfielder, but I prided myself on my conditioning. I knew it could give me a big advantage. Nobody would be running as hard as I would be late in the game (or in double overtime) because I had put in massive work before the season began.

There are many things we want in life, for ourselves and our family. The question is what we’re willing to do to obtain them. Hard work day after day can add up to tremendous progress and, importantly, to learning and momentum for more forward progress.

Take the Traps Test

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

 

Hard work is amplified greatly by a deliberate and disciplined process and pursuit.

Do we have systems in place to get a little better each day? And to track progress?

Growing up, I always admired wide receiver Jerry Rice. He was fun to watch over his 20 seasons in the National Football League, not only because of his clutch plays but also because of his speed, stamina, athleticism, and great blocking. He retired with an amazing array of records, from most touchdowns and touchdown receptions to most receiving yards and most career points scored for a non-kicker. Not to mention three Super Bowl titles. (Check out his career highlights video.)

In the book, Talent Is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin recounts Rice’s approach:

“In team workouts he was famous for his hustle; while many receivers would trot back to the quarterback after catching a pass, Rice would sprint to the end zone after each reception. He would typically continue practicing long after the rest of the team had gone home. Most remarkable were his six-days-a-week off-season workouts, which he conducted entirely on his own. Mornings were devoted to cardiovascular work, running a hilly five-mile trail; he would reportedly run ten forty-meter wind sprints up the steepest part. In the afternoons he did equally strenuous weight training. These workouts became legendary as the most demanding in the league….”

The key, though, wasn’t just hard work. Rice, according to Colvin, was also very deliberate and strategic about the way he worked out, including designing his training to work on his specific needs (e.g., running precise patterns, evading defenders, outjumping and outrunning people, etc.) and spending as much time as possible on classroom study, conditioning, and working on specific plays.

“Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.”
-Jerry Rice, champion wide receiver in the National Football League

 

The confidence that comes from dedication and hard work over a long period of time can be transformative.

One of my favorite photographs of my years on the soccer pitch is a snapshot of my high school co-captain and me posing with Coach Murph after a game. Part of it was that Lahmmy was such a character and Coach was such a great mentor, but mostly it’s that look on our faces. A look of defiant knowing and staunch assurance. We had suffered mightily in practice, with brutal “suicides” (sprints up and down the pitch) a million times. We were in the best shape our lives, and we were ready for any opponent.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Perseverance has magical properties.

One year, when I played for the Galaxies as a teenager, we traveled from Ohio to Florida for a soccer tournament. Late in the tournament, we were getting crushed by a strong team. They were older and much bigger. Late in the match, we were down something like 9-0, but still we hung in there. Sprinting after every ball. Tackling as hard as we could. We played with the same intensity as if we were down a goal with a minute to go. By the end of the game, even the other team’s parents were rooting for us. The crowd erupted when one of our players made a great play—a small but sublime victory of sorts.

Sir Alex Ferguson, legendary soccer coach and former manager of Manchester United, emphasized not only work ethic, emotional fortitude, and extraordinary concentration, but also “a refusal to admit defeat.” Some would say our perseverance was pointless that day. But we knew better. We were playing for ourselves that day, proving something about the kind of players we were—and the kind of team we were building.

 

When adversity comes, it’s a chance to rise.

One day at practice with the Galaxies, a much older player came to practice with us. As I planted my left leg for a kick, he tackled me hard and broke my femur just above the knee. As I was recovering, with six weeks in a full-leg hard cast followed by another six weeks in a soft cast, I learned that the break was right at one of my growth plates. It meant that I needed surgery on my right leg after my broken left leg healed so my legs wouldn’t be too uneven. Another twelve weeks or so for that leg, followed by physical therapy.

I was devastated. It was a test of whether I’d keep playing. I didn’t want an injury to define me, so I worked hard and came back stronger than ever.

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”
-Thomas Paine, political activist and revolutionary

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

We must go on the attack when it comes to the important things we want in life.

Marvelous things can happen when we go for it and put ourselves on the line in the face of potential failure. In soccer, I played center midfield in college. As a midfielder, I prided myself on diligently covering the whole field vertically, helping both on offense and defense.

My sophomore year, as I was gaining confidence, I realized that I had to take more shots, and I had to upgrade my mindset. Instead of thinking too much and worrying about whether I’d get a good shot off, or miss, I had to go into attack mode: attack the goal with a cracking shot. Let it rip.

And so it is in life: are we taking enough risks and putting ourselves out there? 

“I learned a long time ago that there is something worse than missing the goal, and that’s not pulling the trigger.”
-Mia Hamm, legendary U.S. women’s footballer

 

Urgency can light fires.

When I watch a soccer game now, one of the things I look for is what happens after a team scores. Of course, there’s the obligatory celebration by the scoring team. But much more important is what the other team does.

I learned this in college from my teammate, Peter. After we gave up a goal, he would haul into the back of our net, fish out the ball, and sprint like a demon possessed to the center spot.

The point was clear: We’re down one, so we need to pick it up. Way up. Forget about the goal. Let’s roll.

Too many teams wallow for precious minutes while their hopes are dwindling. Not Peter. His urgency lit a fire under us, and I never forgot it.

The same thing happens in life. Too often, when we experience a setback, we sit and wallow. We lose our momentum. Or we complain. We look for people or things to blame. Much better to get back to work right away, knowing that the game is still afoot and time is precious.

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

We learn a lot about ourselves when we hit the wall.

In high school track meets, I ran the 400-meter dash. Many of my teammates called it the hardest event in track, because of the toll it takes on your body to sprint for that long. (1)

During the race, most of us “hit the wall” somewhere on the final stretch, depending on how we had run the first 300 meters. Hitting the wall is awful—as strange as it is disorienting. Your legs suddenly feel like bricks. You have to struggle mightily to keep moving them forward. You feel your whole body starting to tense up and shut down. Every step gets harder. But still you have to finish, so you keep pushing forward.

Important questions arise when you hit the wall: Do you have the strength to see it through? How well do you finish the race? And how do you respond on Monday at practice? What do you do to get better?

“And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end?
From within.”
-Eric Liddell, Scottish runner and Christian missionary, from the film “Chariots of Fire”

 

The inner game is often where things are won or lost.

In sports, it’s easy to assume that the physical game—our skill, strength, endurance, etc.—makes all the difference. But often, the mental game is more important.

In his book, The Inner Game of Tennis, author, tennis player, and coaching pioneer Tim Gallwey notes the pitfalls of fighting the mind and letting our ego take over. On the flipside, he highlights the benefits of mastering the art of relaxed and effortless concentration and of focusing the mind properly while not trying too hard.

And so it is in life. Too often, we’re focused on the outer game of competitive jockeying, career climbing, ego stroking, and material accumulation, but it’s our inner world that we need to pay more attention to.

We have to stop becoming our worst opponent. We need to silence our negative self-talk and replace it with something that actually serves us.

“…the inner game. This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.”
-W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis

 

There’s always a bigger picture beyond the game we’re playing.

In sports, it’s easy to get lost in the drama of the game and boil it down only to the final score. But sports is about more than winning and losing. Recall the Olympian pledge:

“Ask not alone for victory. Ask for courage. For if you can endure, you bring honor to yourself.
Even more, you bring honor to us all.”

Sports is not only about the quest for victory but also about challenge, discipline, character, mettle, teamwork, fair play, sportsmanship, grace, and transcendence.

And so it is in life. In the end, it’s about something much larger than victory or success alone. It’s about learning, growth, development, close relationships, commitment, purpose, contribution, and love.

“The moment of victory is much too short to live for that and nothing else.”
-Martina Navratilova, professional tennis champion

And, as with sports, we must prepare not only for the race or game but the years after too.

 

Conclusion

What are my life lessons from sports? Playing sports has shaped me in so many ways. I loved being on the field with my teammates. Training in the Texas heat and dripping with sweat. Staring down the curve of my lane from the starting line, waiting for the gun. The camaraderie and joy on the bus on the way back from a competition.

I made lifelong friends and learned so much about myself, life, and leadership. I’m thankful not only for the moments in competition but also for their strong and lasting echoes.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. What have you learned from sports or other activities or endeavors that have enriched your life?
  2. What more will you do to honor those lessons and carry them forward in your life today?

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Articles and Books

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Sports, Life, and Leadership

  • “Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better.” -Pat Riley, former NBA basketball coach and player
  • “I always felt that our triumphs were an expression of the consistent application of discipline.” -Alex Ferguson, Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United
  • “Hard days are the best because that’s when champions are made.” -Gabby Douglas, artistic gymnast and Olympic champion
  • “If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.” -Fred DeVito, fitness expert and entrepreneur
  • “Fighting the mind does not work. What works best is learning to focus it.” -W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis
  • “You miss 100 percent of all the shots you never take.” -Wayne Gretzky, legendary hockey champion (a.k.a., “the great one”)
  • “Show me a guy who’s afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy you can beat every time.” -Lou Brock, professional baseball player
  • “Anxiety is fear about what may happen in the future, and it occurs only when the mind is imagining what the future may bring. But when your attention is on the here and now, the actions which need to be done in the present have their best chance of being successfully accomplished, and as a result the future will become the best possible present.” -W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis
  • “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” -Wayne Gretzky, legendary hockey champion (a.k.a., “the great one”)
  • Audentis fortuna iuvat.” (“Fortune favors the bold.”) -Virgil, ancient Roman poet
  • “I may win and I may lose, but I will never be defeated.” -Emmitt Smith, former NFL running back and all-time leading rusher
“Every time a football player goes out to ply his trade he’s got to play from the ground up—from the soles of his feet right up to his head.  Every inch of him has to play. Some guys play with their heads. That’s O.K. You’ve got be smart to be No. 1 in any business.  But more important, you’ve got to play with your heart—with every fiber of your body. If you’re lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he’s never going to come off the field second.”
-Vince Lombardi, legendary American football coach, Green Bay Packers,
considered by many to be the greatest coach in football history

(1) I always thought the 800 was worse.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Get his monthly newsletter. Gregg was a co-captain of his high school and college soccer teams and high school track team, First-State in high school track, and collegiate Academic All-American soccer player (Division III). If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!