How to Craft a Vision of the Good Life

Article Summary: 

What is a vision of the good life? Why is it hard to create one? What are the benefits of having a vision of the good life? How to craft a vision of the good life?

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Working hard but lacking energy and motivation?
Busy but feeling depleted?
Not sure what you want anymore—or what direction to take?
Feeling overcommitted, juggling too many things?

These are common feelings these days, even among high achievers and committed parents and citizens. The problem is that, if we let them go for too long, things can start unraveling. We begin to see a gap between where we are now and where we’d like to be. And then the gap grows.

These are signs that we’re lacking a clear vision for our lives—or that we’ve lost sight of it. Sometimes, we find ourselves living someone else’s vision.

“Ester asked why people are sad.
‘That’s simple,’ says the old man. ‘They are the prisoners of their personal history. Everyone believes that the main aim in life is to follow a plan. They never ask if that plan is theirs or if it was created by another person. They accumulate experiences, memories, things, other people’s ideas, and it is more than they can possibly cope with. And that is why they forget their dreams.’” -Paolo Coelho, The Zahir

 

What Is a Vision of the Good Life?

A vision is a bold and vivid picture of a better future. Many organizations have a vision statement. But vision isn’t only for organizations. It’s for us too.

In the context of our lives, a vision of the good life should clearly describe who we want to become, what we want to do, and where we want to go. A vision of the good life is the dream destination of our lives.

“Vision is a clear mental picture of what could be, fueled by the conviction that it should be.”
-Pastor Andy Stanley, Visioneering

In essence, our vision statement is an authentic rendering of how our purpose and core values can play out in the world. A personal vision statement asks:

Who do we want to be?
What do we want to do and contribute in life?
Who do we want to share it with?

 

Why Vision Is Hard

Crafting a vision of the good life can be difficult for many. There are many obstacles that can get in the way.

For starters, we’re constrained by what researchers call “presentism”: Harvard University professor Daniel Gilbert notes that our “imagination cannot easily transcend the boundaries of the present…. Most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today.”

Many of us have what’s called “status quo bias”: a preference for maintaining our current state of affairs. There’s also the fear factor. It takes courage to confront obstacles and still envision a better future.

Another challenge is the trap of caring too much about what others think. This can direct us toward the vision of others and away from our own vision. Other traps that can get in the way include the complacency of drifting through our lives or settling for just okay.

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.

 

Some people resist or struggle with the idea of having a vision of the good life because it sounds abstract and distant. But neither “vision” nor “good life” has to be complicated. A vision, as we’ve seen, is simply a picture of our desired future. And authors Richard Leider and David Shapiro define the good life simply and crisply:

“living in the place you belong, with the people you love, doing the right work—on purpose.”

Keep in mind that vision is different from purpose and goals. Our purpose is our reason for being, and we should think of it as timeless. Our goals are the objectives we want to accomplish, and they’re best thought of in shorter increments (e.g., today or this month or year). By contrast, our life vision is a vivid description of what we aspire to do with our lives. It’s best thought of over a lifetime (or at least a decade). (Obviously, people can choose to have a three-year vision, a five-year vision, etc. if they wish.)

 

The Benefits of Having a Vision

Having a vision of the good life can be catalytic. It can help us:

  • develop a clear sense of direction
  • get recentered when we feel lost
  • put our precious time and energy into what we really want
  • reclaim a sense of agency and control over our lives
  • know where to focus our attention and energy—and which detours to avoid
  • connect the dots between the different aspects of our lives
  • get back in the driver’s seat of our lives
  • make decisions and select which opportunities to pursue
  • set and enforce personal and professional boundaries
  • craft our goals, since they should flow naturally from our vision
  • get our motivation back, even during difficult times
  • boost our confidence
  • help us overcome doubt and fear
  • reduce our feelings of overwhelm because we’re clearer about what matters
  • get help from others because we have a clearer sense of what we want
  • live more proactively and intentionally
  • improve our performance

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.

 

How to Craft a Vision of the Good Life

There are many ways to approach crafting a vision of the good life. Different approaches will work for different people. Here are some suggested approaches:

Begin by looking back to our childhood dreams. Many of us had dreams when we were younger—dreams, for example, of being an astronaut or an athlete, an author or a ballerina, a teacher or a firefighter. Many times, those dreams don’t so much point to the profession we actually choose as they do contain certain clues about our deeper make-up as a person—clues like wanting to explore, be active, create, make beauty, or help others.

Get in the habit of thinking more about the future we want, including who we want to be and how we’ll go about making it happen.

Think not just about big accomplishments but also about what we’d like everyday life to be like. Think about our normal days in the future. A vision of the good life isn’t only about aspiration and accomplishment. It’s also about peace and joy.

Look inward to capture our authentic essence. Our articulation of where we want to go should be grounded in who we are. Many people don’t look inward before projecting outward.

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart.
Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”

-Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

Clarify not only the mental picture of our desired future but also how we seek to feel in that desired future. That can include the feeling we want to bring to that future as well as the feeling we want to get in it.

Reflect on our view of the good life. What would living a good life mean for us and those we love?

Ensure the vision covers the important areas of our lives. A well-designed vision paints a picture of our desired destination across all the important aspects of our lives: family, work, health, education, service, community, hobbies, travel, and perhaps more.

Think also about an audacious aspiration for our life—something that’s challenging but would be amazing if we could make it happen.

“Fortune favors the audacious.”
-Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus
Dutch Christian humanist, theologian, and philosopher

Now take inputs from the points above and turn them into a vision statement draft. Start with statements or bullet points, and then form them into a paragraph or a page or two about our vision of the good life. It works best when we think ahead and put ourselves in it, writing in the present tense, noting what kind of person we are, where we are, who we’re with, what we’re doing, etc.

Think about how we’d like to be remembered by loved ones and others at the end of our life. What would be a life we’d be proud of?

Get clear on what would provide the most value to the people we’re committed to serving. How are we best positioned to help, given our strengths and passions, and which groups or causes?

Get clear on the things that provide the most meaning in our lives and build those into our vision, including what’s important to us and what would be worth spending our time on. It’s a good sign if we’d do it even without getting paid for it.

Share an early draft with trusted friends and colleagues and seek their input—and help. Revise it based on their input, but only the input we wholeheartedly agreed with. After all, this is our vision of the good life, not theirs.

Consider working with a coach or mentor to help with the vision crafting process. Often, it’s helpful with an outside perspective.

(See the Appendix for other options if these approaches aren’t working for you.)

 

Criteria to Use in Crafting Our Vision

For some, the vision crafting process will be one of the most valuable things they ever do. Given that, we should have a high standard for the output and a good process for developing it intentionally.

As we craft a vision for our lives, we should ensure that it’s:

  1. Clear and vivid in its description
  2. Aligned with our true authentic essence, unique to us, including our purpose and core values
  3. Unbounded by the status quo
  4. Distant enough that we have to work toward it (a lifetime, or at least ten years in the future)
  5. Broad enough to encompass all the major aspects of our lives (including personal, professional, and relationships)
  6. Motivating and inspiring to us, flooding our heart with palpable emotion and fueling us with conviction

Our life vision should fill us with energy and raise our sights for what we can do with our days on Earth.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

Some Cautions about the Vision Process

There are many potential pitfalls in the vision crafting process, so some cautions are in order.

Though clear and vivid, our vision shouldn’t be prescriptive. It should be directional but not tactical, not interloping into how we will get there (the realm of strategy and tactics). Also avoid making it vague and generic. Someone who knows us well should recognize us clearly in our vision.

Our vision can change over the years, and that’s okay. But if we’ve done it well, it shouldn’t change too often. That would be jarring and confounding.

Our vision statement doesn’t have to be perfect. View it as a draft—as a work-in-process that can and should change over time.

Watch out for too much focus on ego or material possessions in our vision. We know those are false friends destined to disappoint in the final analysis. Better to focus instead on connection and contribution.

Our vision is worthless without action. What’s the point if it just sits in a drawer? We’re wise to read our vision statement regularly (e.g., every month or quarter) and get to work on making it come alive.

 

Making Our Vision a Reality

It’s unrealistic to expect that we’ll travel a linear path to realize our vision. Stuff happens. Circumstances change. But we’re wise to hold fast to our vision and keep working to bring it to life.

“A vision without a plan is a delusion.”
-Neil Kurtz, CEO of Golden Living

We’re especially wise to clarify what knowledge and skills we need to develop now to be able to live into that desired future—and then block out time to get them.

We should start taking action now on things that will bring us closer to our vision—and do that every day.

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
-Epictetus, ancient Greek Stoic philosopher

 

Conclusion

In the end, our lives are short. Many people find themselves late in life with deep regrets. Why not set a marker now for how we’ll live and then pursue it with abandon?

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you have a vision of the good life?
  2. To what extent are you clear about what a good life would be for you?
  3. Is it informing the choices you make and actions you take on a regular basis?
  4. Are you moving toward it?
  5. What’s stopping you?

 

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

 

Appendix: Other Options for the Vision Process

The visioning process is challenging for many. What works for one person may not work well for another. With that in mind, here are some other options for the vision crafting process:

Start with a “mind map.” Take a blank sheet of paper and a pencil, then write the word “Vision” in the middle of the page. Then add words, phrases, or images all around the page with things that may be included in your envisioning of a good life. Don’t edit. Just write or draw.

Use a vision board. Gather an array of photos, images, inspirational quotes, or other symbolic representations of your idea of a good life. Place them on a large poster sheet that can be displayed prominently in your home or office as a visual reminder of what you’d like your life to be like.

Consider drawing your vision of the good life. (Some way want to start with this.) The point isn’t artistry but rather creative symbols that represent your deepest aspirations. Have fun with it. Aristotle observed that “the soul never thinks without a picture.”

Consider journaling as a place to start to gather ideas. Sometimes starting more informally with private thoughts can help break the logjam of self-consciousness.

Clarify how you define success in different areas of your life, including both personal and professional. Build the most salient aspects of your desired success into your vision of the good life.

Write a letter from the future. Imagine yourself at the end of your life, having lived a good life. Write a letter from that future version of you to the you of today, describing what life is like, who you’ve become and what you’ve done, and how it feels.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Vision

  • “There is no favorable wind for the sailor who doesn’t know where to go.” -Seneca, ancient Roman Stoic philosopher
  • “I’ve seen the promised land.” -Martin Luther King, Jr., minister, activist, and civil-rights leader
  • “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” -Proverbs 29:18
  • “I learned to organize my life around my dream, rather than try to force my dream into my chaotic life.” -Sonia Choquette, spiritual teacher and author
  • “See things as you would have them be instead of as they are.” -Robert Collier, author
  • “Connecting with one’s dreams releases one’s passion, energy, and excitement about life…. The key is uncovering your ideal self—the person you would like to be, including what you want in your life and work.” -Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, Resonant Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence
  • “…people stop dreaming because they got caught up in the hustle and bustle of surviving. And once we stop dreaming, we start to lead lives of quiet desperation, and little by little the passion and energy begin to disappear from our lives.” -Matthew Kelly, The Dream Manager
  • “All mean dream: but not equally. Those that dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” -T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph
  • “It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old. They grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.” -Gabriel Garcia Marquez, novelist
  • “The happiest people in life operate out of their imaginations and dreams, not their histories.” -Ed Mylett, The Power of One More
  • “Everyone is inspired by those who follow their dream.” -Maria Nemeth, Founder and Director, Academy for Coaching Excellence
  • “Be strong on vision, but flexible on detail.” -Jeff Bezos, founder and executive chairman, Amazon
  • “Despite the myth of the heroic visionary leader, there is little about developing and pursuing a vision that should be a solo endeavor.” -Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs

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, 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!

The Power of Knowing and Using Our Strengths

Many people are disengaged at work and not energized and thriving in their lives. One major reason is that they’re not using their strengths—the things they’re good at—regularly.

According to data from Gallup’s global client database, most people aren’t using their strengths every day at work. See the chart below.

Source: Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, Strengths Based Leadership (Gallup Press).

Many of us are either working in areas of our weaknesses or focused on fixing our weaknesses instead of leveraging our strengths more in what we do. For example:

We’re doing things we’d rather avoid—perhaps things that bore us or make us feel weak or incompetent.
We keep trying things but don’t get traction on them and don’t seem to improve much.
We’re working on things even though we know others who are much better at them than we are.
We feel drained by the things we’re doing.

Could it be that we’re thinking about things the wrong way—focused on just doing what we’re told or what’s in front of us, or on shoring up our weaknesses to avoid looking bad, instead of actively crafting our work and activities in line with our strengths?

In their book, Living Your Strengths, Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld note the following:

“If you’re like most people, you have grown up with the ‘weakness prevention’ model. You’ve been told that to become strong, successful, or truly serve…you must ‘fix’ your weaknesses.…That thinking is just plain wrong.…
the evidence is overwhelming: You will be most successful in whatever you do by building your life around
your greatest natural abilities rather than your weaknesses.”

Enter strengths.

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 Is a Strength?

Strengths are the things at which we most excel. According to English consultant and author Marcus Buckingham, “Your strengths are those activities that make you feel strong.”

In Living Your Strengths, Winseman, Clifton, and Liesveld define it as follows: “A strength is the ability to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity.” They conceive of a strength as a powerful, productive combination of innate talent, relevant knowledge, and skills.

“The fundamental building block of any strength is talent.
When you enhance a talent by adding the right skills and useful knowledge, you have created a strength.”

-Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld, Living Your Strengths

Let’s look at the three components of a strength in turn:

Talents, they write, “are naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.” Examples include a natural tendency to make people laugh, tune into others’ emotions, or thrive under pressure. These talents naturally exist within us as our inborn predispositions (unlike knowledge and skills). We do them instinctively and derive satisfaction in the process.

“The man who is born with a talent which he was meant to use finds his greatest happiness in using it.”
-Johann Wolfgang Goethe, German poet, novelist, and scientist

Knowledge is what we know—whether factual or experiential knowledge. We can acquire knowledge through various means, from reading and courses to conversations and challenges. Ideally, we have a learning mindset and continually look for new ideas and methods.

Skills, they note, “are the abilities to perform the steps of an activity.” Examples include preparing seminars, presentations, or lesson plans. When we focus on developing our skills, we can boost performance significantly.

Talents, knowledge, and skills are the fundamental building blocks of strengths, but there are other relevant factors that influence their development. Such other factors include practice, coaching, repetition, and feedback. When we do things repeatedly and get targeted guidance and feedback on how we’re doing, we can really amp up our performance.

In his book, Strengths Finder 2.0, consultant and author Tom Rath notes that there’s incredible room for growth when we focus on developing our natural talents. He says it’s not realistic to be anything we want to be, as the saying goes, but we can be a lot more of who we already are. By building on our innate talents and interests, we can make incredible strides and thrive.

 

The Benefits of Knowing and Using Our Strengths

There are tremendous benefits to knowing and using our strengths in our work and daily lives, according to researchers. For example, knowing and using our strengths can:

  • enhance our confidence and help us overcome self-doubt (and keep our negative self-talk in check)
  • boost our motivation and engagement dramatically (1)
  • increase our productivity
  • give us more clarity about how we’re likely to succeed
  • help us achieve our goals
  • set us up for more opportunities for advancement
  • make us happier and more fulfilled
  • help us avoid burnout
“Burnout doesn’t happen when you are working long hours on invigorating activities. Long hours may tire you out, but they rarely burn you out. But fill your weeks with the wrong kinds of activities, activities that weaken you,
and even regular activities will start to burn.”

-Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work

There’s also a flip side to this: there’s much lost when we don’t use our strengths. When we’re not operating in our strengths zone, according to Rath, we’re much more likely to be disengaged at work. We may even dread it. We’re more likely to have more negative interactions with colleagues, treat customers poorly, and achieve less.

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.

 

The Signs of a Strength

Unfortunately, we tend to take our strengths for granted. In some cases, they’re so much a part of our daily lives that they’ve become invisible to us. We’re not aware that others may struggle with the things that come easily to us because we’ve been swimming in our strengths for so long.

So, what are the signs of a strength? In his book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work, Marcus Buckingham identified four signs of a strength, using the acronym SIGN (Success, Instinct, Growth, Needs):

Success: the things we do that make us feel successful. We’ve received recognition or praise for these things.

Instinct: the things we find ourselves drawn to, even if we’re not sure why. We’d like to do them every day, and we may volunteer for them spontaneously.

Growth: the things that were simpler for us to pick up and develop over time. We don’t have to try very hard when we do them. Also, we stay focused on them naturally and lose track of time when doing them.

Needs: the things that fill an innate need of ours and that leave us feeling powerful, fulfilled, and restored instead of drained. We feel a need to do them, and they give us a lot of personal satisfaction.

In sum, our strengths make us feel successful, draw us to use them, are relatively easy for us to develop, and fill a need of ours. We also feel energized while using them.

 

Signature Strengths

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, writes about what he calls “signature strengths,” which he defines as “strengths of character that a person owns, celebrates, and frequently exercises.” They’re essential to who we are, and they tend to give us the following:

  • rapid learning curve as they’re first practiced
  • feeling of excitement while using them
  • sense of authenticity (“This is the real me”)
  • desire to learn or find new ways to use them
  • feeling of enthusiasm and invigoration rather than exhaustion while using them
  • desire to pursue projects that revolve around them

To determine our strengths, we can take assessments (see the resources at the end of this article), ask those who know us well (perhaps via a 360-Degree Assessment), and/or observe our own experiences and ask ourselves questions like the following:

When have I achieved success, and what strengths did I use in the process?
What things do others come to me for help with because I’m good at them?
How have I overcome significant challenges, and what strengths did I use in the process?

 

How to Leverage Our Strengths in Our Life and Work

Here are nine steps for leveraging our strengths effectively in our life and work:

  1. Know what our strengths are.
  2. Clarify how and when our strengths help us with our most important work.
  3. Measure how much time we’re using our strengths (e.g., over the past week).
  4. Set goals for how much time we’ll do so in the future (e.g., over the next week).
  5. Decide what actions we’ll take to use our strengths.
  6. Create a plan for how we’ll develop our top strengths further with new knowledge or skills.
  7. Determine what we’ll do to reduce the amount of time we’re working in areas of our weaknesses. (It may not be possible to eliminate it altogether.) An important caveat: though we should generally avoid working in areas of weakness for us, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore our weaknesses. Knowing our weaknesses can be valuable.
  8. Seek colleagues who have different strengths and who compensate for our weaknesses.
  9. Continually seek ways to leverage our strengths in service of worthy endeavors that we’re passionate about.

It may also be helpful to have a coach because we’re often blind to our strengths. Others can often see our strengths more clearly and help us figure out ways to develop and use them more effectively.

 

How Leaders Can Leverage Strengths for High Performance

Strengths are also relevant for leaders and organizations. They can be a powerful performance booster. To begin with, leaders should know and use their own strengths in their work.

“I’ve never met an effective leader who wasn’t aware of his talents and working to sharpen them.”
-Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander

Next, managers should pay close attention to strengths in people selection and advancement as well as in job and team design. The team overall should have a well rounded and complementary set of strengths. For example, a founding team in a startup can map out the skills of its current team members as well as the skills gaps it’s looking to fill with new hires. See the table below.

Third, leaders should ensure that all team members are using their strengths as much as possible.

“While there are many good levers for engaging people and driving performance… the master lever is getting each person to play to his strength. Pull this lever and an engaged and productive team will be the result.
Fail to pull it and no matter what else is done to motivate the team, it’ll never fully engage.”

-Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work

 Finally, leaders should invest in the development of the strengths of everyone on the team (including themselves).

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

Conclusion

We’re all born with certain talents and interests, and we’re all drawn to certain activities and endeavors. If we can discover what we’re good at and build our life and work around those strengths, we can feel more engaged and energized, and we can thrive. And what if we applied our strengths toward a purpose or calling and used them to serve others in meaningful ways? That would be remarkable.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. What are your core strengths?
  2. To what extent are you using your strengths (at work, home, etc.)?
  3. Are you using them every day?
  4. How could you use your strengths more?
  5. What will you do differently, starting today?

 

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

 

Additional Resources

  • Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 (including an online assessment)
  • Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld, Living Your Strengths
  • Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work
  • Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, Strengths Based Leadership (including an online assessment for a personalized leadership guide)
  • Clifton Strengths Assessment
  • VIA Survey of Character Strengths

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Strengths

  • “Liberating and expressing your natural genius is your ultimate path to success and life satisfaction.” -Gay Hendricks, psychologist and author
  • “Herein is my formulation of the good life: Using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to being abundant gratification and authentic happiness.” -Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness
  • “A leader needs to know his strengths as a carpenter knows his tools, or as a physician knows the instruments at her disposal. What great leaders have in common is that each truly knows his or her strengths—and can call on the right strengths at the right time.” -Dr. Donald Clifton, psychologist and researcher

(1) According to Tom Rath in StrengthsFinder 2.0, workers who can focus on their strengths every day are “six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general.”

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!

The Importance of Service in Living a Good Life

These days, it’s easy to become self-involved. So much is coming at us so quickly. We live in a world of speed and busyness in an age of social media, celebrities, and influencers.

These cultural influences are strong, pulling our egos toward a certain way of living that can become superficial and materialistic. We can be obsessed with climbing professionally, with chasing success. And we can take all that we have for granted, as we’re so focused on chasing more.

This may keep us occupied (if not overloaded), but it’s not a recipe for good living. In all the chase, with all its focus on success, we can miss out on one of the great gifts and joys of life: serving.

Service is a remarkable thing because it allows us to help others while also helping ourselves.

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 Benefits of Serving Others

There are many benefits of serving and helping others, according to the research. Here are some of the main ones:

Helping others feels good. Researchers call it a “warm glow.” Even small acts of kindness can bring emotional rewards to the helper. (1)

“I don’t think there’s anything as wonderful in life as being able to help someone else.”
-Betty Ford, activist, former U.S. first lady, and founder, Betty Ford Center

Service is a powerful contributor to our happiness, fulfillment, and overall life satisfaction. According to a large and growing body of research, helping others is often associated with and can lead to higher levels of happiness. Volunteering leads to a boost in our mental health and happiness, especially among people who volunteer more often (e.g., at least once a month), and people who volunteered in the last year were more satisfied with their lives.

Service can help our life and work be more meaningful. And it can help us discover our purpose and core values.

Serving others can help us discover who we are. It’s an important part of what I call “discover mode”: learning about who we are (including our core values, strengths, passions, and aspirations) and what we can do in the world.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
-Mahatma Gandhi, Indian lawyer and transformational leader

Helping others can help us transcend our egos. When we’re helping others, it’s hard to remain preoccupied with our own petty dramas.

Serving people can help us feel more grateful for what we have. We may begin to glimpse how fortunate or privileged we’ve been. It may give us a sharper perspective.

Serving others can be a powerful source of motivation. If we take the time to discover our core values and excavate our convictions, we’ll find that we long to contribute to some people, groups, or causes. We have a lot of energy to activate if we’ll only get started on it.

Serving other people with commitment and skill can help boost our confidence. As we help and have impact, we develop a greater belief in our capacities and conviction that we can add even more value.

Helping others builds our character. It may help us develop generosity, humility, empathy, trustworthiness, responsibility, loyalty, and even moral excellence.

Helping people can help us heal from deep wounds and traumatic experiences. There’s an intriguing expression: “When you feel sad, serve.” Too often, we get lost in our own wallowing and don’t see how readily we could change the dynamic if we’d only reach out and try to help someone else.

“…if you’re hurting, you need to help somebody ease their hurt. If you’re in pain, help somebody else’s pain. And when you’re in a mess, you get yourself out of the mess helping somebody out of theirs. And in the process, you get to become a member of what I call the greatest fellowship of all, the sorority of compassion and the fraternity of service.”
-Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author

Serving people can bring us out of isolation and back into relationship and a sense of belonging in community. This could include spiritual communities that promote service or a focus on something larger than the self.

Serving others can help us create new or stronger friendships. We can befriend the people we’re serving or the people we’re serving alongside. These can become some of the most important relationships in our lives.

Helping others can warm up our cold hearts. Our hearts sometimes take a beating in today’s world. Our heart may be asleep, closed, or cold from pain, suffering, or isolation. Enter the warm glow of serving others.

Service can help us redeem some of the wrongs we’ve done and some of the pain we’ve inflicted on others. Let’s face it: we’ve all made mistakes and hurt people, including our loved ones. Too often, those are the ones we’ve hurt the most. Service can be an agent of redemption in our lives.

Helping others can have positive effects on our own health. According to the research, it can lead to lower stress and inflammation, reduced pain, healthier hearts, and even protection against anxiety, burnout, and depression.

Service can be inspiring and contagious. When people see someone serving others, it summons their better angels and makes them want to join in or follow suit. As this phenomenon spreads, it can help uplift communities.

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.

 

How to Go About Serving Others

Service doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it’s often best when we keep it simple, heart to heart. Still, here are a few tips for going about it:

Developing self-awareness can be a great place to start. If we know our strengths, we can look for ways to use them when serving others, giving us a double win because it feels good to use our strengths on something important. The same holds true for our purpose, values, and passions.

If we pause to consider how we’re uniquely or powerfully qualified or positioned to help some people, groups, organizations, or causes—based on our knowledge, skills, experiences, or even our wounds—it can help us target our service efforts more effectively.

When we take time to discover what people, groups, or causes we feel called to serve, it can elevate our motivation and make it more likely we’ll stick with it.

 

Pervasive Service

In our book, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives, Christopher Gergen and I wrote about something that intentional people who integrate their purpose and passions do well: “pervasive service,” which is “an ethic of contribution as a defining feature of our lives.”

Can we build service into our daily habits? Can we creatively find ways to serve—in ways big and small—our spouse or partner, family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, workplace, and community? What if we walked around with our helping antenna up, scanning for ways to respond to needs around us?

Service and giving shouldn’t be relegated to an occasional good deed—or to an annual tax write-off.  What if we looked to bring them into each of our days—thus adding up to a lifetime of contribution? Viewed this way, service can become an organizing principle of our lives, a habit that permeates our personal lives and work and community endeavors.

Ideally, our acts of service evolve into deeper commitments that ripen us and enhance our inner life.

“There are occasions and opportunities for service that will vary throughout anyone’s life. The initial gate is that you understand that that’s a piece of being a full person. It’s a matter of saying yes to the opportunity when it appropriately appears. Every day is a preparation for serving something.”
-Buie Seawell, attorney and professor, University of Denver

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.

 

Some Cautions about Service

As with many things in life, there are some important nuances and even potential traps here.

First, let’s not make this about giving and expecting something in return. Not everything has to be transactional or come with an expectation or obligation. That just cheapens it.

Second, serving others doesn’t make us better than them. We all have dignity and potential. And we all have ups and downs and our unique context and challenges.

Third, there’s an ego risk that can come with serving. Let’s not let serving morph into a savior syndrome, and let’s not become self-righteous and smug about it.

Fourth, let’s watch out for the trap of being too focused on others—and giving ourselves away in the process. As the flight attendants wisely advise, let’s put on our own oxygen masks first. (See my article, “Are You Focusing Too Much on Others’ Needs.”)

“If takers are selfish and failed givers are selfless, successful givers are otherish: they care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests…. Selfless giving, in the absence of self-preservation instincts, easily becomes overwhelming. Being otherish means being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight, using them as a guide for choosing when, where, how, and to whom you give.”
-Adam Grant, Give and Take

 

Conclusion

Service, while remarkable in its own ways and often uplifting, as we’ve seen, doesn’t have to be grandiose and world-changing. Our little acts of contribution can make a real difference day to day and add up over time to big sums.

So, yes, let’s dedicate ourselves to worthy and mighty causes, if we can. Let’s follow in the footsteps of great servants through the ages, if we can. But let’s also focus on what’s right in front of us: Raising our kids as best we can. Holding the door open for someone. Being kind to people we encounter on the street. Thanking the barista with a kind word and a smile. Stopping to see if someone needs help. Giving someone a ride. Checking in on a friend or colleague.

We’re likely to regret it if we don’t build service into our lives. If we do serve and serve often, it’s a beautiful gift both to the world and ourselves—and a way for us to honor the lives we’ve been given.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you helping and serving?
  2. What more could you do?
  3. What will you start with, right now?

 

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

 

Related Books

  • Tom Rath, Life’s Great Question: Discover How You Contribute to the World
  • Billy Shore, The Cathedral Within: Transforming Your Life by Giving Something Back
  • Adam Grant, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success
  • Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli, Wonder Drug: 7 Scientifically Proven Ways that Serving Others Is the Best Medicine for Yourself

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Serving Others

  • “Life’s most urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “It is high time the ideal of success should be replaced with the ideal of service.” -Albert Einstein, German-born theoretical physicist
  • “Service is the very purpose of life. It is the rent we pay for living on the planet.” -Marian Wright Edelman, activist for civil rights and children’s rights
  • “…taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life.” -Dalai Lama
  • “Not everybody can be famous. But everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato or Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “…the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” -Albert Schweitzer, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician
  • “…when you choose the paradigm of service, looking at life through that paradigm, it turns everything you do from a job into a gift.” -Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author
  • “A growing body of evidence suggests that the single greatest driver of both achievement and wellbeing is understanding how your daily efforts enhance the lives of others.” -Tom Rath, Life’s Great Question
  • “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” -John F. Kennedy, former U.S. president
  • “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted, and behold, service was joy.” -Rabindranath Tagore, Indian poet, writer, and social reformer
  • “Every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long…. I’d like for somebody to say some day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others…. I just want to leave a committed life behind.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “The old… should, it seems, have their physical labors reduced; their mental activities should be actually increased. They should endeavor, too, by means of their counsel and practical wisdom to be of as much service as possible to their friends and to the young, and above all to the state.” -Cicero, De Officiis

(1) Serving others is a form of what researchers call “prosocial behavior” (including giving money to charity, volunteering, sharing food, donating blood or an organ, or otherwise voluntarily helping others). Researchers have discovered that people derive pleasure from helping others. Lara B. Aknin and Ashley V. Whillans found that it matters how people go about helping. Looking at the evidence on helping using self-determination theory, Aknin and Whillans discovered that prosocial behavior is more likely to lead to happiness when people have autonomy and choice over who and how they help, when they see the impacts of their help, and when they have opportunities to connect with people while helping. (Source: Lara B. Aknin and Ashley V. Whillans, “Helping and Happiness: A Review and Guide for Public Policy,” Social Issues and Policy Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2021)

“Human beings are exceptionally prosocial.
Not only do we go out of our way to help other people, but we often feel good when we do.”
-Lara B. Aknin and Ashley V. Whillans

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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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). 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!

Why Self-Awareness Is So Important–And How to Develop It

Article Summary: 

Self-awareness is critical in our life, work, and relationships, but many of us struggle with it. How to develop self-awareness.

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To be self-aware is to have a good understanding of ourselves, including conscious knowledge of our feelings, motives, and desires. Self-awareness (also known as self-knowledge) involves having a clear, accurate, and deep understanding of our emotions, values, strengths, and weaknesses. It also involves having a realistic view of ourselves, including a good and true sense of how we’re coming across to others.

In her book, Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think, organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich defines self-awareness as “the ability to see ourselves clearly to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us.” She calls it the “meta-skill of the 21st century.” It may be an important skill in this century, but we’ve known about the importance of self-awareness for millennia.

“Know thyself.”
-inscribed on the temple wall at Delphi, 6th century BCE

According to researchers, there are two types:

  1. Internal (or private) self-awareness is about how clearly we see ourselves and whether we notice and reflect on our own internal state.
  2. External (or public) self-awareness is about being aware of how we appear to others.

 

Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence

Self-awareness is closely associated with emotional intelligence (EQ). Pioneering psychologist Daniel Goleman considers self-awareness one of the four domains of emotional intelligence (along with self-management, social awareness, and relationship management)—and emphasizes that it’s the foundation for the other three.

According to Goleman, self-awareness involves certain personal competences, including:

  • Accurate self-assessment: knowing our strengths and weaknesses
  • Emotional self-awareness: reading our own emotions and recognizing their impact
  • Self-confidence: having a good sense of our capabilities and self-worth

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 Consequences of Lacking Self-Awareness

When we lack self-awareness, we have blind spots that get us into trouble, and we don’t know the underlying reasons for our actions. As a result, we’re likely to keep making the same mistakes, and we’ll be less likely to take responsibility for them, damaging our credibility.

Think of the compulsive talkers who don’t let others get a word in during conversations, unaware that people find it off-putting because it shows a lack of interest in others. Consider the frequent criticizers who spend so much time judging others instead of addressing their own issues.

Think of the people who keep bringing up politics out of the blue and saying things that hurt or offend the people around them without realizing it. Consider the people who speak loudly in public places, unaware that they’re disturbing everyone around them.

Think about the reserved introvert who unintentionally comes across as aloof or uninterested. Note the chronic complainer who never asks others how they’re doing. Consider the perpetual dreamers who never get around to the things they need to do to get started.

We’re all flawed—and prone to self-deception—so we should approach these cases with empathy and grace. But in many cases, a little self-awareness would go a long way toward helping people get out of their own way.

“Knowledge of the self is the mother of all knowledge. So it is incumbent on me to know my self, to know it completely, to know its minutiae, its characteristics, its subtleties, and its very atoms.”
-Khalil Gibran, Lebanese writer and poet

 

20 Benefits of Developing Self-Awareness

The good news is that we can develop self-awareness, even if we’re low on it (as many are). Having a high level of self-awareness can help us in many ways. For example, it can:

  1. help us see our blind spots for the first time—or see them more clearly
  2. improve our decision-making
  3. help us communicate more effectively
  4. increase our confidence
  5. help us manage stress
  6. enhance our sense of personal control
  7. help us develop our social intelligence and relational awareness, in the process improving our relationships
  8. help us avoid wearing a mask or creating a persona that lacks authenticity
  9. increase our happiness and fulfillment
  10. help us recognize the ruts we’ve fallen into
  11. help us use more of our potential
  12. enhance our influence
  13. facilitate higher job satisfaction
  14. improve our ethical behavior, making us less likely to lie, cheat, or steal
  15. help us avoid looking to others too much for what we should do
  16. help us find good work that’s a good fit for us—and know what work we should avoid
  17. help us understand what makes us come alive and what drains us
  18. help us discover our purpose and what feels meaningful
  19. help us answer the question of what we should do with our lives based on what we’re good at and how we can best add value to others
  20. help us connect with our dreams, including a vision of our ideal self, in the process invoking our energy and excitement for life

Developing our self-awareness is a necessary step in honoring our nature and becoming who we want to be instead of conforming to the desires of others. It’s also a necessary step in developing self-acceptance and self-compassion. Developing self-awareness also helps illuminate our “shadow side”—the parts of our personality that we don’t want to admit—which is a necessary part of human development.

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.

 

Why Self-Awareness Can Be So Hard

Organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich and her colleagues researched self-awareness via multiple investigations with nearly 5,000 participants. She describes their results as follows:

“…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.”

Why is this so hard? Several reasons.

We’re subject to all sorts of influences from our family and friends, and from our culture, that cause us to question who we are and pull us away from it. We’re confused by the cultural influences that don’t align with our own values. Sometimes, we end up defaulting to the values given to us by our parents, peers, or culture (e.g., values related to money or success) and rarely take the time for self-inquiry—or to consider the downsides of those values and whether there may be better alternatives.

It’s hard to admit our weaknesses and face them. Being self-aware often hurts, so we tend to avoid it. This is the work of our fragile ego in defense mode.

We’re used to hiding tender parts of ourselves when we don’t feel safe admitting or revealing who we really are. We fear harsh judgment by ourselves or others.

We’re too busy or overscheduled, so we don’t take time for reflection and introspection.

We tend to default to emotion-driven interpretations of events and encounters instead of pausing to reflect on our inner state and how we may have contributed to things.

We’re accustomed to leaping right into action instead of having the patience and humility to inquire into the deeper reasons for things and our self-sabotaging patterns.

We feel uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance between the messiness of reality and our perfectionistic tendencies. It’s too painful to look at our shortcomings, so we remain in denial.

 

How to Develop Self-Awareness

Clearly, developing self-awareness is difficult, for many reasons. But given all its powerful benefits, it’s worth our focused and ongoing attention.

So, how to develop self-awareness? Before answering that, we’re wise to ask: Awareness of what, exactly? What does self-awareness include? Ideally, it includes our life story, purpose, values, vision, strengths, passions, emotions, motivations, needs, desires, successes, curiosities, weaknesses, shadow sides, traps, vulnerabilities, and blind spots.

Given that, here are things we can do to facilitate greater self-awareness:

Develop a propensity for frequent self-reflection (1), including taking time to reflect on meetings or other encounters and their emotional wake. Also, pay attention to what we love and long for, and what makes us come alive. This requires a commitment to self-inquiry and an intentional discovery process (what I call “discover mode”), including listening to our inner voice.

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.”
-Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian minister, theologian, and writer

Seek input and guidance from family, friends, mentors, and coaches. Ask for honest feedback, including about our weaknesses and blind spots. At work, this should include “360-degree reviews.”

Convene a small group to facilitate deep conversations about meaningful things in members’ lives. Make sure the conversation includes self-reflection with input from the group, so participants have a chance to consider new insights in a safe environment and search for patterns.

“…inner work, though it’s a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter:
inner work can be helped along by community.”
-Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Try using the Johari Window. It’s a framework that helps us identify what’s known to ourselves (or not) and what’s known to others about us (or not). See the image below.

Source: Adobe Stock

For many of us, we don’t let many people see our true selves (limiting what shows up in the upper left “Arena” quadrant). Also, we may have several blind spots—things that are known by others about us that we’re not aware of (in the upper right quadrant). Consider writing down ten words that describe yourself (your main characteristics) and then having one or more people who know you well do the same for you. Then, compare the lists to see the extent of overlap on the different lists. One goal of this work is to get us to show more about ourselves to others, in the process shrinking how much of ourselves we hide or that remains unknown to others.

Journal intentionally, since it can help us reflect on our feelings and experiences, sometimes uncovering insights or patterns.

Take time for renewal and sanctuary, including daily restorative activities (e.g., gardening or yoga) and places or practices of peace that help us recenter our hearts. Without time for renewal and sanctuary, we’ll be too scattered and frazzled to maintain self-awareness.

Take assessments that facilitate our self-awareness and personal growth. Examples include:

 

Conclusion

Self-awareness is sometimes painful—like when we discover hard truths about how others see us or first learn about major blind spots. Still, it’s well worth it. Without self-awareness, we’re likely to fall into several traps—and perhaps remain in them unknowingly, blind to our unhappy predicament.

Developing self-awareness can help facilitate real growth and development—and sometimes breakthroughs. We can only grow and develop when we have the courage to admit the traps we’re in and acknowledge our shadow side.

As we commit or recommit to developing our self-awareness, we’re wise to consider where many people get it wrong and trip up. Here are three final cautions about this process of becoming more self-aware:

First, self-awareness isn’t only about introspection and talk. The real value comes when we take action in the world based on a high level of self-awareness, such as when we build our life and work around our strengths and find viable workarounds for our weaknesses and blind spots, like asking for help from people who are strong in those areas.

“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”
-Thomas Jefferson, former U.S. president

Second, self-awareness isn’t only about the self. It’s also about the self in the larger context of our lives, including our family, friends, community, work, convictions, and commitments. As Quaker teacher Douglas Steere wisely noted, the ancient question “Who am I?” inevitably leads to the question “Whose am I?”

Third, our identities aren’t fixed. We’re multifaceted and dynamic, so our self-awareness needs to keep up with the changes in our inner and outer lives. New challenges and changes will continue—both imposed on us and chosen by us—giving us opportunities for more depth and insight in our quest to know ourselves so we can live more fully and freely.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. How well do you know yourself, and how can you be sure?
  2. Do you keep falling into old traps and patterns that hold you back, indicating that you may have some blind spots?
  3. Are you asking for feedback regularly and truly being open 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

“How can man know himself? It is a dark, mysterious business…. It is also an agonizing, hazardous undertaking thus to dig into oneself, to climb down toughly and directly into the tunnels of one’s being…. Let the young soul survey its own life with a view of the following question: ‘What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?’ Assemble these revered objects in a row before you and perhaps they will reveal a law by their nature and their order: the fundamental law of your very self. Compare these objects, see how they complement, enlarge, outdo, transfigure one another; how they form a ladder on whose steps you have been climbing up to yourself so far….”
-Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher

 

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,” TEDxAsheville
  • Tasha Eurich, “Increase Your Self-Awareness with One Simple Fix,” TEDxMileHigh

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Self-Awareness

  • “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.” -Lao Tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher
  • “Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” -Epictetus, ancient Greek Stoic philosopher
  • “Full wise is he that can himself know.” -Chaucer, 14th century British storyteller
  • “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, scientist, and statesman
  • “The purpose of life seems to be to acquaint man with himself.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century American essayist
  • “…the world’s wisdom traditions offer a valuable secret. They teach that the unsettled mind comes about through one thing only: losing sight of who we really are…. The answer lies in finding out who you really are—a conscious agent who can choose, at any time, to live from the level of the true self.” -Deepak Chopra, spiritual teacher and author
  • “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” -Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • “Most folks go through most days on automatic pilot and don’t reflect upon it. When you say, ‘Why did I do that? What was that in service to inside of me? What old button, or issue, or agenda did that hit in me? When have I been here before?’ these are questions that begin to open up the mechanism working within each of us. And through that, you gain some greater sense of self-awareness. And with that, the potential for a great sense of freedom in how you live your life.” -James Hollis, quoted in Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
  • “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?’” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
  • “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
  • “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions…. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live—but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

(1) Caution: introspection is helpful but can sometimes lead us astray, especially when we use it to ask the wrong questions. Based on data from her research on the most self-aware people, organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich recommends asking ourselves “what” instead of “why” questions to improve the value of our introspection. The “why” questions (e.g., “Why do I feel so bad?”), she notes, often concern unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives, and our instincts about them are often wrong. What’s more, those “why” questions tend to invite negative thought patterns, including rumination. Better questions, she proposes, are “what” questions: “What are the situations that make me feel bad? What do they have in common? What are the patterns?” Those “what” questions are more likely to lead to productive insights. (Source: Tasha Eurich, “What Self-Awareness Really Is (And How to Cultivate It),” Harvard Business Review, January 4, 2018.)

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 leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). 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!

The Incredible Grounding Power of Self-Acceptance

The Incredible Grounding Power of Self-Acceptance

We humans just want to fit in. A big part of our sense of security comes from feeling accepted by the group.

But what about accepting ourselves? Many people struggle with self-acceptance. That means acceptance of all of our attributes, positive or negative. It means accepting our strengths and faults without judgment.

For us to enjoy life and thrive, we must learn to embrace all aspects of ourselves, not just the positive or admirable. We must get better at accepting our thoughts, feelings, intuitions, values, preferences, and actions. Can we acknowledge our faults, weaknesses, and mistakes without beating ourselves up over them?

Having a healthy level of self-acceptance means not caring too much about what others think about us and not needing others’ approval to feel good and whole. It means viewing ourselves as whole and not defining ourselves by struggles, conditions, diagnoses, labels, or limiting beliefs. And it means making peace with parts of ourselves that have been painful or that we’ve denied or repressed.

Unfortunately, we tend to be bad at this. Many of us are brutal self-critics.

How might our lives change for the better if we could learn to appreciate, respect, and love ourselves—unconditionally, and free of any qualifications?

 

Self-Acceptance Doesn’t Mean Settling

It’s important to note that accepting ourselves in this way doesn’t mean settling for less. It doesn’t mean that we call it quits and just accept whatever’s in front of us, or that we stop learning and growing. Not at all.

It does mean that we stop rejecting ourselves for having struggles or not being perfect. By accepting ourselves in full, we can find great comfort, relief, and security.

Accepting ourselves as we are today doesn’t mean we’ll be without the motivation to make changes or improvements that will make us more effective, or that will enrich our lives. It’s simply that this self-acceptance is in no way tied to such alterations. We don’t have to actually do anything to secure our self-acceptance:
We have only to change the way we look at ourselves.

-Dr. Leon F. Seltzer, PhD, author and clinical psychologist

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.

 

Where It Comes From

A lack of self-acceptance can come from many sources, often starting with childhood influences. Disapproving or overly critical parents may have given us the message that we’re somehow flawed—annoying, unruly, a hassle, too demanding, not smart enough, not attractive enough, etc. (Siblings, other relatives, teachers, coaches, or peers can reinforce this.) Overly critical parents can instill in us a bad habit of brutal self-criticism that echoes throughout our lives.

Our personality can also work against us when it comes to self-acceptance. For example, many people struggle with perfectionism. The assumption behind it is that the only route to self-acceptance is flawlessness—an impossible and self-defeating standard. Others struggle with “imposter syndrome” (the fear of people viewing us as a fraud or undeserving of our successes).

A dearth of self-acceptance can also come from living or working in an environment where diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are lacking. When we feel excluded by others, it’s harder to accept ourselves.

Our circumstances and experiences can contribute as well. Perhaps we got cut from the sports team or drama troupe in school, or we dropped out of school. Maybe we didn’t get promoted or make partner, or we got fired. Perhaps we’ve felt beaten down by divorce, bankruptcy, addiction, or trauma. Life can be painful and messy for all of us at times.

Surprisingly, many high-performers struggle with self-acceptance. In his book, Positive Intelligence, executive Shirzad Chamine notes that “hyper-achievers” depend on achievement for self-acceptance. He writes:

The Hyper-Achiever makes you dependent on constant performance and achievement for self-respect and self-validation. It keeps you focused mainly on external success rather than on internal criteria for happiness. It often leads to unsustainable workaholic tendencies and causes you to fall out of touch with deeper emotional and relationship needs. Its lie is that your self-acceptance should be conditional on performance and external validation.”
-Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence

Many people these days are needy—excessively attached to recognition, praise, or success, or to saving others—for self-acceptance. They have an excessive desire for affirmation or reassurance from others, making their happiness dependent and fleeting.

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.

 

The Problem with Lacking Self-Acceptance

Without self-acceptance, we can be trapped in self-doubt, self-judgment, or even self-hatred. The problem is when we turn the inherent messiness of our lives into an identity and start rejecting ourselves because of it. That can lead to many problems, including:

  • negative self-talk or even self-hatred
  • damage to our psychological wellbeing
  • reduced emotional control
  • lower confidence
  • avoidance of people or situations
  • relationship challenges
  • anxiety or depression

The effects of low self-acceptance are pervasive, potentially touching every aspect of our lives.

Without self-acceptance, people essentially devalue themselves and this often has a negative impact on all areas of their life, including their work, friends, family, health, and well-being.
-Dr. Meghan Marcum, PsyD, psychologist

 

The Benefits of Developing Self-Acceptance

What happens when we learn to accept ourselves as we are, not only with all our gifts and talents but also our faults and quirks? A healthy level of self-acceptance can help us:

  1. feel secure and free
  2. cultivate a sense of peace
  3. improve our wellbeing
  4. feel less compulsive and anxious
  5. protect our mood in the face of setbacks
  6. form a foundation for greater confidence
  7. develop better relationships
  8. build our capacity to distance ourselves from outside expectations and extrinsic motivations
  9. improve work performance
  10. boost happiness
Happiness and self-acceptance go hand in hand. Self-acceptance determines your level of happiness.
The more self-acceptance you have, the happier you allow yourself to be.
You will only be as happy as you feel you are worthy of being
.”

-Dr. Robert Holden, Happiness Now!

 

How to Develop Greater Self-Acceptance

Clearly, self-acceptance affects many areas of our lives, from mental health and wellbeing to relationships and work. So, how can we develop greater self-acceptance? There are many things we can do, including:

Re-examine our repeated self-criticisms and old feelings of guilt and shame. Interrogate them.

Delve into the things we don’t accept about ourselves—perhaps with the help of a therapist—and then bring understanding and compassion to them. Understanding and insight can sometimes bring welcome relief.

Forgive ourselves for mistakes we’ve made and resolve to move on, ideally focusing on the lessons we’ve learned from them.

Give ourselves permission to be imperfect, since we all have issues and faults. The point is to live life fully as who we truly are, not to pretend we’re some perfect being capable of existing without flaws and faults.

Replace our negative self-talk with positive self-talk, focusing on our capabilities and accomplishments.

Avoid self-blame and rumination on past grievances or suffering. Change the channel on those negative thoughts and tune into a more uplifting station.

Stop comparing ourselves to others, since little good comes of it and much harm can follow. Why? Because we lack visibility into the challenges of others while viewing their curated social media feeds. Also, it’s easy to compare our messy beginning with their more refined middle or end. We each have our own unique context that’s often vastly different from others.

Practice self-compassion. That means treating ourselves with warmth and understanding in difficult times—including instances of suffering, perceived inadequacy, or failure.

Identify, clarify, and embrace our personal core values. In the process, we’ll be strengthening our sense of identity and self-respect.

Spend more time with people who accept us as we are—and less time with those who don’t. Surround ourselves with people who believe in us, support us, embolden us, and bring out our best—including family, friends, colleagues, coaches, mentors, and small groups—while avoiding people who tear us down.

Try mindfulness meditation. Focus on observing our thoughts and feelings and then letting them go without judgment and attachment.

Keep a journal. Journaling can help us reflect on our experiences and feelings, understand them in new ways, and reframe them.

Upgrade our mindset by reframing our problems not as weights that bring us down but as puzzles to be solved, with all their challenge and mystery. Here we take our cue from Quincy Jones:

I don’t have problems. I have puzzles…. I can solve a puzzle. A problem just stresses me out.”
-Quincy Jones, record producer, songwriter, and composer

Seek help via a professional therapist or counselor. (Consider starting with any of these resources: BetterHelp, SonderMind, Befrienders Worldwide, 7cups.)

Many of the practices above relate to self-regulation—our ability to monitor and manage our energy states, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in positive ways (e.g., promoting wellbeing and healthy relationships).

 

Some Cautions

As we work on developing self-acceptance, we should avoid using accomplishment to bolster it, as that can make us dependent on factors outside of our control. If we can’t accept ourselves unless we’re successful, wealthy, or whatever, we’re missing the point.

We should also avoid focusing too much on ourselves and how we’re appearing and doing (e.g., Are we good enough? How do we stack up?). Instead, focus on contributing to others—our family, friends, colleagues, organization, community, and beyond. This will help us feel good and connect with people while having a positive impact.

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

Lacking self-acceptance can have devastating consequences in our life and work, while developing it can provide an incredible grounding power in so many aspects of our lives. It can facilitate relief, confidence, happiness, and success. It’s well worth developing and will serve us well in all we do.

Wishing you well with it.
Gregg

 

 

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent do you embrace all aspects of yourself with full self-acceptance?
  2. Do you struggle with negative self-talk or self-rejection?
  3. Are you willing to put in this foundational work to set yourself up for more enjoyment, happiness, and success?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Self-Acceptance

  • “Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years, and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” -Louise L. Hay, author
  • “You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.” -Amy Bloom, writer and psychotherapist
  • “All you need is already within you, only you must approach your self with reverence and love. Self-condemnation and self-distrust are grievous errors.” -Nisargadatta Maharaj, Indian guru
  • “Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.” -Lucille Ball, actress, comedian, and producer
  • “Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.’” -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). 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!

Setting Boundaries—Why It’s Hard and How to Do It

Article Summary: 

Setting boundaries is one of the hardest things for many people to do but it’s a powerful and empowering personal development practice. And costly if we don’t do it well. This article addresses why it’s hard, its benefits, and how to do it well.

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Boundaries are dividing lines that mark the limits of an area. If we pause to notice, we can see boundaries all around us. The boundary of our body. Our apartment walls or home and property line. State and national borders. The boundaries of sports. In soccer, it’s sidelines, penalty areas, goals, and goal posts. With basketball, it’s sidelines, free-throw lines, three-point lines, and more. In track and field, it’s running lanes. And in many sports, the clock serves as a time boundary, delineating quarters, periods, or halves, and perhaps overtime.

In life, setting boundaries is about identifying ways for others to behave towards us—and also setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. Our personal boundaries set a limit on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

We need boundaries to function effectively in and enjoy our life and work. They’re there for our protection and wellbeing, and they can give us a sense of control over our lives.

 

The Problem with Not Having Boundaries

Lack of boundaries can lead to many negative consequences, including:

  • negative emotions like anxiety, frustration, resentment
  • overcommitment and a sense of “time poverty” (“the chronic feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time to do them”)
  • overwork or workaholism
  • exhaustion and burnout
  • numbing behaviors (escaping from our thoughts and feelings by doing other things like shopping, eating, binge watching, or doom scrolling)
“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.”
-Brené Brown, researcher and author

 

Boundary Types and Examples

To understand boundaries, it helps to consider their different types and see examples of them in action. There are many different types of boundaries, including:

  1. Physical boundaries (e.g., whether we hug or shake hands with people we meet, what we do with our bodies, who we allow into our personal space and under what conditions)
  2. Emotional boundaries (e.g., whether we take on other people’s emotional burdens or allow their moods to change ours)
  3. Relationship boundaries (e.g., how we let others talk to or treat us, such as whether we tolerate disrespect, dishonesty, wasting our time, belittling, bullying, etc.)
  4. Privacy boundaries (e.g., deciding what personal information we choose to share and with whom, when, and where)
  5. Conversational boundaries (e.g., whether there are topics—like politics and religion—we choose not to discuss with certain people or in certain circumstances because they may be awkward, painful, volatile, or triggering)
  6. Work boundaries (e.g., whether we allow ourselves to get overcommitted, whether we take on the workloads of colleagues who are slacking, whether we work on weekends or check email on vacation)
  7. Self-care boundaries (e.g., whether we have good sleeping, eating, and exercise habits, whether we check our phones first thing in the morning and/or last thing before bed, how much time we spend on our devices)
  8. Ethical boundaries (e.g., whether we harm, deceive, or manipulate others, whether we look the other way or cover for people when they’re doing bad things)
  9. Financial boundaries (e.g., what to purchase, how much to spend, whether we choose to lend people money and, if so, who, when, how, and how much)
  10. Sexual boundaries (e.g., which kinds of intimate behaviors we’re comfortable with or not)

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.

 

Causes of Poor Boundaries

For many, it’s not easy to draw the line, say no, and enforce boundaries. It requires knowing our preferences and breaking points as well as being willing to assert our desires and needs.

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
-Brené Brown, researcher and author

Why is it hard? Many reasons, including that we may:

  • find it stressful and draining to have such awkward or difficult conversations, or feel guilty about asking for what we want or need
  • be afraid of harming our relationships
  • suffer from self-doubt or low self-esteem
  • fear of judgment
  • feel undeserving or unworthy
  • focus too much on others’ needs
  • care too much about what others think of us
  • struggle with perfectionism 
  • have people-pleasing tendencies
  • lack clarity about what we want and where we’re going, thus making it difficult to know where to draw the line to protect those priorities
  • not be in touch with our emotions and their causes (that is, not connecting the dots between our anxiety and people making us uncomfortable with certain behaviors)
  • have experienced previous boundary-crossing, betrayal, violence, or trauma, which can damage or destroy our self-esteem and make it harder for us to set boundaries
“People-pleasing is not who we are; we’re living a lie. So, if we don’t say yes authentically, we say it resentfully, fearfully, and avoidantly, and that leads to far more problems than if we’d just said no in the first place. Find your no, find yourself, find your joy.”
-Natalie Lue, author, The Joy of Saying No

 

The Benefits of Boundaries

Getting good at setting and enforcing boundaries can lead to big wins in our life and work, because it can affect so many things. Setting healthy boundaries can help us:

  • protect our personal space, safety, and energy
  • feel less anxiety, anger, frustration, and resentment
  • enhance our mental health and protect our emotional wellbeing
  • build and maintain a strong identity
  • develop greater self-respect and confidence
  • get clear on who we are, what we want, and our core values and belief systems
  • develop independence
  • grow as a person
  • protect our time and energy and thereby avoid burnout
  • manage our life, work, time, and relationships more effectively and with greater ease
  • develop and maintain healthy and positive relationships with mutual trust
  • earn respect from others
  • prevent relationship conflicts
  • positively influence others
“Setting emotional boundaries prevents people from manipulating you, using you, and playing with your feelings.”
-Remez Sasson, author

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.

 

 

How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries

We know it’s hard for many people to set and enforce boundaries. It’s easier said than done! So, how can we get better at it? Here are some effective approaches:

Recognize that setting and keeping boundaries can add great value to our lives. It’s well worth the effort, and it gets easier over time. Note all the benefits above and consider the personal empowerment and freedom they can bring.

Recognize that setting and keeping boundaries is not just good for us but for all involved because it creates clarity and mutual respect. It’s not an unreasonable or selfish endeavor. Far from it.

Evaluate our current boundaries (if we have any), including whether there are situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

Take an emotional inventory of potential boundary crossings, including the people we’re spending time with, the situations we’re in, and how they’re making us feel. This requires tapping into or further developing our self-awareness and emotional intelligence to help us gauge our comfort level. A little self-reflection goes a long way here.

Determine new boundaries and recommit to or update old boundaries, ideally informed by our core values and current goals and priorities. If we’re new to setting or enforcing boundaries, it may be wise to start small and build from there. The earlier we start, the better, so we can work through conversations and make adjustments before getting too far down the road.

Communicate boundaries clearly. In some cases, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I just can’t help with that,” or “I’m exhausted from a bunch of things lately so I can’t get together this week”). In other cases, we can leave it with a simple statement (“I can’t take that on,” “That doesn’t work for me”) or even just a straightforward “No.”

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

Be as consistent as possible in communicating and enforcing boundaries, lest others get confused or forget.

Work on developing our assertiveness, including self-advocacy and getting better at saying “no”—and saying it more often. For example, we can focus on saying no to:

  • requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or further our personal or professional priorities
  • spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, or excessive neediness
  • doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating to others) or overworking, in the process sacrificing our health and important relationships
“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, legendary investor

Strike a good balance between being kind but firm. We should work at being thoughtful and understanding while still clear and assertive. Sometimes, a little humor or levity can go a long way in dialing tensions down.

Get as clear as we can about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. Doing that allows us to set and enforce boundaries. Incidentally, if we’re doing a good job of protecting our boundaries, over time we’ll be filling more of our days with productive and enjoyable activities. In essence, we’re crowding out the bad stuff with the good stuff.

Set boundaries around our emotional commitment to others (e.g., avoiding the trap of feeling responsible for their choices or their happiness or outcomes).

Set boundaries on our work time. For example, set a weekly maximum number of hours and limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed.* It helps to plan ahead so we can use our time intentionally and effectively. And it helps to remember the “80/20 rule” (a.k.a., “Pareto Principle”), a power law distribution suggesting that about 80% of our results typically come from 20% of our efforts. So, we’re wise to determine and focus on our most productive tasks. (See the Appendix below for tools that support our time boundaries.)

 

Conclusion

Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done deal. As we do it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and rigid and when to make exceptions or changes based on new information or factors.

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 set and enforce boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we can experience within those bounds. It helps facilitate all the things we want to do and will allow, without having to worry about the stresses and resentment of being defensive and fighting back against potential incursions.

Having boundaries frees up our time and energy to live the life we want.

As we work through this process, we’re wise to recognize that, since people are so different, they’re likely to make different choices—and sometimes vastly different choices—about their boundaries. What boundaries work for one person may not work at all for others. So, we need to advocate for our own boundaries while also helping people advocate for their own—and respecting their choices even as we fight for ours.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Which boundaries are most important to you, and why?
  2. What boundaries are easier for you to set and enforce?
  3. Which boundaries do you struggle with, and why?
  4. Do those boundary struggles tend to involve certain people and/or certain situations, places, or times?
  5. What more will you do to set and enforce healthy boundaries, starting today?

 

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 Traps

 

Appendix: Tools that Help Protect Our Time

There are many tools that can help us protect our time. Here are several:

  1. Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, only moving to the next task after completing the current one.

  1. Eisenhower Decision Matrix (a.k.a., Urgent-Important Matrix): distinguish between tasks that are urgent (time-sensitive, demanding immediate attention) and important (contributing to our long-term purpose and vision), using a simple matrix.

  1. Warren Buffett’s Two Lists: write down our top 25 goals, then circle our five highest priorities from that longer list. From there, choose only to pursue the top five—“avoiding at all costs,” as Buffett says, working on the other 20.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “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
  • “Setting boundaries is a way of caring for myself. It doesn’t make me mean, selfish, or uncaring (just) because I don’t do things your way.” -Christine Morgan, psychotherapist
  • “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
  • “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
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

* According to a February 2023 Pew Research Center study, workers with postgraduate degrees and higher incomes were most likely to report that they regularly respond to work emails and messages outside of work hours.

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!

Time to Check the Path You’re On?

Article Summary: 

How to know if we’re on the wrong career path—or the wrong path in life? Is there a right path? How to decide and move forward?

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Sometimes in life we may wonder if we’re on the wrong path. Things can feel off. We may wonder if we’re pursuing a path that doesn’t align with who we are and our core values and aspirations. We can wonder if the path we’re on is taking us somewhere we want to go.

At the end of all our hard work, all our pursuit, what’s the destination we’re headed to? Is it a worthy one? Is it good and true? Does it represent our true nature, resonate with something deep inside us, and honor the life we’ve been given?

“What is the use of running when we are not on the right road?”
-German proverb

 

Are There “Right” Paths and “Wrong” Paths?

This notion of a “path,” of course, is a metaphor that represents our current direction—in work and in our life more broadly. Evaluating our path naturally raises questions about whether our path is right or wrong. Is that an accurate and helpful way to think about it?

Yes and no.

When we talk about a “right path,” we mean one that aligns with who we are and our core values and aspirations—one that’s taking us somewhere we believe to be good and worthy of our efforts. A “wrong path” doesn’t do those things.

In that sense, there are right and wrong paths. But in reality, things aren’t often so clear and binary.

There are no perfect paths, and there isn’t only one good or right path for us.

Also, we’re not bad, stupid, or behind if we haven’t figured out our path yet—or if we discover we may want to change course.

Life can be challenging, messy, and unclear. We may have changed as a person, causing us to want to head in new directions. And that’s okay.

What’s more, we’re all different. Some people want career advancement. Others want entrepreneurial venturing or creativity. Still others want flexibility and freedom, while some want balance or stability.

There’s a place in life for adventure. For wandering off the path and exploring.

We don’t always have choices about our work. Sometimes there are real constraints and barriers, so we have to keep our heads down and work in what’s available to support ourselves and our families. (We must also be honest and not conflate rationalizations with real needs.)

Here’s the key: it’s critical to stop walking sometimes and take a look around to see where we are and where we’re headed. Is our direction still a good and worthy one or is it time to change? The key is to be clear and intentional in choosing—and then brave and committed in moving forward.

Take the Traps Test

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

 

Signs We’re on the Wrong Path

Making a good assessment of the path we’re on can be difficult because we can be on autopilot and not even mindful of the path we’re on. (See the article, “Are You Sleepwalking through Life?”)

Sometimes our view is obstructed by the trees and branches around us, making it hard to see the big picture. And sometimes we’ve been walking a long way while looking only at the ground in front of us without gauging our location and direction. Do we still want to get to where we’re going?

Sometimes we’re reluctant to assess things because we sense that we’re not going to like the result.

“I had fallen into a life that was not what I wanted, and I couldn’t see any way to escape from it without tossing a live grenade into the carefully constructed world I had built…. Maybe I didn’t need to be defined by my achievements and how fast I could get there, but instead by what brought me joy and happiness and inspired my passions.”
-Alisha Fernandez Miranda, My What-If Year: A Memoir

How to know how we’re doing? Here are ten signs that we may be on the wrong path:

  1. Not liking our work or not feeling engaged and energized by it
  2. Regularly wishing we were doing something different and dreaming about working in other fields
  3. Longing to go back and make different decisions
  4. Missing fun and joy in our work
  5. Feeling that our work no longer has relevance, meaning, or significance
  6. Lacking enthusiasm and motivation for our current path and what we’re doing
  7. Living the success script of others
  8. Feeling our life is passing us by
  9. Feeling like we’re living someone else’s life—chasing the goals and dreams of others
  10. Envying people who have summoned the courage to travel their own authentic path (or “LIFE entrepreneurs”)

 

How We Got There

It’s common for people to find themselves on a wrong path—or to question the direction they’re headed. Life tends to have its twists and turns.

Here are some of the things that can get us off track:

Childhood programming. Some parents steer us heavily toward certain paths of their own preference. They may be trying to live vicariously through their children or viewing their children’s choices as a reflection of their own worth.

“…make no mistake about it, well-meaning people around you—friends, family, work associates, and others—
will push you to run someone else’s race.”

-Dr. Nicholas Pearce, professor, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management

People-pleasing. Maybe we put others’ needs or preferences ahead of our own when we chose our path. (See “People-Pleasing: Why We Do It and How to Stop It.”)

We’re often lacking important context when we make career decisions in our young adulthood. We don’t know what we don’t know. In fact, we think we know it all.

“Oh no! I just realized—I let a 20-year-old choose my husband and my career!”
-anonymous middle-aged woman in a career seminar cited in Douglas T. Hall, “The Protean Career”

We may have stumbled into career choices instead of choosing them deliberately. Maybe we didn’t have a good sense of our options. Or we made a panic choice because we needed money.

When we’re younger, it’s easier to adopt the values of our peers or of society instead of blazing our own path. Early in our career, we often make work decisions exclusively or mostly on compensation, but as we go through life we learn more and more about the importance of other things in addition to that: meaningful and engaging work, good managers and colleagues, autonomy, a chance to learn and grow, work-life balance, job security, and more. Early on, we tend to overweight the extrinsic factors and underweight the intrinsic ones. For many, the intrinsic factors become more important over time. The career ladder is also a social ladder of sorts, with all kinds of social comparisons built in, causing us to choose paths based on ego and status.

An impatient climb. Sometimes we’re so focused on climbing the career ladder as quickly as possible that we don’t take the time to consider which wall the ladder is up against.

Sometimes we make choices based on reasons that don’t hold up over time. For example, we choose based on comparison or a need to be viewed as successful. Or we’re in the trap of caring too much about what others think when making our own choices—or the trap of viewing life as a race and perhaps feeling behind.

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.

 

The Problem with Walking the Wrong Path

When we’re on a flawed path, we’re likely to be dissatisfied with our life or work. We may feel like we’re settling instead of going for what we really want—or like we’re playing small.

In the end, the biggest problem is that we’re very likely to feel pangs of regret when we look back if we don’t make changes.

“Growth is painful. Change is painful.
But nothing is as painful as staying stuck somewhere you don’t belong.”
-Mandy Hale

 

What to Do When Doubting the Path We’re On

Thankfully, there are many things we can do when we suspect we need a course correction:

Get perspective on the whole of our lives—including how our work fits in with the other important areas of our lives (like health, family, education, hobbies, and travel)—and the limited time we have to live them. (Consider taking this Quality of Life Assessment.)

Tempus fugit. (Time flies.)
Memento mori. (Remember that you will die.)

Question any beliefs about which path to take because of what others think, starting with our parents but also including friends and colleagues.

Press pause on being in “climbing mode” (striving to move up the ladder of success) and dive back into “discover mode” (learning about who we are and what we want to do in the world). Who are we? What are we good at? What do we get lost in? Who do we like to serve, and how? (See my TEDx talk on “Discover Mode” for more on this.)

We can know ourselves more deeply when we are clear about things like the following:

Spend time alone and tap into our deeper wisdom via reading and reflection. Clarify what happiness, success, and the good life are to us—without mindlessly accepting others’ definitions of them. Get clear about what we want and need out of our work.

Do a path check. Ask the following: Does my current path align well with who I am and who I’d like to be? Is it a good fit with my core values? Is my current path taking me closer to the life I want? Think not only about what we’ll do if we stay on our current path but also about who we’ll become. And who might we become if we blazed a new trail?

Determine why our current work isn’t a good fit at this point in our life. Where are the breakdowns? This can help us make improvements in our next chapter.

Recognize that we’re not likely to get epiphanies or clear directions. The way forward is likely to be unclear and challenging for a while. Account for that and give ourselves grace for it.

Recognize that logic and analysis will only take us so far. We should also engage our hearts and tap into our deeper wisdom.

Get input from people who have our back. Have open discussions with family and friends—and perhaps a mentor or coach. Consider joining a small group to air out tough issues in a safe environment of confidentiality and trust.

Get some distance from people in our current work environment and industry. This can help us gain perspective and different vantage points. And it can help us resist some of the social pressures holding us back.

“Change always starts with separation…. maintaining some degree of separation from the network of relationships that defined our former professional lives can be vital to our reinvention.”
-Dr. Herminia Ibarra, London Business School professor and expert on career transitions

Embrace our uniqueness—our interests, passions, preferences, and idiosyncrasies—as part of our identity and part of what’s valuable and precious in life.

Consider taking a sabbatical from our current work, if possible. A sabbatical is an extended period of time away from work, often for travel or study. The Sabbatical Project describes it as “a sacred human ritual for what you want to do differently in life—even if for just a little while.” It notes that sabbaticals can help address burnout and can spark profound changes in people that benefit not only themselves but also those around them.

Learn about and experiment with possible new paths via simple probes. Start with small steps. Be open and curious. There are many ways to run such probes, including research, conversations, volunteer work, consulting projects, internships, job rotations or shadowing, board service, “life design interviews” (asking people who are currently doing work that interests us to learn more about it), and more. Dr. Herminia Ibarra, a London Business School professor and expert on career change, notes that a “test-and-learn approach” is much more likely to be successful than a “plan-and-implement approach.”

Summon courage to change the path we’re on. Any such changes are likely to come with substantial internal and external resistance, so we’ll need to summon our courage to start and to persist through obstacles. Don’t let the fear of making a mistake or choosing poorly stop us from taking necessary actions. Expect a flood of terror and excitement in the process, not to mention confusion and doubt. It comes with the territory. (See my article, “Getting Good at Overcoming Fear.”)

Don’t think we need to get everything right from the outset. Our choices don’t have to be forever. Give ourselves room to try things, assess, and recalibrate. Our progress is likely to be halting for a while.

Don’t waste time and energy on blaming others for the path we’re on. Would we rather be happy about the path we’re on or have someone to blame for steering us astray? Our life choices are ours and ours alone.

Don’t believe it’s selfish to do what we want with our life. Far from it. What example are we setting for our children, friends, or family if we give up on our dreams?

Find someone who’s done a good job of changing career paths and ask them to share how they went about it and what they learned along the way. Sometimes it’s helpful to learn from others who have been on a similar journey with comparable influences and pressures.

Place our career choices in the larger context of what’s most important in our lives. For some, it’s all too easy to overweight the importance of work in our lives while losing sight of other important things like family, health, spiritual practices, and more.

Recognize that the further we get on a certain path, the harder it is to switch to a different one—and that it’s our ego that makes it harder. If we need a path change, it’s better to determine that as early as we can.

Take full responsibility for our lives and the decisions we make—as well as the impact we have on others. (See “The Power of Taking Full Responsibility for Your Life.”)

Enjoy the process of living, learning, growing, and serving. Don’t focus too much on the results we hope to achieve. Results are of course essential, but they’re not in our full control. Better to focus on what’s in our control and enjoy our journey as much as we can.

Recognize that we’re likely to have different preferences for paths at different phases of our life. Sometimes an old path has served its purpose and it’s time for a new one.

Pay attention to the clues that have been left for us in our lives—the signs and signals we’ve gotten from our passions and dreams. What fills us with energy, and what makes us feel most alive? Those are all pieces of the puzzle we can put together in our own unique way.

“What did you want to do when you were five years old?… Don’t give up on those visions you used to have, no matter how far-fetched and unrealistic they are. Investigate them…. A heart-centered desire could be hiding within even the most far-fetched of dreams. Maybe you said you wanted to be an astronaut, but maybe what you meant is the idea of exploring somewhere new fascinates you. Maybe you said you wanted to be a ballerina, but you were intrigued by the idea of putting more beauty into the world. Maybe you said you wanted to be a firefighter, but what you meant was you wanted to help people.”
-Haley Pace, “Before You Climb, Make Sure the Ladder is Placed to the Right Wall”

Identify the red threads in our work. What are the patterns we keep returning to? What projects engage us the most deeply? Which ones repel us? Which groups do we most like to interact with and serve?

Consider several new options. Don’t limit our consideration set to just one possible new path, as that’s far too limiting. In their book, Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans note that we should never select our first solution to any problem and that we tend to choose better when we have lots of good ideas to choose from.

Stop delaying action. Stop waiting for the perfect moment or perfect clarity. Get going. Think about what we’d do if we only had a year to live. What would we do then?

“For the past year, I had been waiting for something to happen, and it never did.
I was tired of waiting. It was time….”
-Warren Brown, lawyer turned entrepreneur

Consider that our most likely regret will revolve around not making changes, as opposed to attempting changes that may not work out as planned. Consider the cost of not taking action in our decision calculus. What’s the cost of our current course?

Pray or meditate for clarity and guidance. Meanwhile, have faith that we can find a good new path if we persist and take appropriate action over time.

“Chart your own course!… Your life is your art, and I am constantly working to create mine. My business is my passion.… I get so excited talking about it and helping women realize that you can leave a loveless full-time job and create the life you desire.” -Kimberly Wilson, yoga entrepreneur and author

 

Conclusion

In the end, there’s an important time element at work with these decisions. The past is past. The key question is where we are now and where we’re heading. Are we on a good and true path based on who we are, what we value most, and what kind of life we’d like to live, with whom, and how?

We’re sure to face resistance in making changes, but the real question is whether we want to bet on ourselves and a better future or stick with where we’re headed. And we must see that our path is not a solitary one. We must connect it with those we care about so we walk together, support each other, and help each other while having a positive impact in the world. Otherwise, it’s just a long and lonely road to nowhere.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you have doubts about the current path you’re on?
  2. If so, what are they?
  3. How long have you had them?
  4. Is it time for a path check—or for a start in a new direction?

 

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

  • Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (Harvard Business School Press, 2004).
  • Annie Duke, Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away (Portfolio, 2022).
  • Amy Porterfield, Two Weeks’ Notice: Find the Courage to Quit Your Job, Make More Money, Work Where You Want, and Change the World (Hay House, 2023).
  • Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions (Penguin Press, 2020).
  • Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

 

Postscript: Quotations on Our Path

  • “It’s better to fail trying to do what you really care about than to succeed at something else.” -Mark Albion
  • “…surely we can do better than having to look back on our lives and regret that we lived by someone else’s priorities.” -Greg McKeown, writer
  • “Some of us think that holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.” -Hermann Hesse
  • “Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable. You want to be able to do what you want to do in life.” -Janet Wojcicki, professor, University of California at San Francisco
  • “I lost a lot of time and wasted a lot of energy by running after achievements to validate myself. It was all about how many things I could have on my resume… trying to live up to others’ expectations of me. It was like living on junk food…. It took me sixty years to trust myself.” -Karin Weber
  • “The most freeing experience of my life thus far has been to… be unapologetically myself, and to stand in my own light.” -Hannah Rose, therapist and writer
  • “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” -Greg McKeown
  • “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” -Joseph Campbell
  • “The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short.” -Abraham Maslow
  • “The first step toward change is to refuse to be deployed by others and to choose to deploy yourself.” -Warren Bennis
  • “In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” -Warren Buffett, legendary investor
  • “There is a time of departure even when there’s no clear place to go.” -Tennessee Williams
  • “Humans are creatures of least resistance. We take the road most traveled, or the road best paved. So much of our behavior runs on autopilot.” -Aline Holzwarth, applied behavioral scientist
  • “Every worker needs to escape the wrong job.” -Peter Drucker, management expert
  • “…the sensible man considers his steps.” (Proverbs 14:15, New American Standard Bible)
  • “Don’t just climb the mountain because it’s there. Really think about whether that’s the mountain you want to climb.” -Kim Smith, entrepreneur
  • “She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.” -Mae West, actress, singer, and comedian
“Begin with the end in mind… It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busy-ness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall.” -Stephen R. Covey, leadership author and educator

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). 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!

The Trap of Workaholism–And What to Do About It

Article Summary: 

Everything you need to know about workaholism (work addiction): its prevalence, signs, causes, and costs—and how to overcome it.

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Many people today struggle with workaholism—being addicted to work and struggling to switch it off or stop thinking about it

Psychologist Wayne Oates coined the term “workaholism” in 1971 in his book, Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts About Work Addiction. He defined it as “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” In 2014, researchers C.S. Andreassen, J. Hetland, and S. Pallesen defined work addiction as “being overly concerned about work, to be driven by strong and uncontrollable work motivation, and to spend so much energy and effort into work that it impairs private relationships, spare-time activities, and/or health.”

According to researchers, work addiction has both a behavioral component (working long hours consistently) and a psychological component (being obsessed with work). It’s a serious problem for many.

 

A Cautionary Tale About Workaholism

Gerald Chertavian grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts with a strong work ethic. After business school, he moved to London to be with his fiancée. Following a frustrating first job experience there, he was approached with an opportunity to buy into a technology company on the verge of bankruptcy. They had precious little to go on, but he decided to go for it.

The challenges were fierce, but Gerald was committed. For years, he pushed and pushed, until one day it was too much. As he told us in an interview for LIFE Entrepreneurs:

“I looked over the side of my desk in London. It was 2 a.m. and I couldn’t see the ground. It was just black. I couldn’t even see the rug below me. It was like looking into the abyss.”
-Gerald Chertavian

This talented and vigorous young man early in his career could have worked himself to death. It was a stark wake-up call.

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 Value of Hard Work

Concerns about workaholism shouldn’t be equated with a critique of hard work. There’s incredible value in hard work (especially in smart hard work), from opportunities for learning and growth to success and wealth creation.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s another problem: sloth. Many people fall into the trap of not working hard enough and later come to regret it.

Aristotle famously wrote about the “golden mean” of virtue between two vices. So, between sloth and overwork, the golden mean is hard work—ideally work with purpose, passion, and impact. But that’s a far cry from work addiction.

Workaholism shouldn’t be conflated with hard work, a strong work ethic, dedication, conscientiousness, loving what we do, or occasionally working extra hard to complete an important task. These are all good. By contrast, workaholism takes us into the territory of preoccupation, compulsion, and addiction, with the associated loss of self-control and continuation of excessive work despite negative consequences.

If we love our work, that doesn’t mean we’re addicted to it. But if we’re a workaholic, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we work so much because we love it or because we need to when we actually don’t.

Workaholism is also not the same as having an overly demanding boss who piles way too much work on our plates—or as the excessive work sometimes demanded by startups, turnarounds, or crises. Work addiction, in short, is not the same as work overload. (That’s a different problem.)

 

The Prevalence of Workaholism

The prevalence of workaholism is hard to pin down because it’s hard to define precisely and even harder to measure. And even when it gets measured, there are challenges with getting nationally representative data sets.

Nonetheless, psychologists estimate that about 10% of Americans struggle with work addiction. Research from a nationally representative random sample in Norway using the Bergen Work Addiction Scale found that 8.3% of the population there struggles with work addiction.

These may not be huge percentages, but they add up to massive numbers of people. According to Zippia Research, 55% of Americans (55%) didn’t use all of their paid time off in 2022.

Researcher Brene Brown jokes that when they start having support meetings for workaholics, they’ll have to rent out football stadiums.

 

Signs of Workaholism

How to know if we struggle with workaholism? It comes with a number of telltale signs, including:

  • feeling preoccupied with work even outside normal working hours (we can’t stop thinking about it)
  • being the first one in the office and the last to leave
  • not taking a lunch break and other breaks
  • working often on weekends*
  • working more than is needed or expected of them
  • having a hard time stopping work
  • feeling physical and emotional distress when we’re not working, much like the withdrawal symptoms from other addictions
  • lacking margin in our lives and suffer from “time poverty” (an acute feeling of having too much to do and not enough time)
  • sacrificing time with our spouse/partner, children, and friends because we’re so consumed with work
  • suffering negative consequences from working so much, whether physically, relationally, or otherwise.

The Bergen Work Addiction Scale is a psychometrically validated assessment instrument developed by testing 12,000 Norwegian workers from 25 different industries. See the image below and consider doing a quick check.

Source: Clockify, https://clockify.me/workaholism-facts

According to the research, workaholics tend to be status-conscious, hyper-competitive, and achievement-oriented. They have high standards (e.g., must be the best) and tend to be self-critical. Often, they have a strong need for success and external validation.

Workaholics may also struggle with close relationships, vulnerability, and intimacy due to a fear of disclosing flaws. And they may neglect their inner life given their focus on external achievements.

Edward Hallowell writes in his book, Crazy Busy, that it can become a habit so entrenched that it makes you “a slave to a lifestyle you don’t like but you can’t escape.” According to Clockify, a company that helps organizations track how much time people spend working on tasks, the top ten traits of workaholics are the following:

Source: Clockify, https://clockify.me/workaholism-facts

Workaholism can show up in different ways. For some, it may be a standard compulsion that’s fairly consistent over time. For others, it gets progressively worse. And for others, it involves binge-working in fits and starts.

Some people are good at hiding their workaholism from others, knowing that it brings conflict or disappointment, so they sneak in work when others can’t see it.

According to researchers, workaholics often make things harder for themselves by placing more pressure on themselves, making their work more complicated than necessary, and hesitating to delegate work when possible or to seek social support when they’re struggling. They may also be attracted to high-pressure jobs with intense demands.

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.

 

Causes: Where Workaholism Comes From

Where does workaholism come from? Researchers have discovered several sources. Here are the main ones:

Childhood causes. Many workaholics grew up with overly demanding or overly protective parents. This can set up long-term behavioral patterns that can be difficult to escape.

Our identity. Author Stephen R. Covey noted that some people have a work-centered identity. (See my article, “Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?”)

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown notes that some people consider exhaustion a status symbol and view “productivity as self-worth.” Others have an achievement identity. Shirzad Chamine, best-selling author and chairman of the Coaches Training Institute, has identified what he calls a “hyper-achiever” as one of ten “saboteurs” that inhibit our effectiveness and enjoyment:

“The Hyper-Achiever makes you dependent on constant performance and achievement for self-respect and self-validation. It keeps you focused mainly on external success rather than on internal criteria for happiness. It often leads to unsustainable workaholic tendencies and causes you to fall out of touch with deeper emotional and relationship needs. Its lie is that your self-acceptance should be conditional on performance and external validation.”
-Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence

Emotional causes. If we feel guilty or anxious when we’re not working, it’s easy to numb those feelings by working incessantly. Some people suffer from “productivity guilt”—having a constant nagging feeling that we should be doing more.

Personality factors. Many workaholics struggle with perfectionism, neuroticism, or obsessive-compulsive tendencies. They may have a “Type A” personality characterized by ambition, aggressiveness, and intense achievement striving.

Running from pain. At a deeper level, workaholism is sometimes more about running away from something that running toward the glories of work. There may be great emotional pain, discomfort, shame, or trauma driving it.

“…workaholism is a surprisingly effective distraction from emotional and spiritual problems.”
-David Brooks, The Second Mountain

There’s an interesting question about the direction of causality here. It’s clear that workaholism can and often does lead to significant distress in our lives. But researchers have discovered that, for many people, workaholism is also a response to distress in their lives, such as emotional disturbance or anxiety. In other words, it’s caused by distress but also adds to distress, a double whammy.

“We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough,
the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”
-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

 Fear. Sometimes the compulsion to work and work comes from a place of fear—fear of not being enough or of disappointing people. Seen in this light, work addiction becomes a matter of overdoing things to avoid the things we’re afraid of (but too often doing damage in the process).

Motivational factors. If we’re highly motivated by extrinsic factors like financial or status rewards, we can tell ourselves that working all the time will bring us the satisfaction and happiness we crave. (See “The Most Common Myths About Happiness.”)

Cultural influences. Some organizations and even nations have a culture that lionizes work and achievement over other values. People living in different countries can have widely varying outlooks on the importance of work.

“American culture valorizes overwork, which makes it easy to slip into a mindset that can breed success addiction.”
-Arthur Brooks, From Strength to Strength

 

The Problem with Workaholism

Workaholism, like all addictions, can come with a high—sometimes devastating—cost. Here are some of the problems it can cause in different areas of our lives:

Workaholism can contribute to physical health problems, including:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • higher systolic blood pressure
  • insomnia

These are all serious problems. Notably, some languages now have words for “death from overwork” (karoshi in Japanese and guolaosi in Chinese).

It can also contribute to mental health problems, including:

  • higher levels of mental distress and emotional exhaustion
  • chronic stress
  • anxiety
  • depression

Workaholism can lead to relationship problems, including::

  • less time with family and friends
  • more work-family conflicts

Workaholism can have negative effects on our work, including:

  • more job stress
  • greater chance of burnout
  • lower job satisfaction
“Findings suggest that workaholism is related to negative outcomes such as increased job stress, work–life conflict, burnout, decreased job and life satisfaction, and poor physical and emotional/mental health…. workaholism was not related to higher levels of performance or job satisfaction; rather, it was related to many negative outcomes such as burnout, job stress, lower job satisfaction, and poorer emotional/mental and physical well-being.”
-Malissa Clark et al., “All Work and No Play?”

Researchers note that work addiction doesn’t necessarily lead to better performance. That makes sense because we’re all human and have limits. At some point, there are diminishing marginal returns for the extra work put in.

Workaholics may get a short-lived rush from completing an important project, but they quickly turn their attention to the next item on their to-do list, placing them squarely on the hedonic treadmill.

Workaholism also leads to lower life satisfaction and more life regrets. In her work as a palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware noted the top regrets of people who were in the process of dying. The second most common regret among her patients was this:

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

Her point here isn’t that hard work is bad in and of itself.

The problem is when we let our work crowd out so many other important things such as our health and close relationships with family and friends. By working too much, we’re optimizing for one aspect of our lives (our work) while harming other important aspects.

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.

 

The Secondary Effects of Workaholism

Unfortunately, the negative effects don’t stop there. There are also secondary effects of work addiction that spill over into other domains.

For starters, workaholism can lead to secondary addictions (e.g., to alcohol, drugs, pornography, etc.).

According to empirical research, work addiction is also related to poor family relationships, family dysfunction, and marital dissatisfaction. Writer John Eldredge likened it to having an affair with his work.

It can lead to neglecting children or missing family events and milestones (e.g., the birth of a child, sports tournaments, dance recitals, graduations). (See my article, “Five Words that Changed Me as a Parent.”)

Work addiction in parents can lead to problems with their children’s mental health. According to a 2022 study of 527 Lithuanian workers, “perceived work addiction of both mother and father was related to higher levels of work addiction of their adult child.”

And what are the opportunity costs of all these extra hours spent working instead of engaging in other worthy endeavors? For example, how can we take care of our aging parents and grandparents or struggling relatives if we’re so consumed with our work?

Also, our communities and nations suffer when many people are addicted to work. How can people find time to build community and participate actively as citizens when they’re working so much?

The physical exhaustion associated with work addiction can also lead to ethical lapses. According to former President Bill Clinton, “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.”

What’s more, workaholism may be contagious in some workplaces. According to researcher G. Spruell, “Workaholism practiced by even just one member of a work group can suck the spirit right out of the team” and can cause “destructive competitiveness among coworkers.” Overly demanding leaders can create a toxic culture of workaholism in their organization, leading to dissatisfaction, resentment, burnout, absenteeism, high turnover, lower performance, and great personal damage and regret among workers.

 

What to Do About Workaholism

Addressing the problem is difficult because many workaholics are in denial about their addiction (see “Self-Deception: Why We Do It and How to Stop It”)—and because many workplaces reward people for workaholic behavior.

“…work 16 hours a day, and you’ll probably get a promotion.”
-Arthur Brooks, “The Hidden Link between Workaholism and Mental Health”

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to address work addiction:

Track our time. Carefully log how we spend time for several days (or a week). Then go back and review which activities give us energy and a sense of meaning, versus which ones drain us or seem pointless. Consider whether the amount of time we’re spending working versus addressing other important priorities accurately reflects our core values.

Be brutally honest with ourselves. Stop avoiding and pretending. Decide to push past self-denial and face the reality and implications of our choices.

Ask those who know us best. Sometimes, it’s hard for us to see or admit but all too clear to others.

Set boundaries on our work time. Set a weekly maximum number of hours and limit email to certain hours, except under extraordinary circumstances. According to a February 2023 Pew Research Center study, workers with higher incomes and postgraduate degrees were most likely to say they regularly respond to work emails and messages outside of work hours. Though many people are rightly concerned about the exploitation of lower-income workers, it seems that many upper-income workers and managers are exploiting themselves.

Focus on only a few key priorities each day. Avoid the trap of being overly ambitious with expected accomplishments each day. That can set us up for a cycle of stress and overwork. Being realistic about daily and weekly accomplishments can help a lot. (Consider using the Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, and without moving to the next task until the current one is complete.)

Schedule important, non-work priorities. This can help make sure that other important priorities don’t get crowded out of our busy schedules.

Be intentional about time away from work. When we’re used to working hard, it can be easy to become unintentional and passive when we have free time. There’s nothing wrong with chilling out, but if we let it turn into mindless numbing with too much binge-watching or doom-scrolling, it will only make us more anxious and tired. Meanwhile, we’ll have lost important opportunities to connect with family and friends and to do fun things.

“Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing.”
-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist and author

Think about who we’re giving so much of our lives away to—and whether they’re worth it. In her article, “The Wages of Overwork,” writer and journalist Ann Helen Petersen writes, “Leaders are more than happy to exploit workers’ most anxious or engrained inclinations towards overwork.”

Make sure we’re giving enough time to the important people in our lives. According to research, our close relationships are the most important contributors to our happiness and quality of life.

Address the underlying issues that cause us to seek refuge in overwork. Do the inner work of discovering what’s causing us to engage in overwork and what we’re running from. These insights can give us clarity about the problem(s) we must address.

Be clear about our purpose and values. This helps us focus on what’s most important in our lives.

Develop good habits of recovery, renewal, and self-care such as:

Shift our focus from ego and personal achievement to connection with and service to others. Work addiction is often a selfish and lonely way of life. When we stay focused on connection and service, we can avoid getting trapped by our ego.

Remember our mortality. We will all die, and we don’t know when. Remembering this can help us determine what’s important in our lives right now.

Work with a therapist or join a support group (e.g., Workaholics Anonymous).

Regularly review how we’re doing in all the important areas of our lives. (See my Quality of Life Assessment—which you can set up for regular reminders.) By reviewing each area (e.g., family, health, friends, education, work, service, activities, finance), we can see which ones are neglected and problematic—and then take appropriate action.

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls… work, family, health, friends, and spirit. Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will never be the same.”
-Brian Dyson, former CEO, Coca-Cola Enterprises

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.

 

Coda: The Cautionary Tale

Remember Gerald starting into the abyss at 2 a.m. in his London office after years of overwork? Here’s what happened next:

“Right there, I realized that I wasn’t doing what I needed to do with my life. Then I went home and gave myself grades as a father, husband, friend, community member, and businessperson, and I only got one A—and the A was as a businessperson. I said that’s the last time in my life I’m going to look in the mirror and give myself those grades, period.”
-Gerald Chertavian**

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you suffering from or at risk of work addiction?
  2. How is it affecting your health, relationships, and quality of life?
  3. What will you do about it?
  4. Which of the above practices will you start with?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles & Traps to Workaholism

 

Postscript: Quotations on Workaholism

  • “If you think your busyness is some kind of prestige symbol, think again.” -Chris Brogan
  • “Busyness is not a marker of intelligence, importance, or success. Taken to an extreme, it is much more likely a marker of conformity or powerlessness or fear.” -Christine Carter
  • “You cannot be really first rate at your work if your work is all you are.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “Overwork sucks us into a negative spiral, causing our brains to slow down and compromising our emotional intelligence.” -Annie McKee, author and advisor to top leaders
  • “No matter how much value we produce today—whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets—it’s never enough. We run faster, stretch out our arms further, and stay at work longer and later. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a Sisyphean race we can never win.” -Tony Schwartz, journalist, author, founder, The Energy Project
  • “My worry was that I would become addicted to success. It’s a delicate and dangerous zone—the interface between success and significance—to get as much success as you can without getting captured by it, becoming its prisoner.” -Bob Buford, Half Time
  • “Every addiction arises from an unconscious refusal to face and move through your own pain. Every addiction starts with pain and ends with pain. That is why… there is so much unhappiness, so much pain… They bring out the pain and unhappiness that is already in you.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “Human beings have always employed an enormous amount of clever devices for running away from themselves, and the modern world is particularly rich in such stratagems. We can keep ourselves busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people, and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. More often than not we don’t want to know ourselves, don’t want to depend on ourselves, don’t want to live with ourselves. By middle life, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” -John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal

 

Sources:

  • Andreassen, C. S., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2014). Psychometric assessment of workaholism measures. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 29(1), 7–24.
  • Morkeviciute M., Endriulaitiene A. Understanding Work Addiction in Adult Children: The Effect of Addicted Parents and Work Motivation. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Sep 8;19(18):11279.
  • Spruell, G. 1987. Work fever. Training and Development Journal, 41: 41-45.

* We should note that in today’s economy, many people choose to work nontraditional hours, as opposed to the standard Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Of course, choosing to do so isn’t in and of itself a sign of work addiction.

** Gerald Chertavian and his team built that company, Conduit Communications, into one of Britain’s fastest growing companies, eventually having more than 130 workers in several countries and earning more than $18 million in annual revenues. Six years later they sold it for a significant return and made millionaires out of many of their colleagues in the process. He later founded YearUp, a national 501(c)3 workforce development organization committed to ensuring equitable access to economic opportunity, education, and justice for all young adults—no matter their background, income, or ZIP code.

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, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). 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!

The Trap of a Victim Mentality—And What to Do About It

Article Summary: 

What a victim mentality is, signs of it, where it comes from, its many costs, and what to do about it.

 +++

When we have a victim mentality, we believe that bad things we experience are the fault of others and will keep happening so there’s no point in changing. We may even feel that the world is against us.

Essentially, we identify ourselves as a helpless victim of negative circumstances. It’s a form of self-sabotage and often comes with an addiction to drama.

When we have a victim mentality, we have thoughts like the following:

Why me? (Again.)
Why can’t I ever catch a break?
Why did this happen to me?
Why didn’t they love me more?
Why don’t they call me more?

We wallow in our misery and feed on the neediness that comes with it.

“I am miserable therefore I am.”
Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries,
“Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?”

We should pause here and note that we all experience hardships and some people do go through terrible experiences, from war, poverty, disease, tragedy, and loss to violence, rape, assault, abuse, and more. Far too many people are victims of violence or crimes.

But there’s a difference between being a victim of such things and having a victim mentality. The mentality of victimhood can be strong regardless of the circumstances. With a victim mentality, someone can exaggerate the extent of harm done, misattribute it (e.g., taking neutral scenarios or ambiguous information and interpreting them as hostile), and/or add to the pain by ruminating on them or blowing them up. This can go on for years, or decades, or even a lifetime unless we break the cycle.

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” -Maya Angelou, poet and civil-rights activist

 

Signs of a Victim Mentality

How to identify the signs of a victim mentality? With a victim mentality, we’re likely to engage in several of the following behaviors:

  1. believe that bad things happen to us consistently
  2. feel sorry for ourselves
  3. believe that most aspects of our lives are negative and beyond our control
  4. feel powerless to make changes
  5. believe that others are generally more fortunate than we are
  6. feel repressed anger or self-pity
  7. focus on bad things and all we lack (what Dan Sullivan and Dr. Benjamin Hardy call being “in the gap”)
  8. feel frequently embattled
  9. put ourselves down often
  10. feel trapped in life
  11. take things personally
  12. feel defensive or even hypervigilant around others, expecting to be hurt
  13. often make choices that lead to pain or suffering
  14. blame others often
  15. ruminate over past events and negative feelings while holding grudges and resurrecting past sleights
  16. dwell on negative comparisons with others
  17. endure bad behavior or circumstances without doing anything about it
  18. refuse help when it’s offered—sometimes not even accepting that there may be a solution—perhaps getting defensive or feeling attacked when someone tries to help because it could undermine our victim identity
  19. keep finding and staying with people who treat us poorly—and sometimes rejecting people who treat us well
  20. make excuses and avoid responsibility for things
  21. have a hard time trusting people (including ourselves), sometimes being suspicious of their motives
  22. judge and criticize others in order to feel okay about ourselves—and often dividing people starkly into good or bad categories without gray zones
  23. jump to conclusions about others and cut them out of our lives in dramatic fashion without considering other sides of the story
  24. want our victimhood to be acknowledged and affirmed by others
  25. struggle to see the suffering of others
  26. distrust authority
  27. assume there are biases involved in keeping us down
  28. feel a sense of entitlement
  29. live in the past

“Whatever has happened to you in your past has no power over this present moment, because life is now.”
Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur and philanthropist

Unfortunately, a victim mentality can be contagious, and we can attract others who have a propensity to complain and blame.

 

Where It Comes From

A victim mentality can come from many sources. The most common source, according to many psychologists, is childhood. There are many possibilities here, from excessive criticism or having unmet needs to parents who railed about the injustice of life—and how we’re suckers if we trust others.

A victim mentality can be passed down for generations (and exploited by political campaigns and social medial algorithms). It can also originate from various forms of neglect or abuse.

“Many of these children harbor such deep anger toward their parents that they unconsciously desire to remain dysfunctional, as a way of getting back at them. Dysfunction is their way of showing their parents how they have messed up…. These children cannot see, let alone consciously accept, that they are now causing most of their own pain.”
-Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, “Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?”

A victim mentality can also arise from betrayal, in which people betray our trust (especially repeatedly), or from violence or trauma. These experiences can damage or destroy our self-esteem and make us passive, submissive, or unable to set appropriate boundaries.

The common denominator is significant inner pain and distress.

Take the Traps Test

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

 

 

Why People Do It

Why do people adopt a victim mentality? What are the underlying motivations at work? A victim mentality is a coping mechanism (often subconscious) in which we’re actually seeking validation or help from others, albeit in unproductive ways.

In many cases, it’s an attempt to gain attention, love, or approval. In victim mode, we enjoy the attention or sympathy we get from others. Psychologists call this “secondary gain,” a phenomenon in which there are some benefits associated with not resolving a problem, such as feeling pleasure when we receive attention or concern. And it can feel liberating to give up responsibility for addressing our problems by wallowing in victimhood.

We may harbor a subconscious desire to continue the pattern of victimhood because it can bring us attention and keep us in the center of a drama, thereby stroking our ego. Playing the victim can also be an attempt to manipulate people, sometimes coming from a narcissistic personality disorder.

Low self-worth can aggravate this mindset. We may blame ourselves for our predicament but lack the capacity to acknowledge or address it.

Fear is also a common denominator. When playing the victim, we may be able to avoid vulnerability and taking risks.

 

The Problem with a Victim Mentality

Clearly, there are many contributing factors. But it’s essential to understand that having a victim mentality comes with a hefty price, both in terms of our mental health and our life and work more broadly.

In terms of our mental health, having a victim mentality can:

  • drain our mental and emotional energy, leaving us with less strength and will to make improvements
  • lead to frustration, anger, resentment, bitterness, and helplessness
  • harm our mental and emotional wellbeing
  • be used as a justification for other maladaptive behaviors, including numbing behaviors like drinking or taking drugs
  • undermine our resilience, making us less equipped to deal well with tough situations in the future
  • increase our risk of anxiety and depression

In our life and work, having a victim mentality can:

  • lead to blaming others for our problems
  • make us want to withdraw from friends, family, and colleagues
  • result in self-pity and giving up
  • lead us to avoid challenges
  • reduce our sense of agency
  • prevent us from taking necessary actions
  • harm our relationships
  • lower our performance
  • become a vicious cycle in which we respond poorly to tough situations, only inviting more challenges and a sense of futility
  • become an entrenched identity in which our sense of victimhood is pervasive
“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

Ultimately, having a victim mentality doesn’t give us anything satisfying or worthwhile. And it backfires because it drives people away from us, leading to further isolation and loneliness, which are terrible for us.

Essentially, we’re feeling aggrieved about our lives while we keep shooting ourselves in the foot.

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.

 

 

The Victim Mentality in the Workplace

In the workplace, people with a victim mentality can negatively affect those around them. When a team has someone with such a mindset, it can:

  • make people defensive
  • damage relationships
  • prevent trust
  • hurt team morale
  • reduce productivity
  • be contagious, leading to a collective downward spiral

A victim mentality is not only an individual phenomenon but also a collective one, according to researchers, with groups falling into this mindset. That can be a daunting challenge for managers.

“…people with a victim mentality are very difficult to handle.”
-Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, “Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?”

 

How to Stop Playing the Victim

What to do about it? Psychologists note that we learn victimhood—it’s an acquired not inborn personality trait—and that we have the capacity to overcome it.

If we’ve experienced real trauma or abuse, it’s ideal to disclose it as early as possible to trusted family members, friends, or trained professionals, as that can lead to more support and quicker processing and healing. Beyond that first step, there are many things we can do to break this cycle:

Recall that we all experience negative emotions. The key is to avoid wallowing in them.

Develop a healthy view of ourselves and our capabilities—and build our confidence and assertiveness by preparing well for important projects and focusing on learning and developing as we go.

“…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?”

Stop ruminating on our problems and focus instead on something more positive (like what we’ve learned). (See my article, “What to Do About Overthinking, Rumination, and Worrying.”)

Catalog our strengths—including our knowledge, skills, and abilities—and brainstorm how we can use them to overcome our challenges.

Recall situations in which we’ve overcome adversity and challenges. We may be more resilient than we think.

Change our self-talk by analyzing and questioning our beliefs, disputing the idea that we’re a helpless victim. For example, we can ask whether our identity as a victim is true, and whether our current beliefs are useful or harmful to us.

Stop hanging out with people who are wallowing in victimhood. Spend more time with positive and proactive people.

Learn about the victim mentality and its consequences via books, articles, podcasts, videos, or conversations.

Realize that we still have agency even though life is sometimes unfair and comes with pain, loss, and heartache.

Be honest with ourselves and see a victim mentality for what it is: self-sabotage. Prepare to move beyond it.

Decide to let go of the victim mentality and choose to be happy and thrive.

Forgive others and ourselves and make peace with our past.

Take responsibility for the whole of our lives, regardless of whether we experienced anything unjust or unfair.

“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

Be kind and caring to others and find ways to serve them. By doing so, we’ll escape our unhealthy preoccupation with ourselves and our dramas.

“Constructive action is the opposite of victimized brooding.”
-Dr. Robert W. Firestone, clinical psychologist

Engage in regular self-care practices, such as:

  • Exercise, since it helps regulate the chemicals in our brain in ways that boost our mood and motivation
  • Good sleep and eating habits
  • Grounding and relaxation practices like yoga, meditation, or deep breathing
  • Avoidance of harmful ways of coping, such as numbing and substance abuse

Develop a gratitude practice. (See my article,The Trap of Not Being Grateful.”)

Recognize the patterns of when we feel like a victim. Recall the kinds of things that help us break these downward spirals.

Reach out to a therapist, counselor, or support hotline when needed. Options include:

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.

 

 

How to Help Others Stop Playing the Victim

What can we do if friends or colleagues are caught up in a victim mentality? There are many things we can do:

First, avoid judging them harshly. Keep in mind that they may have gone through great difficulties or even trauma that we’re not aware of. Don’t label them. Recall that being or feeling like a victim can be hard enough without labels and associated stigmas, not to mention blaming the victim.

Don’t play their grievance game. By listening attentively to their tales of woe, we’re enabling them, not helping them. Redirect the conversation to more productive territory. Set boundaries while still showing care and compassion.

Offer encouragement. Remind them of the things they’re good at and of the things they’ve accomplished previously.

Offer help with finding solutions. Ask them what they’d do if they had the power to fix things. Help them brainstorm ideas for making progress, starting small, such as with a short list of readily achievable steps they can start taking now. Help them realize they have the capacity to solve things. Avoid swooping in as the hero and fixing things or giving them answers.

“People dealing with individuals with a victim mindset should recognize that there is a difference between rescuing and helping.” -Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, “Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?”

Help them gain a larger perspective beyond their own challenges. It’s vital for them to realize that many others are in need or pain as well.

Manage expectations. Quick fixes are rare here. Help them avoid impatience in overcoming the victim mentality, which could lead to them giving up and feeling worse. Overcoming it can be especially challenging because for many it’s embedded deeply in their identity—and has been for a long time. It may be hard for them to see themselves clearly and honestly—and to make the needed changes.

 

Conclusion

A victim mentality can become debilitating if we let it.

Bad things happen to all of us, but we have a choice as to how we interpret them and what we do in response. That may not be easy or fair, but in the end our lives are what we make of them.

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

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Has a victim mentality crept into your mindset?
  2. How is it affecting your life, work, and mental health?
  3. What will you do about it, starting today?

 

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 on Avoiding Victimhood

  • “…an individual’s sense of personal control determines his fate.” -Dr. Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
  • “Apathy and depression are the prices we pay for having settled for and bought into our smallness. It’s what we get for having played the victim and allowed ourselves to be programmed.” -Dr. David R. Hawkins, Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender
  • “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
  • “…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.” -Victor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor
  • “The difference between the hero and the victim is the way they react to the pain they experience.” -Donald Miller, business executive and author
  • “…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?”
  • “While you can’t control your experiences, you can control your explanations.” -Dr. Martin Seligman, psychologist
  • “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” -Napoleon Hill
  • “Turn your wounds into wisdom.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “Self-pity is our worst enemy, and if we yield to it we never do anything wise in the world.” -Helen Keller
  • “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

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 leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). 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!

The Trap of Being Unrealistic

Many of us have fallen into the trap of being unrealistic—of being overly optimistic and downplaying the difficulties we’re likely to encounter.

This is not a new problem. In fact, it’s been documented across the ages. In the 5th century B.C., Thucydides, a Greek historian and Athenian general, wrote, “it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for.” Julius Caesar, a Roman general and emperor in the 1st century B.C., added, “Men willingly believe what they wish to be true.”

The idea of unrealistic optimism also famously goes back to German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. He wrote that we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire famously mocked Leibniz’s theory in his satirical novella, Candide. In that story, Professor Pangloss is teaching a young man named Candide that “all that is is for the best” in this, the “best of all possible worlds,” and “everything is right.” After witnessing and experiencing much suffering and misfortune, though, Candide eventually comes to his own conclusion that “we must cultivate our garden” and not rely on idealistic thinking.

 

Examples of Being Unrealistic

Examples of being unrealistic abound in our lives:

We may expect to be able to stick to a diet or exercise plan without having any setbacks.

In school, perhaps we expect to get good grades in all subjects—or to have everyone like us.

When it comes to relationships, we may think they should be easy or effortless, just like in the movies. Our partner should be willing to change to suit our needs.

At work, perhaps we presume we’ll have a great job with an excellent, caring boss and fun, supportive colleagues. Opportunities will appear, and we’ll get that raise or promotion.

When we start a new venture, we assume it will succeed despite the obstacles and long odds.

And when we retire, everything will be easy.

Of course, it’s possible to be realistic in one setting and unrealistic in another.

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 Problem with Being Unrealistic

When we’re being unrealistic, we get in our own way and set ourselves up for failure, frustration, and self-criticism. We diminish our happiness and strain our relationships, building resentment.

With unrealistic notions, we make poor decisions and cause ourselves more stress. We feel stupid or incompetent if we don’t achieve our goals.

Sometimes, the stakes are even higher. Indulging in unrealistic hopes can sometimes crush our spirit.

 

The Stockdale Paradox

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins told the harrowing story of James Stockdale, a U.S. Navy vice admiral and aviator officer held captive for more than seven years during the Vietnam War.

Admiral Stockdale was the highest-ranking U.S. military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp in Vietnam. He was tortured more than twenty times and had no rights, no release date, and no reason to believe he would survive or see his family again.

When Collins asked him how he survived such horrendous conditions, Admiral Stockdale replied, “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Collins then asked Stockdale which of his fellow prisoners didn’t make it out.

“The optimists,” Stockdale replied, “…they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

“This is a very important lesson,” Stockdale continued after pausing. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Collins famously called this the “Stockdale paradox.”

The key, it appears, is not blind faith and optimism or dreary resignation, but rather disciplined acknowledgement of reality accompanied by ultimate conviction and faith over the long haul with a commitment to overcome and endure. Without disciplined realism about the current state of affairs, we’re lost to false hope.

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.

 

 

Cognitive Biases that Impede Our Thinking

Unfortunately, striking this tricky balance is complicated by the way our brains are wired. Research from eminent psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, among many others, has shown that we humans have many cognitive biases—systematic errors in thinking that influence how we make decisions—which lead to distorted perceptions and faulty judgments. They occur automatically and unconsciously over a wide range of our thinking. Researchers have identified at least 58 cognitive biases and heuristics (mental shortcuts we use to make decisions).

Examples of cognitive biases related to being unrealistic include:

  • Optimism bias: our tendency to overestimate the likelihood of experiencing favorable events and to underestimate the likelihood of unfavorable ones.
  • Overconfidence bias: our tendency to overestimate our abilities.
  • Illusion of control: overestimating our ability to control events.
  • Planning fallacy: our tendency to underestimate the time, costs, and risks of future actions and to overestimate their benefits.
  • Positive illusion: our unrealistically favorable attitudes towards ourselves or those close to us.
  • Competition neglect: ignoring the likelihood of competitors undertaking the same venture we’re planning.
  • Confirmation bias: our tendency to favor information that confirms our beliefs or hypotheses.
  • Dunning–Kruger effect: when people with low ability at a certain task overestimate their ability at it.
“What we like to think of ourselves and what we really are rarely have much in common….”
-Stephen King, The Drawing of the Three

According to cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot, a whopping 80% of us have an optimism bias. Importantly, we’re oblivious to it. This can lead to problems in many areas, from planning, budgeting, saving, and insurance to our propensity to get medical checkups.

According to researchers, we tend to overestimate our positive attributes (e.g., competence, intelligence, attractiveness) and underestimate our negative ones (e.g., character flaws, mistakes). Some telling examples*:

  • The vast majority of us consider ourselves above average.
  • 70% of high school seniors believe their leadership skills are above average.
  • 25% of people believe they’re in the top 1% in their ability to get along with others.
  • 94% of college professors say they’re doing above-average work.

Researchers have found that there are many benefits of optimism, from better health, longevity, and moods to improved motivation, coping, and perseverance. But researcher and author Shawn Achor notes that “optimism become maladaptive when it causes us to grossly overestimate our current abilities.”

So, optimism is better than pessimism in most situations, but optimistic realism is better than blind optimism. We need to learn to be reasonably optimistic without drifting into the land of fantasy and naivete—without becoming unrealistic. How?

 

How to Escape the Trap of Being Unrealistic

Here are seven things we can do to avoid being unrealistic in our thinking:

  1. Clarify what our expectations are (best to write them down) and where they came from.
  2. Evaluate whether our expectations are appropriate.
  3. Take an inventory of the time, resources, energy, and motivation we have available. Assess our limits, noting that we don’t have unlimited resources.
  4. Recall that there are always external factors outside our control. Keep the focus on things we can control and bear in mind that things can change.
  5. Balance our high expectations with acknowledgment of risks and potential setbacks. Outline not just the best-case scenario but also the base-case and worst-case scenarios to ensure we have a fuller picture of the range of possible outcomes.
  6. Adjust expectations as we go, if needed, based on new information.
  7. Document how things turn out after the fact and compare them to our initial expectations to see if we’re being unrealistic regularly. This can help us calibrate our expectations going forward.

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.

 

 

How to Address Lack of Realism in the Workplace

Of course, being unrealistic isn’t just a problem for individuals. It’s also a problem for teams and organizations.

“For every one of our failures, we had spreadsheets that looked awesome.” -Scott Cook, co-founder, Intuit

Here are nine steps we can take to make teams and organizations more realistic:

  1. Balance the team with diversity and different viewpoints.
  2. Create a team culture that welcomes and even rewards tough questions, rigorous debate, and conscientious exploration of options, including “psychological safety.”
  3. Recruit and activate a diverse external network of advisers while noting the limits of the expertise of others and the risks of deferring too much to authority figures.
  4. Look at problems from many angles.
  5. Test ideas systematically—and proactively look for their potential weaknesses while remaining curious about information that doesn’t fit current assumptions.
  6. Beware of simple ideas and overly simplistic solutions.
  7. Be humble about the extent of our expertise.
  8. Seek information from other fields.
  9. Engage with people who disagree and be open and curious about their viewpoints.

Note: For an excellent resource, see Hans Rosling’s book, Factfulness (Flatiron Books, 2018).

Hans Rosling
“Everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong. Not only devastatingly wrong, but systematically wrong.” -Hans Rosling, Swedish physician, academic, and author

Kahneman notes that debiasing ourselves is very difficult: it’s much easier to train people to detect bias in others. So, it’s a big mistake to attempt this on our own. (See the Appendix for three techniques we can use to avoid the trap of being unrealistic.)

 

Conclusion

For decades, we’ve been hearing about the power of positive thinking. Optimists are lionized in many cultures, while pessimists are dismissed. These notions, it turns out, are only half right.

We do want optimism and positive thinking. They are, in fact, helpful. And setting high standards can be useful, as it can help motivate and inspire us.

But optimism and positive thinking are also dangerous in many cases. They do better when supplemented with a healthy dose of realism that acknowledges the actual facts on the ground and avoids the many tricks our brains play on us when we’re enamored with hope and possibility.

“Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground.” -Theodore Roosevelt

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you being unrealistic about some things in your life and work?
  2. To what extent have you fallen into the trap of being unrealistic?
  3. What will you do about it, starting today?

 

Related Articles

 

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.

 

 

Appendix: Three Ways to Inject More Realism into Our Teams

Managers can use the following techniques to help ensure their teams aren’t going off the deep end with excessive optimism:

I. “Pre-Mortem” session: instead of doing a “post-mortem” review after the fact, in a “pre-mortem” a team imagines that a project or new venture has failed, and then works backward to determine what could lead to the failure. The pre-mortem is effective because it rewards people for creatively finding flaws in the current plan before it’s too late. (Check out this video of Kahneman explaining the pre-mortem.)

II. “Kill-Thrill” session: This approach has two stages:

  • Kill”: Brainstorm all the challenges with the idea or proposal and the reasons why the venture may not work. In other words, “kill” it with criticism.
  • Thrill”: Next, brainstorm ideas for how to make the venture idea work, addressing the problems or risks noted earlier. Bring it back from the dead.

A version of this Kill-Thrill exercise has been used for a long time at Merck. Source: Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, Business Model Generation (John Wiley and Sons, 2009).

III. “Creative Abrasion”: In this approach, teams question each other and try to destroy each other’s ideas but are then asked to articulate the other side of the argument. Such friendly duels can sharpen thinking and lead to innovation. Bob Taylor used this technique successfully at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in the development of the ARPAnet, the network that became the basis for the Internet. Source: Walter Isaacson, The Innovators (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Being Appropriately Realistic

  • “Set realistic goals, keep re-evaluating, and be consistent.” -Venus Williams, tennis champion
  • “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” -William Arthur Ward, writer

* Sources: Chip and Dan Heath, Switch (Crown Business, 2010) and Adam Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (Penguin, 2016). Peter Borkenau and Anette Liebler, “Convergence of Stranger Ratings of Personality and Intelligence with Self-Ratings, Partner Ratings, and Measured Intelligence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65 (1993), 546-553. David Dunning et al., “Flawed Self-Assessment,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 5 (2004).

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). 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!