The Trap of Blaming Others

When things aren’t going your way, it may be tempting to deflect attention from your own role in things and blame others. Perhaps you’re blaming your spouse. Or boss. Perhaps you’re blaming a friend or colleague. Or the economy or inflation—or politicians, the media, or a rival political party. Your parents, or your circumstances.

Blaming may give you a feeling of satisfaction as you look outside for responsibility and wallow in the unfairness of it all. But that feeling is fleeting. In the meantime, you haven’t moved forward at all. In fact, you’ve moved backward.

No good comes from blame.”
– Kate Summers


Signs of Blaming

How to tell if you’re blaming others? When blaming, you’re likely:

  • holding others responsible for your own frustrations and problems
  • expecting others to change to suit your needs
  • showing defensiveness
  • causing emotional escalation with the person and issue at hand

It is far more useful to be aware of a single shortcoming in ourselves
than it is to be aware of a thousand in somebody else.
– Dalai Lama


The Problem with Blaming Others

kids blaming each other

Wherever you find a problem, you will usually find the finger-pointing of blame.
Society is addicted to playing the victim.”
– Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Though it may feel good in the moment, blaming comes with many problems:

  • Most importantly, it doesn’t work. You don’t move forward in any way, shape, or form when you’re blaming. (“The blame game is a waste of time. Any time you’re busy fixing blame, you’re wasting energy and not fixing the problem.” -Rick Warren)
  • It often backfires, making things worse.
  • Blaming robs you of your own agency.
  • It makes people defensive.
  • Blaming damages relationships. (People don’t like it at all when they’re the target of blaming.)
  • It reduces your productivity and effectiveness.
  • Blaming often entails lying—bending the truth to minimize or eliminate your own responsibility while exaggerating the fault of others. As such, it harms your credibility.
  • You suffer the most, not the person you’re blaming.
  • Blaming leads to escalation into bigger issues—especially when it’s unfair blame or blame that misses important contextual factors because you don’t have all the information you need.
  • You don’t learn from mistakes since you’re focused on the fault of others.
  • Blaming can lead to other negative emotions—such as anger, resentment, or even hatred or rage—which are even worse.
  • It can rob you of your potential influence on others.
  • Apparently, blaming can be contagious, leading others to fall into this trap as well in a downward spiral.

Blame is fascinating—it shapes our lives. It can be a benign way of positioning ourselves,
a gentle joust or banter, or it can be poisonous, hurtful, or devastating for its victims.
It can tear apart marriages and fracture work relationships;
it can disable major social programs; it can inflict damage on powerful corporations;
it can bring down governments; it can start wars and justify genocides
– Stephen Fineman, The Blame Business

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 You Blame

It’s natural and common to play the blame game. But that doesn’t mean it will serve you well. Your brain my subconsciously leap to blaming by default. What’s going on here?

Blaming is an odd combination of defense mechanism and attack strategy. You’re defending your precious ego by attacking another person with the assignment of fault. It’s a way to avoid or release negative emotions.

Blaming preserves your self-esteem by helping you avoid responsibility for mistakes. You want to be right and win the argument to protect your fragile ego. By blaming others, you feel like you can escape guilt and responsibility.

Blaming is also a form of social comparison, allowing you to feel superior and gifted with greater social status, at least in the situation at hand.

Also, blaming can come with perfectionism, giving us a way to maintain our illusion of perfection as we find fault in others instead of ourselves.


How to Avoid the Blame Game

So far in this article, you’ve seen what blaming is, the signs of blaming in action, the many problems with it, and why we do it so much.

But you can’t stop there. You need to know what to do about it—and what to do instead. Here are six top tips for avoiding the blame game:

  1. Stop ruminating on the problems at hand and turn your attention instead toward something more positive.
  2. Practice empathy and try to understand the context, motivations, and feelings of the other person. Work to account for the other person’s perspective. Ask questions and explore their perspective.
  3. Focus on finding a solution, not a scapegoat. In the end, that’s most important.
  4. Instead of assigning all the blame to another person, try a “50-50” split instead: assume equal responsibility for the problem, or at least joint responsibility. Ultimately, the allocation of blame matter much less than resolving the issues well.
  5. Focus on collaboration, not blame. Consider ways in which teaming up to address the issues may benefit you both and avoid unnecessary emotional potholes.
  6. Take full responsibility for your life, choices, behaviors, and outcomes, even if there are outside factors present (as there always are). It’s a powerful practice that will serve you well.

Final Thoughts

Though blaming is common and natural, don’t trade in it. It’s a trap. Blaming gets you nowhere fast and will even take you backward and cause damage. By avoiding the tram of blaming, you can improve your mental state, quality of life, relationships, leadership, and effectiveness.

It’s always easy to blame others. You can spend your entire life blaming the world,
but your successes or failures are entirely your own responsibility
– Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist


Reflection Questions

  1. Are you playing the blame game?
  2. Is it serve you well—or harming you?
  3. Which of the top tips for avoiding blame will you try, starting today?

Wishing you well with it.




Gregg Vanourek


Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding the Blame Trap

  • “When we blame, we give away our power.” – Greg Anderson
  • “To grow up is to stop putting blame on parents.” – Maya Angelou
  • “One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those who are not present. In doing so, we build the trust of those who are present.” – Stephen R. Covey
  • “You become a victim when you blame yourself or others for some problem or error.” – Jay Fiset, Reframe Your Blame, How to Be Personally Accountable
  • “A loss is not a failure until you make an excuse.” – Michael Jordan
  • “Blame is the demonstrated lack of self-respect choosing to deposit one’s negative actions onto others to reinforce one’s view of being of good, fair, and approved.” – Byron R. Pulsifer
  • “Stop the blame game. Stop! Stop looking out the window and look in the mirror!” – Eric Thomas
  • “Blame means shifting the responsibility for where you are onto someone or something else, rather than accepting responsibility for your role in the experience.” – Iyanla Vanzant

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!


The Benefits of Systematic Personal Development

Personal development entails efforts to improve yourself—to develop your potential and capabilities. With systematic personal development, you can improve nearly all aspects of your life.

“Personal development refers to activities that improve self-knowledge and identity, develop talents and potential, build human capital and employability, enhance quality of life, and contribute to the realization of dreams and aspirations.”Bob Aubrey, from Managing Your Aspirations

You can also leverage personal development to address challenges in your life, such as:

  • dullness and monotony in your days
  • unfulfilled dreams and ambitions
  • feeling stuck or uncertain about what’s next

Personal development involves both inner and outer work. And it can have mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual dimensions. It can involve learning and growing from various sources, including reading, courses, workshops, assessments, tools, and actions taken, perhaps with coaching and feedback. Ideally, it’s a lifelong practice. We’re never done learning, growing, and developing.


Benefits of Personal Development

When done well, personal development has many benefits. Through systematic personal development, you can:

  1. increase self-awareness
  2. get more clarity about who you are and what you want to do

“There are so many people who don’t know what they want. And I think that, in this world, that’s the only thing you have to know—exactly what you want.… Doing what you were born to do … That’s the way to be happy.” -Agnes Martin, painter

  1. improve health and wellness
  2. build confidence
  3. develop knowledge and skills (e.g., communication, interpersonal, and time management skills)
  4. discover your purpose, values, and passions
  5. determine and develop your strengths
  6. clarify and pursue your dreams and aspirations

  1. develop a growth mindset
  2. advance in your career
  3. increase your earnings and build wealth
  4. feel a sense of accomplishment as you grow in your capacities
  5. realize more of your potential and achieve more of your goals
  6. develop perseverance, resilience, and capacity to navigate change and uncertainty
  7. reduce stress and anxiety
  8. increase emotional intelligence
  9. improve relationships
  10. build your personal power (your ability to influence people and events)
  11. improve your leadership or prepare to launch an entrepreneurial venture
  12. increase your happiness, wellbeing, quality of life, and likelihood of success
  13. deepen your spirituality, if you’re so inclined
  14. be truer to yourself despite social pressures or external expectations


Personal Development Practices

Though it can vary widely by person and context, personal development practices often include:

  • identifying areas of your life you’d like to improve
  • analyzing what’s going well and not (which requires brutal honesty with yourself)
  • developing goals, strategies, and tactics
  • planning your time (i.e., your day, your week, your year: “Either you run the day or the day runs you.” -Jim Rohn)
  • prioritizing and focusing on the most important things
  • developing good habits and practices (e.g., a “golden hour rule” or a “morning miracle” in which you start your day early and invest the first hour in yourself, such as with reading, meditation, prayer, exercise, affirmations, and/or journaling).
  • creating and employing personal development plans and/or life design approaches
  • using timelines, deadlines, and action plans
  • assessing and measuring progress and adjusting as you go
  • working with an accountability partner
  • spending time with people who challenge you and make you better

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.


Final Thoughts

Done right, personal development isn’t a solo endeavor. It works much better when you engage with others (e.g., a coach, mentor, accountability partner, counselor, teacher, guide, manager, or group).

Recall that personal development includes both inner work (reflection) and outer work (action). You often learn, grow, and develop the most when you’re out there trying things and making mistakes. You’ll do much better when you’re action-oriented.

If you’re thinking that you’re already busy and that all this seems like a lot of work, a few thoughts:

First, note that it can begin with small and simple steps. Then, with progress, you gain momentum and start turning the flywheel.

Second, consider all you’re losing and missing by not investing in your development.

Third, when done right, it’s rewarding, energizing, and fun.

Reach out if I can help. Wishing you well with it.

Gregg Vanourek






Reflection Questions

  • Are you investing enough time and resources in systematic personal development?
  • What more will you do, starting today?


Resources on Personal Development


Related Concepts


Postscript: Inspirations on Personal Development

  • “Your level of success will seldom exceed your level of personal development, because success is something you attract by the person you become.” -Jim Rohn
  • “Growth is the great separator between those who succeed and those who do not. When I see a person beginning to separate themselves from the pack, it’s almost always due to personal growth.” -John Maxwell
  • “Taking charge of your own learning is a part of taking charge of your life, which is the sine qua non in becoming an integrated person.” -Warren Bennis
  • “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” -Paolo Coelho
  • “…your life gets better only after you get better.” -Hal Elrod
  • “Your action, what you do, depends on who you are. The quality of your action depends on the quality of your being…. So there is a link between doing and being. If you don’t succeed in being, you can’t succeed in doing.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
  • “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is in your daily routine.” -John Maxwell
  • “Look closely at the present you are constructing. It should look like the future you are dreaming.” -Alice Walker
  • “As you become more clear about who you really are, you’ll be better able to decide what is best for you—the first time around.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” -C.S. Lewis



Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

What Are You Avoiding?

Avoidance. We all do it, whether it’s keeping away from someone or not doing something. What are you avoiding?

Sometimes we change the subject when it drifts into awkward territory. Other times we talk around hard topics. Or we put off that tough task.

Avoidance is a coping mechanism. Sometimes it’s helpful. Like when we see a downed power line or a snake.

It’s an inheritance from our evolutionary biology. Our nervous system gives us powerful signals to avoid danger, thus increasing our chances of survival. Avoidance is natural.

Truly, there is nothing more common, routine, and human than
avoiding discomfort, uncertainty, or the potential of ‘bad news.‘”
– Dave Ursillo, author

But this coping mechanism can be overused and become maladaptive. We avoid too many things, too often. Things end up getting worse, not better.

We avoid too many things, too often.
Things end up getting worse, not better.

There are two types: cognitive avoidance (when we divert our thoughts away from something, as when we’re in denial) and behavioral avoidance (when we move to keep away from something, or when we avoid acting, as with procrastination).

We often deploy both types of avoidance in difficult situations, and we’re not fully conscious that we’re doing so. It can become programmed behavior.


What We Avoid

There are many things that we tend to avoid, including:

  • uncomfortable thoughts or feelings
  • pain
  • discomfort
  • conflict
  • uncertainty
  • difficult people
  • hard realities (e.g., problematic health diagnosis, unwanted breakup, not meeting performance expectations)
  • challenging tasks
  • difficult conversations (e.g., about money, problems, a poor performance review, death)

Our avoidance may make things easier now, but over time things can fester, making them much worse over time.


Why We Avoid

We avoid certain people or things for many reasons, from biological to psychological and social. Here are some of the main reasons:

  • It feels easier to avoid certain things than to deal with them.
  • Sometimes avoiding something hard feels like a better choice than acting and possibly failing.
  • We feel afraid of certain things (like inadequacy, looking bad, imperfection, disappointment, shame, embarrassment, failure), so we avoid them.
  • When we avoid someone troubling or something difficult, we sometimes believe we can avoid the stress and anxiety associated with it.

Most of these reasons and beliefs don’t hold up under scrutiny.

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 Avoidance

Avoidance is the best short-term strategy to escape conflict,
and the best long-term strategy to ensure suffering.”
-Brendon Burchard, best-selling author

Here are some of the main problems with avoidance. It:

  • leaves the core problem(s) unaddressed
  • can aggravate anxiety because we’ve allowed things to deteriorate further
  • can be very frustrating to others (e.g., spouse or partner), and make things worse for them too
  • leads to new conflicts
  • becomes a vicious circle, leading to more avoidance and attendant problems
  • can become a way of life, a bad habit pattern
  • undermines us by taking away our power and agency
  • can feed and validate the fears that we were trying to avoid, making it self-defeating
  • may lead to numbing behaviors like drinking, overeating, over-exercising, binge-watching, overwork, and more
What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”
– Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist


How to Stop Avoiding

So what to do about it?

First, note that, in some situations (like the end of an important relationship or work project), we do in fact need time and space to heal. It’s not avoidance to give ourselves room for that.

Here are 14 strategies for how we can reduce or stop maladaptive avoidance:

  • Recognize our avoidance behaviors—but without beating ourselves up over them
  • Seek their root causes (continue asking why until there’s no deeper why)
  • Engage in relaxation and self-care activities such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, gardening, art, or journaling
  • Get support from a friend, mentor, therapist, and/or coach
  • Process emotions by talking them through with someone or journaling
  • Divide the problem into smaller, more manageable chunks
  • Start with an easy task to get momentum and small wins
  • Give ourselves motivations, such as rewards for accomplishing tasks
  • Reframe a situation to note the positives and avoid focusing only on the negatives
  • Change our inner monologue, quieting the negative self-talk
  • Practice communication skills, including assertive self-advocacy and what author Susan Scott calls “fierce conversations
  • Set deadlines and goals to commit to action by a certain time
  • Build action and proactivity habits, training our brain and helping us become a “doer” (see my article on “The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented and books like The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits)
  • Recognize that doing something we’ve been avoiding can feel amazing, giving us a sense of agency, accomplishment, momentum, and confidence


Final Thoughts

We’ve seen here that avoidance, while natural, can make things much worse. It can lead to frustration, anxiety, new conflicts, bad habits, numbing behaviors, and a loss of confidence and agency.

Much better, then, to work at recognizing our avoidance tendencies and systematically eliminating them. The problems won’t go away on their own, so why not deal with them directly?


Reflection Questions

  • What have you been avoiding lately?
  • Are there deeper issues underlying your avoidance?
  • Which of the 14 strategies for reducing or stopping avoidance will you try?

Wishing you well with it!




Gregg Vanourek


Postscript: Inspirations on Avoidance and Action

  • “Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape.” – Alice Boyes, PhD, author, The Anxiety Toolkit
  • “It is not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true thing in your daily life. Rather, the problem is avoidance. You want to feel comfortable so you avoid doing or saying the thing that will evoke fear and other difficult emotions. Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run but, it will never make you less afraid.” – Dr. Harriet Lerner
  • “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” – Dale Carnegie
  • “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” – Amelia Earhart
  • “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” – Meister Eckhart
  • “Do not wait; the time will never be ‘just right.’ Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.” – Napolean Hill


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Common Traps of Living: Which Are You In?

face and hands being buried

We all want a good life. To be healthy and happy. We want to love and be loved. To have experiences, enjoy comforts, and do certain things before we die.

All well and good. But too often we focus on what to do to get the things we want in life—and not enough on what not to do.

That’s where the common traps of living come in—the things that inhibit us from leading the life we want.

We all fall into traps in life. All of us. Moms. Dads. Leaders. Professionals. Interns. Students. Retirees. Geniuses. Dopes.

We all fall into traps in life.

Photo by Christopher Windus on Unsplash
photo by Christopher Windus on Unsplash

The point is not to beat ourselves up for not living perfectly. Nobody does.

Rather, the point is to recognize the traps we’re in—and get busy climbing out. Too often, we go through long stretches of our lives caught in several of these traps, yet pretending like all is well when it’s not. The sooner we address them, the better.

Common Traps of Living

Below are 22 common traps of living, based on my research and work with people in the U.S. and many different countries. As you read through them, note which ones have affected you.

  1. Clarity (lacking): being uncertain about your purpose, values, vision, aspirations, goals, or priorities.
  2. Climbing Mode: focusing so much on moving up the success ladder that you lose touch with other important things (like health or relationships).
  3. Comparing: measuring yourself against others and judging your worth by how you stack up.
  4. Conforming: following the crowd and fitting in with social conventions instead of blazing your own path.
  5. Disease of More: focusing on accumulating ever-more things, money, or accomplishments to try to be happy.
  6. Drifting: getting carried along by the current of outside influences instead of steering to where you want to go.
  7. Fear: holding back or not trying important things due to fears about failure or threats to image.
  8. Feeling Behind: feeling that others are racing ahead of you with more clarity or success.
  9. Golden Handcuffs: feeling chained to a job you don’t like due to the money, security, or prestige.
  10. Identity: having your sense of self wrapped up too much in work or how you’re perceived by others.
  11. Limiting Beliefs: mindsets about yourself that hold you back (e.g., that you’re not smart or good enough).
  12. Losing Yourself: feeling consumed by events or others’ priorities, surrendering your agency, initiative, or sense of self.
  13. Margin: always being “on” and running from task to task without downtime.
  14. Negative Self-Talk: inner dialogue that makes you feel flawed, unacceptable, or not enough.
  15. Perfectionism: setting unrealistic expectations for yourself or others or needing things to be flawless.
  16. Postponing: deferring plans or dreams because it’s not practical or “the right time.”
  17. Pretending: wearing a mask for others and impersonating someone you think is more appealing.
  18. Responsibility: not being fully accountable for your choices, behaviors, and results.
  19. Self-Deception: hiding the truth from yourself about your true feelings, motives, or circumstances.
  20. Self-Doubt: lacking confidence or questioning your capabilities and potential.
  21. Settling: accepting significantly less than what you want or deserve.
  22. Short Game: failing to invest in the future and deciding important things without considering the long term.

Which traps have you fallen into? Are there any which are particularly pressing now?

Photo by Tom Chrostek on Unsplash
Photo by Tom Chrostek on Unsplash

While this is a long list of common traps, there are many more. I’ve identified about sixty traps that inhibit us from leading the life we want.

See my new Traps Test to find out your top traps—and then get to work on climbing out of them.

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.


Reflection Questions

  • What are your top traps?
  • And what will you do about them, starting today?

P.S. – This always works best when you talk it through openly with others. We all fall into traps in life. We all have work to do. So get busy with the important work of intentional personal development. Reach out if you think I may be able to help.







Postscript: Inspirations on Traps of Living

  • “We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” -Ernest Hemingway
  • “In school we learn that mistakes are bad, and we are punished for making them. Yet, if you look at the way humans are designed to learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we never fell down, we would never walk.” –Robert T. Kiyosaki, Rich Dad, Poor Dad
  • “There is more to learn from mistakes than from successes.” –Richard Branson, entrepreneur
  • “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “It was one thing to make a mistake; it was another thing to keep making it.” –Jodi Picoult, Handle with Care
  • “Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.” –Brandon Mull, Fablehaven
  • “Being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.” –Bryan Stevenson, social justice activist

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

What Are Your Leadership Derailers?

Here’s the thing: we all want to be better leaders.

But too often we focus on what to do as leaders while neglecting what not to do.

That’s where leadership derailers come in—the things that take us off track and inhibit our leadership effectiveness. If we want to be good leaders, we must be aware of our derailers and begin working on them.

“Most books about leadership tell us what a person ought to do to become effective and powerful. Few tell us what to avoid. But the latter may be even more valuable because many people on the road to success are tripped up by their mistakes and weaknesses.”David Gergen, political commentator and senior advisor to four U.S. presidents, from his book, Eyewitness to Power

10 Common Leadership Derailers

Here are ten common derailers, based on my research and work with leaders from many different industries, sectors, countries, and stages of career development:

  1. Avoidance: avoiding difficult tasks, situations, or conflicts.
  2. Burnout: becoming run-down and feeling exhausted, often due to lack of self-care.
  3. Bottleneck: feeling you must make all decisions or taking on too much work yourself, causing delays.
  4. Delegation: not entrusting tasks to others sufficiently, leading to reduced motivation.
  5. Feedback: not providing feedback well or often enough, or not soliciting it enough or receiving it well.
  6. Insecurity: lacking confidence about leading or feeling unqualified to lead; being unassertive.
  7. Perfectionism: setting unrealistic expectations for yourself or others; needing things to be flawless.
  8. Procrastination: putting things off until later or the last minute.
  9. Short Game: failing to invest in the future and deciding important things without considering the long term.
  10. Workaholism: being addicted to work and struggling to switch it off or stop thinking about it.

While these are common derailers, there are many more. In fact, I’ve identified more than sixty derailers that inhibit leadership effectiveness.

What are your top leadership derailers? And what will you do about them?

See our new Leadership Derailers Assessment to find out—and then get to work on improving your leadership.


Reflection Questions

  • What do you struggle with as a leader?
  • What will you do about it, starting today?
  • Who will you ask for help?

This always works best when colleagues openly discuss it together. We all have derailers. We all have work to do. So get real. And get busy with the important work of intentional leadership development. Reach out if you think I may be able to help.




Postscript: Inspirations on Leadership Derailers

  • “Instead of learning from other people’s success, learn from their mistakes. Most of the people who fail share common reasons, whereas success can be attributed to various different kinds of reasons.” –Jack Ma, Chinese entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist


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

Changing Careers? Avoid These Common Mistakes

Are you happy with your work? Do you love what you do, or at least enjoy it a fair amount of time? Do you often find yourself wondering, should I stay or should go? Many people have been asking these questions—even more so during the pandemic and its “Great Resignation”—and answering them with a job or career change. What are the most common career change mistakes?


Job or Career

First, let’s distinguish between a job and a career.

  • A job is work you perform to earn money. It can be full- or part-time, and short- or long-term.
  • A career, by contrast, can be thought of in two ways. First, it’s a period of time spent in a job or profession, with people usually holding many jobs over their career. Second, it’s an occupation you carry on for a significant period of your life (for some, their entire time in the workplace), often with opportunities for progress and advancement.

It’s usually easier to change jobs in the same field of work (e.g., nursing or marketing). Switching careers is much more difficult and may require going back to school or starting over.


The Top Career Change Mistakes

When thinking about or pursuing a career change, we tend to make many mistakes. Here are the most common mistakes:


Not getting clarity first.

The mistake here is neglecting the inner work of getting clear about your purpose, values, vision, passions, strengths, aspirations, and preferences. It’s not taking the time for reflection about the sources of your discontent.


Not mining your personal history and story.

Are you looking backward a bit so that what’s come before can inform your current choices? Reflecting on the patterns of your life and work can give you clues about who you are, what you love, and what value you can add to organizations.


Not working in parallel on the possibility of improving your current career.

By all means explore new options. But don’t give up too soon on improving your current situation. And don’t be too timid about trying new ways of working. If you may be leaving soon anyway, why not take some chances and see if you can make important changes?


Leaping without looking.

The mistake here is not doing your homework and digging deeply enough on your alternatives. Be sure to scrutinize your options and gather data on them—ideally with some hands-on projects—before diving in. Otherwise, you risk a rude awakening that your new career may also have major drawbacks for you.


Rushing into a new career because you hate your job.

This is problematic because sometimes there are particularities of a job, such as a bad manager or a toxic culture, which you could solve with an organizational change, not a career change.

“Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called EVERYBODY and they meet at the bar.” George Carlin


Leaping without a safety net.

When you leap without cash reserves for a reasonable amount of time, it may work out. But it may not. As you get closer to drawing down your reserves, you may get desperate and take something that’s far from ideal—or even worse than what you left. According to a 2021 McKinsey survey, 40 percent of U.S. workers who left their job did so without a new one (higher than other countries in the sample).


Going it alone and neglecting your network.

Navigating a career change is a big deal, with many challenges large and small. So it’s a big mistake to try to figure it all out on your own. Your network may be able to help in important and even unexpected ways. There are opportunities that people in your network know about that you couldn’t, as well as experiences and insights they have which they could share with you. But only if you reach out. A related mistake: not tapping a mentor or career coach to provide perspective and guidance. And not leaning on a small group to provide support.


Expecting your existing network to be adequate.

A successful career change often requires new people and perspectives from different industries. There may be subtle ways in which your current network is holding you back from making changes. An example: the social pressure you may feel based on your identity in that industry, with your existing level of success. That success can trap you and prevent you from making necessary changes.

“Don’t just focus on the work. Find people who are what you want to be and who can provide support for the transition. But don’t expect to find them in your same old social circles. Break out of your established network. Branch out.”Herminia Ibarra


Taking too much direction from others.

Yes, you want to get input from others. Particularly those who have your best interests at heart, and those who have important connections, experiences, or perspectives. But recall that their preferences and perspectives are different from yours. Maybe they want different things for you—or they don’t see clearly what fills you up and what drains you.


Overweighting compensation as a consideration.

Sure, money is important. We earn it for our basic needs, and to enjoy comfort and enriching opportunities, if we’re so fortunate. And to give back or make an impact. But don’t neglect the important non-financial compensation that can come from work such as growth, community, and fulfillment. Don’t underweight other important variables, such as fit with values, interests, and strengths.

Salary and bonus are readily quantifiable, but happiness, self-respect, and values alignment are harder to pin down but also essential. Too often, people use money as a scorecard to measure success or status, as if all that matters is salary and wealth (and not health, relationships, growth, contribution, and more).

“Work can provide the opportunity for spiritual and personal, as well as financial, growth. If it doesn’t, we are wasting far too much of our lives on it.”James A. Autry


Assuming you must go back to school.

Yes, sometimes you need a degree or credential to make a successful career change. But not always. At some point, real-world experience, street smarts, and valuable skills and mindsets more than make up for the lack of a degree. In many cases, a degree will impart academic knowledge but not prepare you fully for the requirements of the new career. So be sure to look into this before making the investment of time and money.


Assuming your degree determines your career.

According to Bill Burnett and Dave Evans in their great book, Designing Your Life, about three-quarters of U.S. college graduates don’t end up working in a career related to their majors. There are tons of wildly successful business CEOs who got liberal arts degrees, from Howard Schultz (Starbucks) and Andrea Jung (Avon) to Michael Eisner (Disney) and John Mackey (Whole Foods). Singer Carrie Underwood studied mass communications. Actress Eva Longoria studied kinesiology. Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin studied Greek and Latin. Higher education is mostly for learning and growing, not pigeonholing us.


Thinking and planning too much, and not taking enough action.

The mistake here is “analysis paralysis.” Career change expert Herminia Ibarra says it well: “Act your way into a new way of thinking and being. You cannot discover yourself by introspection. Start by changing what you do. Try different paths. Take action, and then use the feedback from your actions to figure out what you think, feel, and want. Don’t try to analyze or plan your way into a new career.”


Doubting your skills and abilities.

Changing careers feels scary, in part because of all the unknowns. You begin to doubt your skills and abilities, assuming you’re so far behind others in that field, when it’s more likely that you have many transferrable skills and abilities. And that being an outsider can be a tremendous asset (e.g., in terms of the objectivity and innovation).


Playing it too safe.

If you’re taking on the daunting challenges of career change, why not “shoot the moon” and go for what you really want? Otherwise, what’s the point of it all? You never know what may come of your courage and efforts.


Narrowing your options too quickly.

Since it can be overwhelming to consider many possibilities, you may be tempted to narrow your options quickly. There’s a balance here. Yes, there’s a danger of option overwhelm (famously explained by Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice), but there’s also a big risk of missing good options by excluding them prematurely. You generally make better choices when you have lots of good options to choose from, so be sure to ideate openly first before analyzing and narrowing.


Thinking it’s too late.

You may dismiss opportunities because you think it’s too late. That can be a big mistake. You never know until you try, and you may have just the right skill set or mindset for the new career. According to surveys, one of the top barriers to career change is a concern about being too old, with 31 percent of workers reporting that. Yet there are countless examples of people who made not just one but multiple career changes later in life. And as people live longer, on average, we’ll need to get better at transitioning into new careers later in life.


Holding out for perfection or total clarity about the new destination.

Life is messy. Change is hard. It’s rare that you get perfect clarity or achieve perfection when trying something new. Be willing to act anyway and watch how things start to move. Act, learn, and adjust. Iterate as you go. But get going.

“By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change careers is to delay taking the first step until they have settled on a destination.”Herminia Ibarra


Not testing the new career before leaping.

You can’t figure it out on a spreadsheet. The list of pros and cons may help, but it won’t get you all the way there. You need to roll up your sleeves and start trying things. Gather data. Interview people in fields of interest (ideally including people who liked and succeeded in the career of interest and people who disliked and abandoned the career). Run low-cost probes and simple, quick experiments that will help you experience the profession before taking the leap. Examples:

  • consulting project
  • internship (or a “returnship” for mid-career professionals)
  • job rotations inside your organization
  • job shadowing
  • training in new areas
  • life design interviews (meeting with people who are already doing what you’re interested in doing and hearing their story: asking them questions like how they got to where they are, how they developed the necessary skills, what a typical day looks like, what they like and don’t like about their work, etc.)


Assuming you must “climb the ladder” in your career.

You may be in “climbing mode”: striving to move up the ladder of success, focusing on achievement and advancement. For many, this is taken for granted. But is it right for everyone always? No doubt there can be great value in climbing mode: money, status, growth, challenge, and more. But many people feel empty at the top. The key is crafting a career that works for you—given your values, passions, and aspirations—and your current context of your family and other responsibilities.


Not playing the long game.

Are you playing the short game? Our culture is geared toward it. It’s alluring. But playing the long game is powerful. That involves taking the necessary steps today to set yourself up for success tomorrow. Avoiding instant gratification and distractions. Making sacrifices in the present for a better future. Building a foundation that will set you up for new opportunities and success.


Being so focused on fleeing from a bad situation that you don’t scrutinize your new direction.

When you allow your current work situation to become so bad, or even toxic, you can become desperate even for the slightest change, even if it doesn’t advance you toward the horizon you seek. A better approach: set boundaries and stabilize your current situation while developing an intentional and systematic process for crafting an exciting and rewarding next career chapter. One that’s worth the wait.


Giving up too quickly or easily.

Changing careers is hard, so you may be tempted to throw in the towel and settle. Don’t. This is your one life. Stick with it and keep working until it’s great.


Not giving it the time and attention it deserves, with a well-designed process.

Changing careers is hard. You may already be busy with a current job, plus all the other things you’re doing. It’s easy to let the career change process slide as you get lost in the daily busyness. Big mistake. You need to create and protect margin in your life to let the career discovery process launch and gather momentum.


Not paying attention to market waves.

Do you have functional skills (like digital marketing, event planning, or management) that can be applied in different industries and settings? Almost certainly. Think about market waves—big changes that are rolling through our lives. Examples: clean tech and green energy, conscious capitalism, space exploration, and so many more. What interests you? Are you looking ahead? What are the big economic, social, technological, political, or environmental trends shaping our time and driving new opportunities? As with blackjack players in Las Vegas, you have the advantage of table selection—of choosing where to play, whether it’s in exciting and growing industries or corrupt and dying ones. (For a short video explaining this kind of thinking, see “Find a Wave and Ride It” by Eric Straser.)

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune… We must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.” -William Shakespeare (Brutus in “Julius Caesar”)


Believing there’s one perfect career for you that you must find.

Perhaps you’re holding back on moving career change exploration because you’re expecting to find THE ONE PERFECT CAREER that will take you to professional nirvana. News flash: in the real world, that’s exceedingly rare. For those who haven’t won the career lottery, crafting a career is an iterative process, with many ups and downs. So let go of the fantasy and get to work.


Not taking advantage of transition time.

Are you always jumping from one thing to another without a proper transition? Afraid of the in-between time, when things are fuzzy and emergent, or are you embracing it as an adventure? Stressed about not yet knowing what’s next, or are you finding ways to enjoy yourself despite the uncertainty—appreciating the freedom and the possibilities to explore and have fun with other things (like reconnecting with other people and hobbies) in the meantime? Are you fearing or trusting? As author Bruce Feiler reminds us, sometimes “life is in the transitions.”

“This is now my #1 tip for changing your life. You need to clear a space for the new you to emerge.”Joanna Penn


Forcing change on an arbitrary timeline.

Did you pick a deadline out of a hat that may not reflect the reality of the change process? Are you overly optimistic about the timeline? It’s one thing if your cash burn rate gives you a hard deadline. It’s another thing altogether if you’re slavishly following an arbitrary deadline and making big decisions based on it.


Jumping prematurely to sweeping changes.

Tempted to bet the farm on your latest idea? You may want to think again. Herminia Ibarra says it beautifully:

“Resist the temptation to start by making a big decision that will change everything in one fell swoop. Use a strategy of small wins, in which incremental gains lead you to more profound changes in the basic assumptions that define your work and life. Accept the crooked path. Small steps lead to big changes, so don’t waste time, energy, and money on finding the ‘answer’ or the ‘lever that, when pushed, will have dramatic effects. Almost no one gets change right on the first try.”Herminia Ibarra


Not considering entrepreneurial options.

Did you assume you’ll go work for an established organization and rule out starting a new venture? Have you considered becoming a solopreneur or freelancer? Nowadays, there are so many compelling opportunities in these lanes, plus easy and accessible ways to experiment with them, even as a side hustle.


Not factoring in the cost of regret.

As you think about your next move, be sure to account for the cost of coming to the end of your life and looking back with regret for not trying the things you really wanted to do.

“It’s better to fail trying to do what you really care about than to succeed at something else.” Mark Albion


Letting fear hold you back from trying for what you really want.

Are you intrigued by something but reluctant to pursue it because of what others might think? This is especially hard today when your social media profiles are open for all to see. It’s natural to fear the judgment of others when you’re in between things. But this can be a real barrier to your progress on big things.

“So please ask yourself: What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it.”Sheryl Sandberg


Postponing what you really want to do.

Putting off the dream? Telling yourself that it’s not the right time? What are you waiting for? Do you risk waiting too long, or even deferring indefinitely? Consider the sage advice of Warren Buffett:

“You ought to be happy where you are working. I always worry about people who say, ‘I’m going to do this for 10 years’ and ‘I’m going to do 10 more years of this.’ That’s a little like saving sex for your old age. Not a very good idea. Get right into what you enjoy.”Warren Buffett


Not finding sanctuary.

In today’s world with its frenzied pace, it can be easy to get caught up in the chase and never take time for rest and renewal. Especially when you’re making big decisions in life, you need sanctuary in your life: places and practices of peace that restore your heart. Places of quiet and tranquility where you can get quiet and hear your inner voice. Sanctuary can give you the perspective to make wise choices and to sustain you through the difficulties of the transition.

“What on earth do you do when you no longer have work as an excuse to be hyperactive and avoid the big questions?”Tim Ferriss


Telling yourself you have no choice.

Feeling like you’re stuck, perhaps torn between your desires and obligations? Not even trying because you feel trapped? Think again. Here it straight from venture capitalist and executive coach Jerry Colonna:

“I don’t have a problem with what you do, that’s your choice. What I have a problem with is you lying to yourself about why you’re doing the things you’re doing. You have a choice.”Jerry Colonna


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.


There you have it. A summary list of the most common career change mistakes.

Yes, career change is hard. Sometimes brutally so. But it’s also a tremendous opportunity for you to take your life back and have fun while doing great things. It’s well worth the effort to navigate these challenges intentionally.

Wishing you well with it, and please reach out if you’d like some help.








Postscript: Inspirations on Career Change and Career Change Mistakes

  • “Big career decisions don’t come with a map, but all you need is a compass. In an unpredictable world, you can’t make a master plan. You can only gauge whether you’re on a meaningful path. The right next move is the one that brings you a step closer to living your core values.” -Adam Grant
  • “Everything seems to conspire to keep us where we are. That is why so many people remain stuck in the first half or, at best, flounder in a perpetual halftime. Life seems more comfortable in known, familiar territory, even when we are fairly certain something better awaits us out there.” -Bob Buford
  • “An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.” -Honore de Balzac
  • “The thought once occurred to me that if one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment… all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • “An easy way to pick the wrong career is to put your image above your interests and identity. A motivating job isn’t the one that makes you look important. It’s the one that makes you feel alive. Meaningful work isn’t about impressing others. It’s about expressing your values.” -Adam Grant
  • “While we should dream big, sometimes we need to make smaller moves and small experiments to build confidence and gather data and grow more organically in a new direction…. There is no real way to know the answers up to the front of what to pursue next in our careers unless we’re running small tests and learning from them.” -Jenny Blake
  • “So many of us choose our paths in life out of fear disguised as practicality.” -Jim Carrey
  • “In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” -Warren Buffett


Appendix: Data on Job and Career Changes

While there’s a great deal of data out there about the frequency of job changes, there’s not much out there on career change for two reasons: first, disagreement about definitions; second, career change is much harder to track and measure.

For example, 41 percent of employees were considering leaving their current employer in 2021, according to a Microsoft Work Trend Index survey of 31,092 full-time employed or self-employed workers across 31 markets. (Data are similar for the U.K. and Ireland, according to a recent survey.) But that addresses potential job changes, not career changes.

According to a September 2021 MetLife survey of 2,000 U.S. workers, 56 percent of women say they’ve thought about career change during the pandemic—twice as many who felt that way in summer 2020. In addition, 48 percent of women report that the pandemic has negatively impacted their career path.

According to Zippia, a business skills training company:

  • The average U.S. worker has 12 jobs throughout a lifetime.
  • S. workers have an average tenure of about 4.1 years with a single employer.
  • 37 percent of the U.S. workforce changed or lost their job in 2020.
  • 51 percent of U.S. workers said in 2018 that they change jobs every one to five years, up from 42 percent in 2017 and 34 percent in 2016.
  • Job change frequency varies dramatically by age in the U.S.:
    • people between 18 and 24 years old change jobs about 5.7 times during that period
    • people between 25 and 34 change jobs about 2.4 times
    • people between 35 and 44 change jobs about 2.9 times
    • people between 45 and 52 change jobs about 1.9 times
  • The average age of a major career change is 39 years old.
  • 58 percent of people say they’d be willing to take a pay cut to make a major career change.
  • 57 percent of workers said that the top barrier to career change is a lack of financial security. (The other top barriers are lack of clarity about what career to enter, lack of required education, and concerns about being too old.)

Image source: Zippia



Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Take Advantage of that Transition Time in Your Life

I was worn out. I’d been flying around the country for years, chasing big deals with my team, with intense pressure to close them. Our company needed the cash. I was caught between two top executives secretly undermining each other. And I was beginning to recognize that the fit between the company and my values was steadily evaporating.

I wasn’t taking care of myself. Slowly losing touch with my family and friends. Feeling frequent stress and pressure.

The excitement I had felt when we were starting up was slowly dissipating, like air leaking from a small hole in a balloon. I kept going for long runs around the lake, wondering if it was time to move on.

Then one day, I did. I’d had enough. I finally realized it was time.

So I jumped off the train.

I took my life back.

I felt alive and free. And I didn’t leap right away to the next thing. I knew I needed time to detox.

I gave myself an expansive self-imposed sabbatical. A healthy chunk of time to recover and renew. To get my health back. Time to regroup—and to find my way back to myself. I was fortunate to be able to do that. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.

I was in transition. And that transition needed time and space to play out without me forcing it.

We all go through transitions in life and work. Some are planned, while others are imposed upon us. Some feel great. Others can be excruciating.

Transitions are common: Youth to adulthood. School to work. From living alone to being in a relationship, or in a marriage, or with a family. Back to school. New job or career. A new city, state, or country. New friends and interests. Transition to midlife, and to retirement, and to elderhood. Breakup or divorce. Empty nest. Illness. Loss of a loved one or pet. Becoming a caregiver.

One thing is certain: transitions are on the horizon. They’re coming for us. Transitions are inevitable.

“Everything changes and nothing stands still.” -Heraclitus, 360 BCE

Given their inevitability, we must learn to live with and manage them. Otherwise they can consume us or take us to dark places.

In his excellent book, Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, author Bruce Feiler distinguishes between what he calls “disruptors” (regular challenges and setbacks) and “lifequakes” (which can rock our world). He defines a lifequake as a “forceful burst of change in one’s life that leads to a period of upheaval, transition, and renewal.”

How does this play out over the course of a lifetime? Combining the two, Feiler explains:

“The number of disruptors a person can expect to experience in an adult life is around three dozen. That’s an average of one every twelve to eighteen months…. But every now and then, one—or more commonly a pileup of two, three, or four—of these disruptors rises to the level of truly disorienting and destabilizing us. I call these events lifequakes, because the damage they cause can be devastating, they’re higher on the Richter scale of consequences, and their aftershocks can last for years.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions

Feiler adds them up, and the totals are jarring: “The average person goes through three to five of these massive reorientations in their adult lives; their average duration, my data show, is five years. When you do the math, that means nearly half our lives are spent responding to one of these episodes” (disruptors or lifequakes).

Looking back on my own life, I see tons of transitions. Moving around so much during my childhood. Then moving to London for grad school, later moving to Sweden with my family, and then back to the U.S. after ten years. Transitioning from a nonprofit think tank to an education foundation to an online education startup company. Starting my own company, and then a partnership. Getting married. Becoming a father. Transitioning to midlife.


Typology of Transitions

Our transitions can be personal or collective. Personal transitions are individual changes related to our health, finances, work, etc. Collective transitions are ones we go through together, such as the coronavirus pandemic, global financial crisis, or 9/11.

Our transitions can also be voluntary, such as deciding to get a degree or change jobs, or involuntary, such as getting fired or becoming ill. Feiler notes that most lifequakes are personal and involuntary. Ouch.

And he shows how smaller disruptors can become bigger lifequakes. For example, some disruptors occur at a moment of personal vulnerability, such as when we’re already burned out or having relationship problems. Or it can be the last straw: when one disruptor occurs at the end of a long string of them, causing us to snap. Or it can be a “pileup”: when many disruptors clump together suddenly, much like a traffic pileup on a busy freeway.

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 Difficulties

Transitions are hard. They trigger all sorts of stresses and fears, changing our mental state and our physiology.

And they’re messy. When we’re in transition, we’re leaving something known behind for something new and uncertain. We’re grasping in the dark, suspecting danger right around the corner.

We can lose not only our sense of stability and security but also our identity. We begin to doubt ourselves.

When I left that intense job after months of deliberation, I didn’t know what I would do next. I thought about waiting—playing it safe and lining new things up before I left. That can be a smart play. But it didn’t feel right to me then.

I wanted to give it my all when I was in it and then leave it when I felt I couldn’t anymore—or didn’t want to. I sensed I needed down time to get whole again before figuring out my next move.

It’s unsettling to be in that in-between mode, without clarity our resolution. Who are we without that title and the social capital that we believe comes from our position? Can we handle the gaps, with all their perceived judgment and perhaps even rejection or condemnation?

“People who can tolerate the painful discrepancies of the between-identities period, which reflect underlying ambivalence about letting go of the old or embracing the new, end up in a better position to make informed choices. With the benefit of time between selves, we are more likely to make the deep change necessary to discover satisfying lives and work and to eventually restore a sense of community to our lives.”Herminia Ibarra, professor, author, and career change expert


The Benefits

Though surely difficult, transitions also come with a host of benefits, many of them unacknowledged. Here’s a short list of eight main benefits:

  1. Transitions can lead to a better situation, or even a breakthrough.
  2. They’re opportunities for a “do-over,” when we can think and act anew, taking advantage of the tabula rasa.
  3. Transition time is alive time—when things are new or challenging, and when our lives are on the line. The adrenaline surges. Our hearts beat faster as we relinquish safety and venture forth into the unknown.
  4. Transitions allow us to slough off the masks we wear for others and to become ourselves more fully again. We can stop pretending and have the courage to be who we really are, even as we fear the reactions or rejection of others.
  5. When managed well, transitions can lead to powerful and memorable moments in life. Psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck writes, “Our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”
  6. Transitions are a real opportunity for a fresh start, when we set down old obligations and get a taste of true freedom once again.
  7. They’re an opportunity to reassess and determine if there’s a gap between the life we have and the one we want. Those gaps can last years, or even decades, as we drift through life, so even painful transitions bear a gift with the wakeup call that can lead to needed change.
  8. Getting good at managing change and transitions is a key leadership capacity. According to leadership expert Warren Bennis in his classic book, On Becoming a Leader, “the one competence that I now realize is absolutely essential for leaders—the key competence—is adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity is what allows leaders to respond quickly and intelligently to relentless change.”


The Mistakes We Make in Transition

Despite their relative frequency, transitions generally don’t occur often enough for us to develop natural capacity to manage them. We have to work at it. Meanwhile, we tend to make mistakes, adding to the pain. Here are some common mistakes:

-Awaiting perfect clarity before making a decision or taking action. So we never get off the starting blocks, or we wait much too long.

-Having unrealistic expectations about the pace or scope of change.

-Rushing it, often because we’re feeling behind. Premature decisions can set us up for failure by trapping us in recurring negative patterns.

Going it alone, trying to solve complex life equations without tapping into the wisdom of others who’ve been there before and the support of people who can witness our suffering and sit with us so we don’t feel so scared and alone.

-Choosing for the wrong reasons, such as the desire to please our parents or impress our friends and colleagues. A sign of the prestige magnet” in action.

-Being confined by our past, our relationships, or our self-identity (e.g., “I’ve been a lawyer since I was in my twenties, many of my friends are lawyers, and I don’t know who or what I’d be if I weren’t practicing law”).

“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.” -Pastor Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life

-Wallowing in negative thinking, focusing on the worst case, or ruminating on mistakes or sleights. These only place us in a mental prison of our own making.


Tips for Navigating Transitions

Since many transitions are so hard, we’re bound to fumble through them at certain points. Still, there are things we can do to lighten our load. Here are some quick tips:

-Take care of yourself. Invest in good sleep, exercise, nutrition, socializing, hobbies, and other self-care practices. Without these, everything else will just be harder.

-Develop healthy routines and rituals, leveraging the power of habit. Find what works for you, potentially including exercise, breaks, meditation, prayer, reading, journaling, sleep, and more—especially in the morning and before bed.

-Look for small wins and take a systematic, intentional approach, avoiding the temptation to try to force a breakthrough. Take it one step at a time. Slow and steady wins the race, as long as we’re also awake to opportunities and willing to take action.

“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur…. Don’t look for the quick, big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.” -John Wooden, legendary basketball coach

-Avoid premature resolution. Try to hold out longer in the fog of transition time. Be sure to give yourself adequate time and space to do the necessary inner work of reflection, conversation, pattern-spotting, meaning-making, and experimentation.

“This is now my #1 tip for changing your life. You need to clear a space for the new you to emerge.”Joanna Penn, author

-Get clear about your individual purpose, values, vision, strengths, and passions. These can serve as a safe harbor to return to when you hit storms in your life. They give your life meaning as you tease out the patterns from your personal history.

“Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back upon himself.” -Charles de Gaulle

-Be willing to join the dance of change, alternating between leading the dance, being led by others, and observing yourself in the dance from afar with your mental observer (your ability to step out of your unintentional thought flow and observe your thoughts and reflect on your life).

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”Alan Watts, philosopher

-Expect and embrace imperfection, messiness, and the unexpected. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” as the saying goes.

-Focus on changing yourself, not others, and focus on what’s in your control, not on complaining about the way things are.

-Recognize your abilities and assets—and all the previous transitions you’ve navigated. Have a little faith.

-Give yourself grace and practice self-compassion. Recall that transitions are hard for everybody.

-Let go of relationships that are no longer serving you. As terrifying as this can be, sometimes it’s the missing key that will unlock a better future, though it’s likely to take time, pain, grief, and healing.

-Reframe change and transition from something to be avoided to something that’s natural, inevitable, and an exciting opportunity for an adventure and growth. View it as a challenge to overcome, or a puzzle to solve. Transitions can be great opportunities for learning and growth.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” -Frederick Douglass

-Lean on your support network and don’t go it alone. Talk to family and friends. Lean on a mentor, coach, or therapist. Join a small group, perhaps a men’s group or a women’s group.

-Think creatively and boldly about potential change, even fundamental change, over time (while also not rushing it and remembering the power of small wins in the meantime). Otherwise, we risk settling for poor or mediocre outcomes and wasting the potential embedded in the transition.

“In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” -Warren Buffett, investor

“Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson


Closing thoughts: As much as we can struggle with them, we should give ourselves more transition times in our lives. Too often, we stick it out in a sub-optimal situation for too long.

We should also work to get good at them, allowing ourselves to transform as we learn and grow and as the world changes around us. As we do so, we reduce our self-inflicted wounds and have more time and space to enjoy our lives.

Give yourself more transition time—and get good at it.







Reflection Questions

  • Are you in need of a voluntary transition? Have you been waiting too long? What’s holding you back?
  • Are you taking advantage of the transition times in your life, or jumping right away to the next thing?
  • How can you get better at navigating the disruptors and lifequakes you experience?


Postscript: Quotations on Transitions and Change

  • “To be in transit is to be in the process of leaving one thing, without having fully left it, and at the same time entering something else, without being fully a part of it.” -Herminia Ibarra
  • “It is when we are in transition that we are most completely alive.” -William Bridges
  • “She knew this transition was not about becoming someone better but about finally allowing herself to become who she’d always been.” -Amy Rubin
  • “To change one’s life: Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly. No exceptions.” -William James
  • “All great changes are preceded by chaos.” -Deepak Chopra
  • “Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.” -C.S. Lewis
  • “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” -Marilyn Monroe
  • “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” -Albert Einstein
  • “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” -Rumi
  • “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” -Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
  • “Learning to make meaning from our life stories may be the most indispensable but least understood skill of our time.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “Not in his goals but in his transitions is man great.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson



Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Powerful Pull of the Prestige Magnet

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching is not only engaging with students about the subject at hand but also how it may contain deeper lessons that apply to their life and work. The class readings are a reliable vehicle to those insights. One of my favorite insights recently comes from Paul Graham, the programmer, entrepreneur, writer, and investor behind the acclaimed tech startup accelerator, Y Combinator. In his article, “How to Do What You Love,” he writes about the dangers of prestige and the prestige magnet:

“You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” -Paul Graham

This notion of a prestige magnet has stuck with me (and many of my students), in part because I think it’s so universal and insidious.

The peril of the prestige magnet is that it can pull us into a strange and unhappy vortex in which we’re avidly pursuing prestige while making ourselves—and often those around us—miserable in the process. A dangerous downward spiral.


Signs of the Prestige Magnet in Action

You may think that you’re not susceptible to the pull of the prestige magnet. You may be thinking, I’m not self-centered. I’m not overly ambitious or too concerned about status and prestige.

Most likely, though, you’d be wrong. Our brains are brilliant at helping us deceive ourselves.

“There are two kinds of egotists: Those who admit it, and the rest of us.” -Laurence J. Peter

Here are some telltale signs of the prestige magnet in action:

  • Wanting a pair of cool sneakers or jeans to impress your friends when you’re a teenager.
  • Enjoying the signaling of social status through the car you drive, the part of town you live in, or where you go on vacation—and the attendant social media posts broadcasting it.
  • Secretly hoping that or enjoying it when your degree, profession, title, or organization conveys status to you.

Let’s be honest. We all want prestige—or have wanted it at some point. It’s baked into human nature.

In a recent “How to Build a Life” column for The Atlantic, Arthur Brooks notes recent studies indicating that the biggest goal in life for American children aged 10 to 12 is fame, and a survey of British children found that “YouTuber” was the most coveted career choice.

Evolutionary psychologists note that we can acquire social status either through dominance or prestige (or both). It’s important because high-status individuals tend to receive more protections from their social group, appear more attractive (giving them reproductive advantages), obtain more resources, and have better health and longevity.

Meanwhile, many of us go through an education system that points to prestige pursuit as the standard recommended option (so ingrained that it’s often simply assumed and not even explicit), and we live in a culture that prizes, and sometimes idolizes, status and wealth.


How the Prestige Magnet Can Warp Our Lives

Clearly, there are advantages of social status, and we shouldn’t hold it against people for deriving benefits from their hard work, commitment, courage, or creativity. Far from it.

But there are also disadvantages, some of which are not only costly but also underappreciated.

Here are nine of the main disadvantages:

1. Career Choices

The prestige magnet can keep us from doing what we really want to do, or what we’re better suited to do, or from pursuing our dreams. It can pull us into career fields for the wrong reasons that don’t hold up over time, and with high switching costs (or even a sort of lock-in effect). I recall how popular and prestige-soaked the fields of consulting and investment banking were when I was getting my MBA. The point isn’t that there’s anything wrong with those professions but rather whether those jobs were a good fit for all those classmates and whether there wasn’t a phenomenon of social contagion at work. (And yes, I dipped my toes in those waters too. Let me be clear: I struggle with this trap, among many others, as well.)

2. Addiction

We can become addicted to the pursuit of prestige and its close cousins (success, fame, wealth, etc.), with all the implications that addictions carry, including crowding out other important areas of our lives, like health, relationships, and peace of mind.

3. Happiness Effects

By pursuing prestige, aren’t we placing parts of our happiness and sense of self-worth into the hands of others, including people we don’t even know or like?

4. The Expense

Pursuing prestige can be expensive, from costly universities to the pricey cars, homes, neighborhoods, and lifestyles that put us on a financial hamster wheel, sprinting to try to keep up. Getting nowhere fast. It can be exhausting—and financially precarious if things go awry.

5. Hidden Costs

Prestige often comes with hidden costs, including:

    • feeling trapped in jobs we don’t like, sometimes with colleagues or bosses we don’t like
    • working excessive hours (many prestigious firms pride themselves on this, as a sort of twisted bragging right)
    • burying ourselves in spreadsheets or presentation decks
    • wondering if our sacrifices are worth it
    • experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression

6. Career Damage

Those who are chasing status and prestige can come across as self-centered and self-serving, which can impair their teamwork and leadership effectiveness, because it’s off-putting. It can even take people on a path to becoming a toxic leader.

7. Identity Effects

If we’re consumed by a hunger for status and prestige during our career, where is that likely to leave us when we retire or if we change jobs or need to stop working? Are we okay with who we are even without the recognition or status? Do we need to be viewed as successful to feel content or happy?

8. Relationship Pain

Being in hot pursuit of prestige can keep us away way too much from those we love, from our spouse or significant other to our children, parents, or close friends. How will we view those tradeoffs and compromises later in life?

9. Regret

Following the prestige path is likely to lead to painful regret down the road, with a rude reckoning for our choices.

We can note here that many of these disadvantages, in the larger scheme of things, are problems of privilege. Many people struggle with much nastier problems, like surviving and feeding their families. Still these problems of the prestige magnet come with real pain and damage for many, and they’re found on all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum.

So now we must ask, what to do about it?

Take the Traps Test

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


How to Demagnetize the Prestige Magnet

From science class, we may recall that physical magnets can be demagnetized via certain techniques. For example, via high heat. Or a reverse field. We can even hammer the magnetism out of it. Best of all, we can leave the magnet untouched for long periods of time, and demagnetization will occur naturally over time. Like magic.

The prestige magnet can also be altered. Here are ten ways to address it:

1. Why

Step back and consider why you’re pursuing prestige, including whether there’s some sort of pain, loss, or hurt in your life that you’re trying to numb—and whether you might address it better by going to its roots.

2. Who

Think more critically about who you’re trying to impress. Who are they? How much do they truly matter to you? How likely is it that they’ll matter to you long in the future? Are they really so concerned about you, or are they more likely to be caught up in their own concerns, including their own prestige magnet?

3. Work

Instead of dwelling on how you stack up, focus on the work itself. Get lost in the process and concentrate on creating value for the intended beneficiaries. Become a craftsman and focus on slow, steady, and systematic improvement.

4. People

Spend your time with people who are comfortable with who they are regardless of the vagaries of status—and who care more about your heart and soul than your status and prestige.

5. Service

Serve others. Leave the prestige pursuit behind and focus on helping others. Be part of a community and contribute to something larger than your own personal wants, needs, and insecurities. If you’re in a position of authority, consider practicing servant leadership, a counterintuitive and revolutionary approach to leadership that emphasizes serving others first, including developing them and helping them accomplish things they never thought possible.

6. Purpose

Discover and pursue your purpose, or something that feels significant or meaningful to you, or that captures your heart. This will get your out of your head and into a project or endeavor that motivates you and benefits others. If you’re in a position of authority, consider taking on our triple crown leadership quest—a commitment to building an organization or team that’s excellent (achieving exceptional results and positive impacts for all stakeholders), ethical (doing the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard), and enduring (standing the test of time and operating sustainably).

7. Gratitude

Be grateful for what you have. Incorporate gratitude practices (e.g., prayers of thanksgiving, meditation, a gratitude jar) into your life. And determine what is enough for you so you don’t catch the “disease of more.”

8. Creation

Build or create something: a side hustle, blog, passion project, memoir, garden, novel, startup, or social venture—whatever captures your interest and gets you lost in a state of flow.

9. Mortality

Think about your death. That’s right. As morbid as it is, remembering that you’re mortal—and given an unknown time span on this Earth—can help you remember what’s truly important in life—and what’s not.

10. Resolve

Decide and declare that you don’t need validation from others to determine your worth. Change your focus from worrying about what others may think of you to putting your head down and being the best person you can be, growing and giving as best you can every day.

The prestige magnet has its pull on many of us these days. Thankfully, though, there are many things we can do to dull its effect while still thriving in our chosen endeavors.


Reflection Questions 

  1. How strong is the prestige magnet in your life?
  2. What can you do to reduce its downsides without eliminating its upsides?



Related Traps

This prestige magnet trap doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s related to many of the other traps we’ve been addressing this traps series, including:



Postscript: Inspirations on Prestige and Ego

  • “Ego is the enemy.” –Ryan Holiday
  • “The bigger your heart, the more you love, the more you control your life. The bigger your ego, the more you’re scared, the more others control your life.” –Maxime Lagacé
  • “Egotism sucks us down like the law of gravity.” -Cyril Connolly
  • “Don’t worry about looking good; worry about achieving your goal.” –Ray Dalio
  • “The only way to escape the corruptible effect of praise is to go on working.” -Albert Einstein
  • “We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.” –Steven Pressfield (from The War of Art)
  • “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.” -Colin Powell
  • “Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious.” -Paul Graham
  • “When the ego dies, the soul awakes.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “The foundation of the Buddha’s teachings lies in compassion, and the reason for practicing the teachings is to wipe out the persistence of ego, the number-one enemy of compassion.” –Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
  • “The ego is a veil between humans and God. In prayer all are equal.” -Rumi



Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why We Want Adventure in Our Lives—And How to Get It

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me. -Walt Whitman

Adventure. It’s an amazing part of life and work, but often overlooked and neglected.

When I was little, my Dad used to tell stories to my brother and me—always about an adventurer, with a rucksack, off on some expedition. We loved it, in part because of the surprise and danger.

It turns out that adventure has much to teach us about living and leading. Of course, it’s not often that we encounter opportunities for exciting, daring, hazardous undertakings of unknown outcome.

But what if we could cultivate adventure in our lives?
What if we could pursue grand and meaningful adventures in our work?


The Benefits of Adventure in Life

Adventure isn’t something just for daredevils and skydivers. It’s something for all of us who want to live well.

Adventure makes us feel more fully awake, alive, and free. It feeds us with the energy and excitement of exploration, discovery, and surprise. It even comes with a physiological response, with norepinephrine (a neurotransmitter that increases alertness and arousal) and elevated respiratory and heart rates.

“The danger of adventure is worth a thousand days of ease and comfort.”Paulo Coelho, Brazilian novelist

Adventure comes with many benefits:

  • Adventure can give us remarkable experiences to savor and extraordinary memories to cherish.
  • It helps us discover who we really are (or rediscover it), which can be hard to do if we’re constantly mired in responsibilities, expectations, pressures, deadlines, and incessant busyness.
“…your dreams come clean over miles of road.” -Jackopierce, from their song, “My Time”
  • Adventure can help us feel whole again, especially if we’ve been living a divided life, and reconnect with our heart and intuition.
  • It can help us learn and grow, as we face new situations and challenges and try to improvise our way through them.
“Change and growth take place when a person has risked himself and dares to become involved with his own life.” -Herbert Otto
  • Adventure can help us develop our strength and courage as we learn to confront our fears.
  • It gives us an opportunity to transcend limiting beliefs. (In turn, we can move forward toward fulfilling our potential, learn how to trust ourselves, and develop a greater sense of our own agency.)
  • Adventure can lead to the accomplishment of great things, none of which would have been possible if we hadn’t dared to try.
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” -Theodore Roosevelt


Ways to Bring Adventure into Our Lives and Work

Despite all these benefits, it’s easy to self-select out of adventure opportunities because of a limited view of ourselves as “not the adventurous type.”

But ceding this territory to the adrenaline junkies and thrill seekers is a mistake, especially since there are so many ways to invite adventure in our lives, some of which are straightforward and accessible for many:

Get out into nature, away from civilization and noise, and venture out into new areas. (You can also take it up a notch and do something like an Outward Bound expedition.)

“In the middle of the forest is an unexpected clearing, that can only be found by those who are lost.” -Tomas Tranströmer, Swedish poet

Travel to new places. (When you do so, be sure to get off the beaten path and take what Clif Bar entrepreneur Gary Erickson calls the “white roads.” When cycling through Europe with a friend, he noticed that, on a map, red roads are the big roads, full of vehicles, noise, and exhaust, while white roads are the smaller, quieter, less traveled paths full of surprises.

“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life—and travel—leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks—on your body or on your heart—are beautiful.” -Anthony Bourdain 

Learn or try something new. Try running, surfing, sailing, rock climbing, scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, rafting, triathlons… whatever calls to you.

Sample new cuisine. My friends in Maryland are currently on a quest to eat a meal from every country in the world.

Ask someone out if you’re single. Take that chance even if it scares you. You ever know what might be on the other side of that decision.

Engage more with strangers. You never know what you may learn or encounter—or how much it may mean to someone in need.

Make new friends. Too many people start cocooning later in life after settling down, leading to disconnection, loneliness, and unhealthy over-reliance on a spouse or significant other.

Take advantage of transition times in your life (e.g., after graduating, in between jobs, when the kids leave the home, retirement, etc.). (For a great book on this, check out Life Is in The Transitions by Bruce Feiler.)

Launch or join a startup venture, or an innovation initiative or skunkworks project at your workplace. These can be thrilling in their challenges and opportunities—and career highlights.

Break out of a career rut, no longer settling for a bad manager or toxic culture, and finding something more worthy of your efforts and more aligned with your values and aspirations.

Go back to school to help launch you on a different career track that’s a better fit, or just because you’re curious and would like to learn and engage with new people and settings.

If you’re a manager, give your team an epic challenge, or create exciting new experiences for them to break the monotony and invite their creativity.

Join an adventure expedition or festival. There are many options. A summer camp for adults, a Tough Mudder, Burning Man, South by Southwest, and more.

Go on a retreat or a spiritual pilgrimage. Retreats like InsideFirst Roundtables, Modern Elder Academy Sabbatical Sessions, and Inventure expeditions. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Mecca, Camino de Santiago (France and Spain), Mount Kailash (Tibet), and Shikoku (Japan) to something more homegrown and local.

Some of my favorite adventures over the years have included:

  • backpacking through Europe
  • studying abroad for a year in London in graduate school
  • camping and climbing a pair of “fourteeners” (mountains rising to 14,000 feet above sea level) in the Colorado Rockies with friends
  • sailing on an overnight felucca boat down the Nile with my brother
  • performing live music at gigs, bars, and coffeehouses
  • trying to learn how to surf in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, spotting a great surfer on the same beach, asking him if he knew anyone around who could give me surfing lessons, and then getting a personal surfing lesson from him and learning that he was an international surfing competitor
  • joining school plays and musicals despite having no background in theater
  • bridge-jumping with a friend at his college
  • canoeing and swimming in a Puerto Rican bay among bioluminescent plankton
  • cliff-diving at an Adirondack lake
  • working at a tech startup that became a scale-up, with all its highs and lows
  • taking a self-generated sabbatical after leaving that startup so I could take my life back
  • getting married
  • becoming a father
  • moving to Sweden, getting out of my bubble and learning a new culture, language, and worldview (and then moving back to Colorado)

These are some of my fondest memories, but I also see that there have been long chapters in my life in which adventure has been absent.

Thankfully, I’ve been inspired by adventurous friends and colleagues. One friend talked his way onto a naval submarine off the coast of South America so he could hitch a ride down the coastline.

Another favorite of mine: an entrepreneur we interviewed for LIFE Entrepreneurs who retreats to his own “secret office”:

“Each year, I try to take twenty-five work-week days and spend them hiking, biking, or on the water some place. It’s like having your own secret office with the world’s best views. These aren’t bank holidays or the days between Christmas and New Year’s. They’re mid-week days right in the heart of the year when everyone else is at their desk. My best creative thinking is on these days. The places I go are inspiring, and exercise tends to calm my mind and help me see the big picture. Following these days, I try to resist the urge to catch up on emails at night. Instead I’ll write or think about what occupied my mind that day.”Max Israel

If you struggle with jumping on the adventure bandwagon, consider this unconventional motivator:

Contemplate your death.

This ancient practice from the Stoics (memento mori: “Remember that you must die”) and other traditions can help put our lives in perspective while also highlighting their flaws, sparking urgency to grab hold of our lives while we have them.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” -Steve Jobs


The most important adventure of all is the one that’s most hidden: everyday life.

Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of daily activity, it’s easy to lose sight of the grand adventure that is life itself. The miracle that we’re here, wandering on a planet hurtling through the cosmos, all part of a wondrous, incomprehensible whole.

How can it all possibly be? What will happen next, in our lives and the world? Why are we here? What will we choose to do with our unknown number of days, and who with, and to what end? A grand adventure, indeed, and the most precious of gifts.


Traps that Keep Us from Having Adventures

There are many pathways into adventure, from the mundane and simple to the morbid and sublime. But let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that it’s always easy, given our circumstances and obligations.

Too often, we fall into the common traps of living, many of which make adventure feel out of reach. Some of the traps:

  • Conforming: conforming to societal conventions or conventional paths.
  • Drifting: getting carried along by time, circumstances, and outside influences.
  • Playing the short game: being short-sighted and neglecting the big picture.
  • Being outer-driven: being driven by external (parent, peer, societal) expectations and caring too much about what other people think.
  • Postponing happiness: deferring plans or dreams because it’s not practical or “the right time.”
  • Settling: compromising or settling for “good enough.”
  • Being a workaholic: being addicted to work or success, letting it consume our thoughts and time while letting other important things slip away.

The traps are tricky. They sneak up on us, sometimes capturing us for years. But they’re not insurmountable.

We just need something worthy of our efforts to break free. Something like the sweet thrill of adventure and the lasting glow it brings. Here’s to more adventure in life.

Do you have enough adventure in your life?
 What can you do, starting today, to invite more adventure into your life and work?

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.



Postscript: Quotations on Adventure in Life

  • “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • “During the first period of a man’s life the greatest danger is: not to take the risk.” -Soren Kierkegaard
  • “We need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.” -Albert Camus
  • “Cover the earth before it covers you.” -Dagobert Runes
  • “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” -Helen Keller
  • “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” -Andre Gide
  • “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.” -Soren Kierkegaard
  • “Only those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.” -Robert Kennedy
  • “Jobs fill your pockets, but adventures fill your soul.” -Jaime Lyn
  • “Adventure may hurt you, but monotony will kill you.” -Marcus Purvis
  • “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” -Anais Nin
  • “Above all, life entrepreneurship is an adventure.” -Warren Bennis
  • “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” -Mark Twain
  • “So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure.” -Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild


Bonus: Inspiring Adventure Classics

Many of us cherish the classic adventure stories from literature and film that inspire our dreams and ambitions. Some of my favorites:

The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien took us on an epic ring quest. Starting in the Shire, the hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin band together with other wily characters like Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Arwen, Galadriel, Boromir, and others to take on Sauron, Saruman, the Orcs, Trolls, and more hideous creatures and wizards and try to destroy the Ring in Mount Doom, thereby saving the world. It’s a classic tale of courage and good versus evil, wrapped in a brilliant adventure.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” -Bilbo Baggins, a character in J. R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Odyssey

In this epic poem by Homer, Odysseus struggles to endure the wrath of the gods, smite mystical creatures, and survive daunting threats—from a cyclops and witch to a sea storm and the alluring Sirens—in a decade-long struggle to return home to his wife, Penelope.

“A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time.” -Homer, The Odyssey

Into the Wild

This book by Jon Krakauer recounts the spirited adventures of Christopher McCandless (a.k.a., “Alexander Supertramp”), a young man disillusioned by the conventions of civilized life in suburban Virginia and its soul-sapping monotony. He gave up his possessions, donated his college fund to charity, and embarked on a brand-new path, traveling westward across the country, abandoning his car after a flash flood, and then hitchhiking to the Stampede Trail in Alaska, where he set off alone in the snow with only ten pounds of rice, a camera, a rifle, ammunition, and some reading.

“I now walk into the wild.”Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

Harry Potter

J. K. Rowling’s fantasy novels tell the story of Harry Potter, a young wizard touched by fate, and his friends and allies Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley, Albus Dumbledore, and Hagrid. Their escapades at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry place Harry in harrowing battles against Lord Voldemort, the dark wizard.

“Let us step into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”J. K. Rowling 


Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was an explorer who led three expeditions to the Antarctic in the 1900s. During the Nimrod expedition, he and his crew made the largest advance toward the South Pole in history. After subsequently losing the race to the South Pole to Roald Amundsen, Shackleton focused on crossing Antarctica from sea to sea via the South Pole. During this expedition, its ship, Endurance, became trapped in ice and was gradually crushed. The crew camped on the sea ice and then launched lifeboats and traveled an incredible distance to reach Elephant Island and then South Georgia Island.

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” -newspaper ad placed by Sir Ernest Shackleton to recruit a crew for his Antarctic expedition


Bonus: Gregg’s Curated Music Playlist for Your Next Adventure in Life

  • “8 Miles from a Paved Road,” Edwin McCain
  • “America,” Simon and Garfunkel
  • “Beautiful Day,” U2
  • “Can’t You See,” The Marshall Tucker Band
  • “Drift Away,” Dobie Gray
  • “Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman
  • “Free,” Jackopierce
  • ‘Hit the Road Jack’ by Ray Charles
  • “Into the Mystic,” Van Morrison
  • “I Want to Get Lost with You,” Stereophonics
  • “My Time,” Jackopierce
  • “On the Road Again,” Willie Nelson
  • “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” The Eagles
  • “Ramblin’ Man,” Allman Brothers Band
  • “Roam,” The B-52’s
  • “Route 66,” Chuck Berry
  • “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” by Tom Petty
  • “Running on Empty,” Jackson Browne
  • “Seven Bridges Road,” The Eagles
  • “Shotgun Rider,” Tim McGraw
  • “Southern Cross,” Crosby, Stills, and Nash
  • “Take It Easy,” The Eagles (or the original Jackson Browne version)
  • “The Mountains Win Again,” Blues Traveler
  • “Vineyard,” Jackopierce
  • “Where the Streets Have No Name,” U2

What are your favorite adventure or road-tripping songs? Contact me here to send me suggestions for this list.


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Awe in Our Lives

When’s the last time you experienced awe?

It’s one of the most powerful emotions we can experience. A marker for life at its grandest.

Awe is what we feel when we encounter something so vast or incomprehensible that it defies our current frame of reference. It’s a feeling of reverential respect, often mixed with fear, wonder, veneration, or even dread.

Awe can be inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls it “the emotion of self-transcendence.”

Awe gives us an experience of vastness, and of novelty and mystery. And it leaves an alluring and hauntingly beautiful lasting impression.


My Own Awe Experiences

When I think about my own experiences of awe, I’m humbled. They don’t come often, but they can make me shudder. I think about:

  • being there with my wife when our daughters were born and feeling time stand still
  • feeling a powerful, warm sense of love and connectedness during a candlelight vigil when our family members entered the room
  • swimming among bioluminescent plankton in a magical bay in Puerto Rico
  • staring out at the grandeur and near timelessness of the Grand Canyon
  • gazing at the stars
  • seeing multiple thunderstorms in the distance while driving across the Kansas plains with my wife
  • walking between volcanoes and glaciers in Iceland and basking in natural geothermal pools amidst the ancient rolling hills
  • looking up at the gargantuan redwoods in California
  • staring out at the ocean horizon and at the view from a Colorado mountaintop
  • witnessing the playful convergence of music, story, and thrilling acrobatic feats of a Cirque de Soleil show
  • being part of a committed team and accomplishing something together that we barely thought possible
  • reading an incredible masterwork that draws me in and feels like it speaks to me directly
  • marveling at the creative talent and power of a “Hamilton” show
  • looking at our daughters when they’re in their element and reflecting on how much they’ve grown and changed
  • contemplating the vastness of the universe and wondering how it can all possibly be

Awe may be rare, but there are ample opportunities for it if we’re open to it and paying attention.

It turns out that awe isn’t just an amazing feeling. It’s also good for us in a surprising number of ways.


The Benefits of Awe, The Power of Awe

Experiencing awe, as powerful as it is in and of itself, comes with a surprising number of benefits, including these ten:

  1. Making us feel truly alive, with wonder and gratitude
  2. Inspiring us to want to achieve or be part of something great
  3. Elevating our mood and increasing our happiness and wellbeing
  4. Putting things in perspective, especially when we get caught up in our own little dramas or ego, and boosting our humility
  5. Elevating us from mundane matters and dampening our materialism, essentially reordering our priorities
  6. Reducing our sense of time starvation, giving us a sense that time is plentiful and making us less impatient
  7. Connecting us more with others—and with humanity—and reminding us that we’re part of a greater whole
  8. Increasing our urge to be generous and to cooperate with and help others
  9. Helping us recognize the role that outside forces play in our lives (e.g., the influence of others, or luck)
  10. Potentially improving our health, including stronger immunity and lower levels of inflammation

So what can we do to invite more awe experiences into our frenetic and overly full lives? Or do we have to wait until lightning strikes?


Awe-Inspiring Activities

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley developed this helpful list of awe-inspiring activities:

  1. Write about a personal experience of awe (the “awe narrative” practice)
  2. Take an “awe walk” (ideally in a new place, a natural setting that’s peaceful and quiet, or a place with a view)
  3. Watch an awe-inducing video
  4. Read an awe-inspiring story

(Tip: check out Jason Silva’s excellent Shots of Awe” series on YouTube, perhaps starting with his Awe” video.)

There’s much darkness in the world today. And we live in a culture of overwork, consumption, cynicism, and burnout. It can be a black hole that pulls awe into its vortex and smashes it into oblivion, if we let it.

It may be tempting to give in to these cold and dark forces and just go with the flow, chasing material success, comfort, pleasure, and prestige while letting awe slip away.

But how will that hold up when we look back on our lives? What will be the things we truly cherish? Powerful and profound, our experiences of awe may be some of the most precious and sacred we’re given.

“I felt deep within me that the highest point a man can attain is not Knowledge, or Virtue, or Goodness, or Victory, but something even greater, more heroic, and more despairing: Sacred Awe!” -Nikos Kazantzakis, in Zorba the Greek


Reflection Questions on the Power of Awe

  • When’s the last time you experienced a sense of awe?
  • Is your life overly full and heavy right now, or are you open to small daily experiences of wonder?
  • Do you savor these experiences, and feel grateful for them?
  • What will you do to being more awe opportunities into your life?

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.



Postscript: Quotations on the Power of Awe

  • “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” -Albert Einstein
  • “There is one means of procuring solitude which to me, and I apprehend all men, is effectual, and that is to go to a window and look at the stars. If they do not startle you and call you off from vulgar matters, I know not what will.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” -Aristotle
  • “We fit the universe through our brains and it comes out in the form of nothing less than poetry. We have a responsibility to awe.” -Jason Silva
  • “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living….” -Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder
  • “To be inspired is the ultimate antidote to existential despair.” -Jason Silva
  • “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.” -Dorothy Day
  • “The most beautiful experience in the world is the experience of the mysterious.” -Albert Einstein
  • “Awe is the best drug in the world.” -Jason Silva



Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!