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introspection can be a scary thing sometimes. people are afraid of what they’ll find in their subconscious. other times, we know our problems (maybe even the answers) but it’s easier to not think about them. whatever the reasoning, it’s always best to work out our difficulties in order to progress.
This is your life story and you are the only author. If you’re feeling like you’ve been stuck in the same setting for too long, it’s time to start writing a new chapter of your life. The plot structure is simple: Doing nothing gets you nothing. Doing the wrong things gets you the wrong things. Doing the same things gets you the same things. Your story only changes when you make changes.
If you have an idea about what you want the next chapter of your life to look like, you have to DO things that support this idea. An idea, after all, isn’t going to do anything for you until you do something productive with it. In fact, as long as that great idea is just sitting around in your head it’s probably doing far more harm than good.
Your subconscious mind knows you’re procrastinating on something that’s important to you. The necessary work that you keep postponing causes stress, anxiety, fear, and usually more procrastination – a vicious cycle that continues to worsen until you interrupt it with ACTION.
Progress in life is always measured by the fact that you’ve taken new action. If there’s no new action, you haven’t truly made any progress.
A big part of who you become in life has to do with who you choose to surround yourself with. And as you know, it is better to be alone than in bad company. You simply cannot expect to live a positive, fulfilling life if you surround yourself with negative people.
Distancing yourself from these people is never easy, but it’s a lot harder when they happen to be close friends or family members. As hard as it may be, it’s something you need to address. To a certain degree, luck controls who walks into your life, especially as it relates to your family and childhood friends, but you decide who you spend the majority of your time with.
If someone close to you is truly draining you, be honest about it. Be kind, but communicate your point of view. Tell them you love them, and that you want to be around them, but you need their help. Remember, most problems, big and small, within a family and close friends, start with bad communication. If this other person is draining you, and you haven’t talked about it, they may not even know.
At the end of the day, you should surround yourself with people who make you a better person and distance yourself those who don’t. (Read The How of Happiness.)
In life, you become what you repeatedly think about. If your thoughts and behaviors aren’t helping you, they’re hurting you. Other people and outside events can influence you, but happiness is ultimately an inside job. You have to disconnect external influences and achievements from happiness and give yourself permission to be happy, in each moment, without the need for anything more.
This isn’t to say that you should be complacent. You can still set goals, work hard, interact with others, and grow, but you must learn to indulge joyously in the journey, not the destination.
What you need to realize is that all you ever truly have are your thoughts towards the present moment. Every moment is very similar; the details are just details. If you say something like, “If I had more than what I have now, I would be happier,” you are sadly mistaken. Because if you are not at all happy with what you have now, you will not be any happier if it were doubled. It’s just more of the same.
The bottom line is that you have everything you need to be happy or unhappy right now. It just depends on how you think about it. Will you be grateful for what you have, and find joy in it? Or will concentrate on what you don’t have, and never, ever feel like you have enough? The choice is yours to make.
As George Washington once said, “It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.”
Truth be told, if you are good at making excuses, you will never be good at anything else. No matter what the obstacles are that you see in front of you, the only thing truly standing between you and what you want is the excuse you keep telling yourself as to why you can’t achieve it.
When something is a priority, it gets done. Period. And it’s not what we claim are our priorities, but how we spend our time each day that reveals the truth. You can make excuses. You can always try to wait for the perfect moment, the perfect this, the perfect that… but it won’t get you anywhere.
To get where you want to go you just have to start DOING. It makes all the difference. Making excuses takes the same amount of time as making progress. (Read The Power of Habit.)
As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”
When you find your path, and you know what needs to be done, you must not be scared. You need to find the courage to make mistakes. Mistakes lead to disappointments and defeat in the short term, but they also teach you what you need to know in the long-term. Mistakes are the tools life uses to show you the way forward.
Someday when you look back over your life you’ll realize that nearly all of your worries and anxious fears never came to fruition – they were completely unfounded. So why not wake up and realize this right now. When you look back over the last few years, how many opportunities for joy did you destroy with needless fear about making a mistake? Although there’s nothing you can do about these lost joys, there’s plenty you can do about the ones that are still to come.
NOT believing that you CAN is the biggest trap of them all. If you don’t know your own greatness is possible, you won’t bother attempting anything great. Period.
All too often we let the rejections of our past dictate every move we make thereafter. We literally do not know ourselves to be any better than what some opinionated person or narrow circumstance once told us was true. Of course, this old rejection doesn’t mean we aren’t good enough; it means the other person or circumstance failed to align with what we have to offer. It means we have more time to improve our thing – to build upon our ideas, to perfect our craft, and indulge deeper in to the work that moves us
Don’t let old rejections take up permanent residence in your head. Kick them out on the street. Realize that you sometimes you have to try to do what you think you can’t do, so you realize that you actually CAN. And sometimes it takes more than one attempt. If ‘Plan A’ doesn’t work out, don’t fret; the alphabet has another 25 letters that would be happy to give you a chance to get it right. The wrong choices usually bring us to the right places, eventually. You just have to believe in your own potential to get there. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Adversity” and “Relationships” chapters of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
Be diligent and committed to what you’re trying to achieve, but also make sure you leave time for pleasure and exploration in other areas of your life as well. It is not enough to succeed at one specific goal or to conquer one particular area of expertise; you also have to take part in the different, beautiful dimensions of your life… while you can, while there’s still time.
Lift your head up from your work every now and then and take a long walk, hold hands with your beloved, go fishing, spend time with your friends, swim, bask in the sunlight, try something new, meditate, breathe deep, or sit quietly for a while and contemplate the goodness around you.
In other words, balance yourself – work diligently toward your goals and dreams, but don’t ignore every other aspect of your life. Keep your mind fresh, your body active and alive, and your relationships nurtured. Do so, and the things you want most in life will come more naturally.
Life is filled with unanswered questions, but it is the courage to ask enough of the right ones that ultimately leads you to an understanding of yourself and your purpose.
You can spend your life wallowing in fear by avoiding the obvious, or asking negative questions like, “Why me?” Or you can be grateful that you’ve made it this far – that you’re strong enough to breathe, walk and think for yourself – and then ask, “Where do I want to go next?”
We would love to hear your perspective. Please pick one or more of the seven questions above and leave a comment below with your answer.
Here’s a tiny question: what do you do when reach the edge of heartbreak? Consider the story of my good friend Priya. Let go from a successful career in finance, with no new opportunities on the horizon, Priya bravely decided to write a book about careers and meaning. One long year later, Priya’s blown through her savings, broken up with her partner, moved back to her parents’ place, and generally feels like her so-called future just went Vesuvius.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of…whatever. Ah, screw it: what’s the point, anyways? In that sentiment, Priya’s hardly alone. If you’re under the age of 35 and/or worth less than a few dozens of millions, you probably get the sinking feeling, by now, that you’re being written off by today’s leaders. Here’s the inconvenient truth…you are.
I don’t mean to get post-Bieber power ballad emo on you, but the great danger of this great hurricane of a never-ending crisis is that our will to live is quietly diminished. Not in the sense of jumping screaming off the nearest bridge — but in the less noticeable yet perhaps more lethal sense of resigning ourselves to mediocrity, triviality, lives we don’t want because they don’t feel they count. Hence: the great obligation you and I have right here, right now, then, children of the hurricane, isn’t merely to give up on life — but precisely the opposite: to redouble our furious pursuit of lives well lived.
I believe that each and every one us is here for a reason. Go ahead: get it out of your system. Roll your eyes, purse your lips, LOL, luxuriously wallow in cynicism for a moment — and then consider what tends to happen to those that have no great, abiding reason to be here. They sink, ineluctably, into depression; life seems to pass them by; they feel powerless, hopeless, fatalistic, and finally, come to see themselves as refugees from life; not creators of lives.
You and I know: homo economicus is about as good a role model as the love child of Freddy Krueger and Alien. Each and every one of us needs more than mere stuff and trinkets if we are to fully pursue happiness. We know: we need friends, security, stability, status, respect if we are to have a fighting chance at glimmers of contentment, delight, joy. Yet there is a truer need still: a reason to live fully, wholly, searingly; a reason that elevates us, at our best, past the mundane, and into the noble, good, and true. And unless this need is answered, our lives will always feel somehow reduced, lessened, blunted, a masterpiece seen through a veil of gauze, achingly incomplete. Each and every one of us is here for a reason; and it is that reason that anchors our stretching branches firmly in the soil of life.
So here’s the deal, broski. You and I don’t need a reason merely for romantic reasons; to add a celestial veneer of bogus miracle to the dreary predictability of our lives. Each and every one needs a reason for the most pragmatic of reasons: to evoke the best, noblest, and truest in us; and so to persevere in the pursuit of lives well lived. The tiny miracle of life is us — and whom we can choose to become.
So here are my five tiny rules for creating your reason.
Total surrender. Everyday for the last year, Priya’s gone to the café and…checked her Facebook. The self-help books and the mystical gurus will tell you: just imagine hard enough, and the life you so fervently desire will — poof!! — manifest. Let’s be honest: it’s a pleasant fairy tale for the nail-bitingly insecure. The simple truth is: If you want to live a life worth living, you have to do a lot (lot) more than merely wish for it: you have to work for it. And not merely in the brain-dead sense of “80 hours a week, at a job you hate, with people you hate, for a boss you want to stab, doing work that makes you want to projectile vomit, to benefit sociopathic shareholders that would rather see you miserable, fat, broke, and dead than fulfilled.” I mean work for it in a more profund sense: you must work to create a reason that demands from you nothing less than the furious, uncompromising pursuit of a life well lived; and if, like Priya, your so-called reason’s leading you to spin your wheels and go nowhere fast…it’s probably not one powerful enough to surrender to.
Absolute clarity. A reason is not a purpose. Priya’s real mistake is that she’s confused a purpose — writing books — with a reason: why the books must (not should, but absolutely, totally, must, or else your whole life will feel empty, wasted, pointless, over) be written. Imagine you were a master stonemason. Your purpose might be to build a great cathedral. But your reason might be to approach the divine, to leave a legacy, or simply to do great work. A purpose, then, is a set of accomplishments — but a reason is the animating force behind them; it is the “why” that gives sense to the “what”; and without it, all our “whats” may end up being empty, barren, senseless in the terms of a life that feels well lived. Priya, like many people I know, is a stonemason with a blueprint — but no incendiary, unstoppable, inescapable reason to begin building.
Real life. So if, like Priya, you can’t quite seem to put your finger on your reason, how do you begin? Here’s the trick. The reason isn’t found, or discovered. It is created. It is the great act of a life; the culminating act that joins our choices and decisions into a trajectory that resonates. A purpose is what you make: a book, a company, a bonus. A reason is what you live: knowledge, art, enlightenment, and more. What do you want your life to be? What is it that you want to live? When it comes not just to stuff, but to life, what is that you want to enact? You can’t answer this question like Priya’s been trying to: “books”. You must answer it in a more fundamental sense — “knowledge,” “art,” “education,” “enlightenment.” All these are better answers, in Priya’s case. They’re tiny steps beyond purpose, and towards the beginnings of a reason.
Radical simplicity. You can’t create your reason if your life is, pardon my French, full of bullshit. The answers above share one thing in common: they’re radically simple. Worthy, enduring, fulfilling reasons always are — because the timeless truths of life, which reasons exist to illuminate, are deceptively simple. So, forgive me, beancounters, but (as Priya still thinks) a reason is not a corporate mission statement (“To leverage my educational assets and optimize my career path!!”): it is the very opposite: a radically simple statement of why your life matters enough to you to fully, dangerously live it…past the edge.
Brutal honesty. You can’t create your reason if, pardon my French, you are full of shit. There are many reasons; but not all reasons are created equal. And you probably can’t create a worthy one if you’re not brutally honest with yourself about it. Raising a family and imbuing it with love; this is a grand and timeless reason; it elevates life. Vidal Sassoon’s reason: to bring art back to hairdressing? That’s a fantastic one. Pixar’s reason: creating heartwarming stories that bring people of all ages together? Works for me. Making minigames for advertisers to sell stuff to people they don’t really want to buy with money they don’t really have to live lives they don’t really feel? That’s a sucky reason, because it impoverishes life. Of course, the minigame maker might feel, in the moment, his work is rewarding — and it may be lucrative. But it isn’t likely to feel whole, for the simple reason that it’s reason is wanting in terms of meaningful human outcomes. The point here is not to create arbitrary divisions between which reasons are valid and which are lacking. The point is to start asking yourself, really: what is your reason? What would make it “good”? If you want to grab the top job at that megabank — why? If your reason is “to make a big pile of money,” you might want to think again. Why do you think, having made his billions, Bill Gates is trying to fix the world? He needs a bigger, better, truer reason.
Perhaps it’s true. Not all of us successfully create our reasons. But that is precisely why we must try. For it is in the reasonless that we see the power of life’s reason: the reason gives sense to life, and without sense, life feels like a maze, a trap, a game, an absurdity. We need a reason, because our reasons are what liberate us from lives that feel senseless.
Yet, Priya’s little parable tells us: reasons aren’t rational; they are larger than that: they are constructive. They aren’t tidy equations and models of life — yet nor are they mere wishes nor affirmations. They are the words in the language of life and death; words that come to compose the untidy, messy, often contradictory, thoroughly inconclusive stories we tell ourselves about what it means to have lived. And so they matter because they allow our lives, finally, to make startling glimmers of sense amidst the cruel senselessness and insensible beauty of the searing human experience. Only a reason has the magic to ignite, in the void, the spark; that comes to make a life feel that it has been more than accidents of fate colliding with chance.
And so it seems to me that you and I — the sons and daughters of the Lesser Depression, the orphans of modernity — we have three choices. We may retreat. We may revolt. Or we may rebel. We may retreat into digiphoria; the cold, joyless comfort of softly glowing screens. We may revolt, turning away in disgust, and become, in time, something like the leaders we scorn. Or we may rebel — and choose, here and now, even in the full fury of the storm, to answer the awesome challenge of lives well lived.
Reason is rebellion. It is through the creation of reasons to live fully that we rebel — and ignite lives worth living, instead of merely resigning ourselves to those that feel as if they aren’t. In reason, we rebel against immovable destiny, and gain a measure of freedom back from the stars.
Grace, then, is born in reason. And it is grace that gives us, finally, the power to love. To, through the heartbreak, the grief, and the joy, breathe life into possibility, and so breathe possibility into life. And that is what a life that feels burstingly whole, achingly full, timelessly true, is really all about: the power to love. And only a reason as solid and true as bedrock can give it to you.
So allow me to ask you again: what do you do when you reach the edge of heartbreak? Here’s my tiny answer: you create a reason to take you past the edge of heartbreak. And into big love, mighty grace, searing meaning, and limitless purpose. Hence, my question: what’s your reason?
Want to change an old habit? You probably should: One study determined that over 40% of the “decisions” we make every day aren’t really decisions.
Much of the time we don’t really make decisions. We do what we’ve done before, and that makes us less productive, less effective, less healthy and fit—less everything—than we could be.
So what can we do? Change an old habit into a new habit.
While changing a habit isn’t easy, it is simple—especially if you follow the process described by Charles Duhigg, the author of the bestselling book The Power of Habit. (Definitely worth a read, especially if you want to harness the power of habits to improve not just yourself but also your team or business.)
The key is to understand that you can’t extinguish a bad habit, but you can change that habit—and still get the same “reward” you currently get from your old habit.
Think about your typical day. Very little of what you think you “have” to do actually must be done that way.
Think you need that cup of coffee? You don’t. Somewhere along the line you started drinking coffee, decided you like it, decided you liked the caffeine kick… and now it’s an “indispensable” habit. But it’s not—you do need to drink liquids but you don’t need to drink coffee. (Don’t feel bad; I have a huge Diet Mountain Dew habit.)
The same is true with almost everything you do during your workday. Maybe you call distribution to “check in” every day even though you already get incredibly detailed reports. Maybe you send an email instead of making a call when you’re afraid of a confrontation. Everything you do is based on some amount of reasoning…but how often is what you’re doing the best way to accomplish the goal?
Rarely, if you’re like the average person—otherwise we’d all be extremely healthy, wealthy, and wise.
“Must” is a feeling that results from a habit. The only way to change a habit is to first decide that “must” can actually be negotiated or even eliminated.
As an example, let’s assume your habit is to check your email first thing. You want to change that habit because you tend to get bogged down by a flood of correspondence and you would prefer to hit your workday running in a different direction.
Every habit is based on a simple loop: cue, routine, and reward. The cue is the trigger that, based on some craving, shifts your brain into autopilot and initiates the routine.
Since your habit is to check your email first, you may be craving a sense of immediate control, to know what fires may have started, what issues may have popped up, or even what good things occurred overnight. Or you may be craving a reconnection with employees, customers, or even friends.
Whenever you feel an urge for a habit, that urge is the cue.
The routine is easy to determine. Your routine is the manifestation of the habit. It’s the cookie at break time or the Web surfing at lunch or, in this case, checking email right away.
The reward isn’t always so easy to determine. Maybe the reward you get from your habit is a feeling of control. Maybe it’s an, “Oh good… nothing awful happened overnight,” feeling of relief. Maybe it’s the, “I’m the captain of my universe and it feels good to mobilize the troops,” feeling you get from firing off a bunch of emails to your staff.
Think about what craving your habit is really satisfying. Going to the break room for a cup of coffee might not really be satisfying a coffee urge; what you really may be craving is the chance to hang out with other people and getting coffee is just an excuse.
Work hard to identify the reward, because to change a habit the reward has to stay the same. You won’t deny yourself the reward—you’ll just make the way you get that reward a lot more productive or positive..
Now that you know your cue and your reward, “all” you have to do is insert a new routine—one that is triggered by your cue and that also satisfies your current reward.
Say you check email right away because of an urge to immediately know about any overnight disasters… but you also don’t want to get bogged down by all the less than critical emails.
Simply find another way to accomplish your status check. Walk the floor instead. Make a couple quick phone calls. Check in with key employees. Get your status-check fix the old-fashioned way: in person.
Of course that doesn’t work if you manage remote employees. In that case, you could do what a friend does. He set up a separate email account, firstname.lastname@example.org. Employees only send emails to that account if an issue is truly an emergency. He checks that account when he gets to work (and a bunch of times at night, since he’s admittedly a worrier) and saves his “regular” email for later in the morning.
According to Duhigg, studies show that the easiest way to implement a new habit is to write a plan. The format is simple:
When (cue), I will (routine) because it provides me with (reward).
In this example, the plan is:
When I get to work, I will check in with key employees first because that lets me take care of any urgent issues right away.
Do that enough times, and eventually your new habit will be automatic—and you’ll be more productive.
Then move on to another habit!
What do you regret most about your career?
I had just finished a guest lecture on business and innovation at Parsons School for Design, and a particularly attentive front-row audience member kicked off question time with the curliest one of the day. I answered quickly with the hope of getting back on target. But judging from the scores of follow-up questions and the volume of post-lecture emails I received, a talk on career regret would have been the real bull’s-eye.
Ever since that afternoon, I’ve been on a mission to categorically answer the awkward but significant question of exactly what we’d do if we could magically rewind our careers. The hope? That by exposing what others are most disappointed about in their professional lives, we’re maximizing our chances of minimizing regret in our own.
To this end, I sat down with 30 professionals between the ages of 28 and 58, and asked each what they regretted most about their careers to date. The group was diverse: I spoke with a 39-year-old managing director of a large investment bank, a failing self-employed photographer, a millionaire entrepreneur, and a Fortune 500 CEO. Disappointment doesn’t discriminate; no matter what industry the individual operated in, what role they had been given, or whether they were soaring successes or mired in failure, five dominant themes shone through. Importantly, the effects of bad career decisions and disconfirmed expectancies were felt equally across age groups.
Here were the group’s top five career regrets:
1. I wish I hadn’t taken the job for the money. By far the biggest regret of all came from those who opted into high-paying but ultimately dissatisfying careers. Classic research proves that compensation is a “hygiene” factor, not a true motivator. What was surprising, though, were the feelings of helplessness these individuals were facing. Lamented one investment banker, “I dream of quitting every day, but I have too many commitments.” Another consultant said, “I’d love to leave the stress behind, but I don’t think I’d be good at anything else.” Whoever called them golden handcuffs wasn’t joking.
2. I wish I had quit earlier. Almost uniformly, those who had actually quit their jobs to pursue their passions wished they had done so earlier. Variable reinforcement schedules prevalent in large corporations, the visibility of social media, and the desire to log incremental gains are three reasons that the 80% of people dissatisfied with their jobs don’t quit when they know they should. Said one sales executive, “Those years could have been spent working on problems that mattered to me. You can’t ever get those years back.”
3. I wish I had the confidence to start my own business. As their personal finances shored up, professionals I surveyed yearned for more control over their lives. The logical answer? To become an owner, not an employee in someone else’s company. But in the words of Artful Dodger, wanting it ain’t enough. A recent study found that 70% of workers wished their current job would help them with starting a business in the future, yet only 15% said they had what it takes to actually venture out on their own. Even Fortune 500 CEOs dream of entrepreneurial freedom. Admitted one: “My biggest regret is that I’m a ‘wantrepreneur.’ I never got to prove myself by starting something from scratch.”
4. I wish I had used my time at school more productively. Despite all the controversy currently surrounding student loans, roughly 86% of students still view college as a worthwhile investment. This is reflected in the growing popularity of college: In writing Passion & Purpose, my coauthors and I found that 54% of Millennials have college degrees, compared to 36% of Boomers. Although more students are attending college, many of the group’s participants wished they had thoughtfully parlayed their school years into a truly rewarding first job. A biology researcher recounted her college experience as being “in a ridiculous hurry to complete what in hindsight were the best and most delightfully unstructured years of my life.” After starting a family and signing up for a mortgage, many were unable to carve out the space to return to school for advanced study to reset their careers.
5. I wish I had acted on my career hunches. Several individuals recounted windows of opportunity in their careers, or as one professional described, “now-or-never moments.” In 2005, an investment banker was asked to lead a small team in (now) rapidly growing Latin America. Sensing that the move might be an upward step, he still declined. Crushingly, the individual brave enough to accept the offer was promoted shortly to division head, then to CEO. Recent theories of psychology articulate the importance of identifying these sometimes unpredictable but potentially rewarding moments of change, and jumping on these opportunities to non-linearly advance your professional life.
Far from being suppressed, career regrets should hold a privileged place in your emotional repertoire. Research shows (PDF) that regret can be a powerful catalyst for change, far outweighing the short-term emotional downsides. As famed psychologist Dr. Neal Roese recently stated, “On average, regret is a helpful emotion.” It can even be an inspiring one. But it means that we must articulate and celebrate our disappointments, understanding that it’s our capacity to experience regret deeply, and learn from it constructively to ultimately frame our future success.
Mastering new skills is not optional in today’s business environment. “In a fast-moving, competitive world, being able to learn new skills is one of the keys to success. It’s not enough to be smart — you need to always be getting smarter,” says Heidi Grant Halvorson, a motivational psychologist and author of the HBR Single Nine Things Successful People Do Differently. Joseph Weintraub, a professor of management and organizational behavior at Babson College and coauthor of the book, The Coaching Manager: Developing Top Talent in Business, agrees: “We need to constantly look for opportunities to stretch ourselves in ways that may not always feel comfortable at first. Continual improvement is necessary to get ahead.” Here are some principles to follow in your quest for self-improvement:
Check your readiness
When working on a new skill or competency, you need to ask yourself two things. First, is your goal attainable? “There are certain limits to what you can learn,” explains Weintraub. “For example, you may want to be a brain surgeon, but not have the eye-hand coordination required.” Second, how much time and energy can you give to the project? “It’s not like going to the pharmacy and getting a prescription filled,” says Weintraub. Self-improvement is hard work. Halvorson agrees: “Many people implicitly believe that if you have to work hard at something, it means you lack ability. This is rubbish.” Instead, recognize that learning a new skill takes extreme commitment. Unless your goal is attainable and you’re prepared to work hard, you won’t get very far.
Make sure it’s needed
Weintraub suggests you also make sure the skill is relevant to your career, your organization, or both. You may be jazzed up about learning how to speak in front of large audiences, but does your manager value that? Unless you absolutely need the skill for your job, or for a future position, it’s unlikely you’ll get money for training or support from your manager. Gaining a new skill is an investment and you need to know upfront what the return will be.
Know how you learn best
Some learn best by looking at graphics or reading. Others would rather watch demonstrations or listen to things being explained. Still others need a “hands-on” experience. Halvorson says you can figure out your ideal learning style by looking back. “Reflect on some of your past learning experiences, and make a list of good ones and another list of bad ones,” she says. “What did the good, effective experiences have in common? How about the bad ones? Identifying common strands can help you determine the learning environment that works best for you.”
Get the right help
Eliciting support from others can greatly increase learning. Find someone you trust who has mastered the skill you’re trying to attain. And look beyond your immediate manager who has to evaluate you. Weintraub suggests you ask yourself: “Who in my organization, other than my boss, would notice my changes and give me honest feedback?” Then approach that person and say something like, “You are so comfortable with [the skill], something I’m not particularly good at. I’m really trying to work on that and would love to spend some time with you, learn from you, and get your feedback.” If you can’t find a mentor inside your company, look for people in your industry or from your network. “Ultimately, you want to go with the best teacher. If there is someone in your organization who is able and willing to provide quality mentoring, then great. If not, seek outside help,” says Halvorson.
Self-improvement can feel overwhelming. “You can’t take on everything. If you do, you’ll never do it,” says Weintraub. Instead, choose one or two skills to focus on at a time, and break that skill down into manageable goals. For example, if you’re trying to become more assertive, you might focus on speaking up more often in meetings by pushing yourself to talk within the first five minutes.
Reflect along the way
To move from experimentation to mastery, you need to reflect on what you are learning. Otherwise the new skill won’t stick. Halvorson and Weintraub both suggest talking to others. “Always share your goals with those individuals who can provide informational or emotional support along the way,” says Halvorson. “Even if that person doesn’t have the answer, he can help you and keep you honest about how much you’re improving,” says Weintraub. Talking about your progress helps you get valuable feedback, keeps you accountable, and cements the change.
Challenge yourself to teach it to others
One of the quickest ways to learn something new, and to practice it, is to teach others how to do it. So share what you learn with your team, your manager, or your co-workers. You can force yourself to do it by putting a “teaching” date on your calendar or agreeing to lead a formal training session a few months down the road. With objectives like those, your learning will be much more focused and practical.
“Too often, we approach a new skill with the attitude that we should nail it right out of the gate,” says Halvorson. The reality is that it takes much longer. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It usually takes six months or more to develop a new skill,” says Weintraub. And it may take longer for others to see and appreciate it. “People around you will only notice 10% of every 100% change you make,” he says.
Principles to Remember
Case study #1: Learn by trial and error
Jaime Petkanics was a basic Excel user when she started her first job out of college. As a recruiter for JP Morgan, data analysis wasn’t one of the required skills. However, a few months in, she was asked to build an Excel model that would track and report the success rates of campus recruiting efforts. “I was totally out of my element,” she admits. “Excel is not a core part of a recruiter’s job. I was focused on hiring people — that’s what I was being measured on.” But she had an interest in analysis (that’s why she chose to do recruiting at an investment bank), and wanted to prove herself as a newcomer.
She started by learning as much as possible on her own. She found tutorials on Google, and watched instructional videos on YouTube. But she still struggled. “When I got stuck, I would ask bankers. They build models every day so I was able to leverage my connections and find people who had the right skills,” she says. Over the course of two weeks, Jaime developed the model. “I didn’t get it perfect the first time. There were mistakes in the formulas and people found errors,” she says. But she continued to refine it, and because of her success, others asked her to take on similar projects. “Once people knew that I could pull data together quickly — and make sense of it — I started to get a lot of requests.”
She admits this trial- and-error approach wasn’t the most effective way to learn Excel but given the immediacy of the need, it was necessary. By the time she left the job almost three years later, Excel and data analytics were strengths that helped her land her next position.
Case study #2: Experiment with different approaches
Safia Syed, a regional finance controller at a global outsourcing company, noticed that any time she suggested an improvement to a financial or IT system, colleagues resisted. Her ideas went through numerous rounds of review and were heavily questioned. She decided that her communication style was hindering her, and needed to be changed. “I was given feedback a few times that I was too opinionated,” she says.
Safia started by reading books about how to persuade people effectively and joined Toastmasters, a non-profit educational organization. Through that program, she learned how to connect with stakeholders and present ideas in a more appealing way. Also, coincidentally during the same time, the president of Safia’s company started interviewing key employees to better understand what they did or did not like about their jobs. This provided Safia with a perfect opportunity. She explained her desire to see her ideas have more impact and the boss advised her to focus less on why something needed to be changed and more on how it could happen, including what she could do to make sure it did.
Safia realized she had been assuming that her colleagues understood what the problems were and how to fix them. She had been highlighting what needed to be done, and leaving it at that. With her new understanding in hand, she was able to try a different approach: she mapped out a process and pointed to the root causes. This helped her audience understand where they could make changes and how exactly she could help.
Safia has noticed a big difference in how colleagues respond to her suggestions: they are now more open to hearing them, and willing to work with her to implement them.
As the saying goes, “It gets lonely at the top.” There are many reasons that one feels isolated and at times lonely when they have reached the pinnacle of success. For one thing, everyone wants to be your friend; but since you can’t make time for everyone – only a select few get invited into the circle. What’s my point? Accepting success and failure once you have reached the highest levels of success requires the same mental toughness it took to get there. As has been proven throughout history, the higher you climb the more quickly the naysayers want to bring you back down. Envy and adversity become the most common invaders you must manage – and all the while you need to remain mentally tough, and not allow the noise to cloud your mind and control your actions.
Mental toughness defines the leadership game. You need wide-angle vision to continuously navigate the terrain that awaits you with each big decision you make and vision you cast. The tension points of leadership can be extremely exhausting and pressure-packed. Nevertheless, the leadership journey must continue and your demeanor must appear unfazed as if it were business as usual.
Mental toughness is acquired over time. To be mentally tough means that risk is your best friend, that innovation comes second nature and that you have grown accustomed to anticipating crisis and managing change. Mental toughness is also a by-product of experiencing failure and knowing how to rebound. As Rick Newman noted in his book, Rebounders, “Setbacks can be a secret weapon. They often teach vital things you’ll never learn in school, on the job or from others.”
As I have learned from my own experiences, mental toughness begins when you can separate your emotions and remain focused on what matters most. And this is never more true than when you are being ambushed by one of the following six negative members of your audience:
1. The Doubters
These are the skeptics who want you to fail and believe your ideas have no merit. They are the pessimistic ones waiting on the sidelines – wanting things to go wrong and salivating to witness your hardship.
2. The Leeches
These are the people who lack creativity and originality. Leeches will stay close to your every move just so they can steal your ideas. They enjoy asking you lots of questions and are aggressive in requesting one-on-one time to pick your brain for wisdom that they can use for their own personal benefit. The sibling of the leech is the loafer, and you can learn more about both types here.
3. The Critics
These are the people who are always finding ways to disrupt your confidence by telling you that your vision is wrong. They are quick to inform you that your knowledge of the marketplace is not realistic as they attempt to throw your thinking off kilter. The critics are a legitimate challenge because they possess valid insights of the landscape you are competing in – yet they lack the hands-on battle wounds to justify their criticisms. They are the prototypical “know-it-alls” who believe that they are always right and that their “written credentials” allow them to have a voice in the matter.
4. The Envious
These are the people who wish they had your courage, but instead waste their energy by poking fun at your efforts to create impact. Envious people make your job more difficult as they attempt to slow down your execution by trying to convince themselves and others that your work isn’t important. Most envious people are those who wish they were more like you, and thus remain bitter because they don’t trust themselves enough to be unique in their own ways. Because we live in a dog-eat-dog world, envious people would rather find joy in making your life difficult rather than using their valuable time to make a difference in the world. Read more about how envy destroys careers here.
5. The Victims
Victims believe they haven’t had a good break in life and thus feel that something is owed to them for their misfortune. They would rather spend their time trying to make you feel sorry for them. They are quick to ask for favors, but slow to reciprocate. They are the manipulators and want others to feel their pain – though they are rarely motivated to take initiative.
6. The Noise
These are the voices that are drowning in mass confusion and just want to be heard. They are loud and obnoxious and crave attention. Unlike the victims, they have no real ambition and live with no purpose. They serve primarily to create chaos and make other people’s lives miserable (or as U.S. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew called them, “Nattering nabobs of negativism”).
Leadership is a journey of mental toughness. Without it, you can’t effectively think, act and innovate. You can’t motivate or inspire the best in others. If you can’t handle the aforementioned six types of people, you should think carefully if you are ready to assume a leadership role. It’s a mandatory responsibility that is not outlined in the job description.
Whenever I’m discussing a challenge—okay, fine, whenever I’m whining about a problem—my wife eventually interrupts and says, “Yeah, yeah. I get it. So what are you going to do differently?”
Her response would be fairly frustrating if she wasn’t right. Discussing—okay, fine, whining—never helps. The only way to overcome a problem is to do something differently.
But there’s no reason to wait until you’re forced to make a bad situation better. There’s a better approach. Why not be proactive and turn average into awesome?
Especially since it’s easy: Just employ one of the Five As of Awesome. (Wait—did I just channel my inner Tony Robbins?)
All you have to do is pick one of the following things to do differently:
And, for the most part, I’m okay with that, since I can always be a better me. I can ride faster or climb better than I do now, and I can make a bigger difference in the lives of my family and friends.
Think about the people you admire and pick a few of their qualities to emulate, not their accomplishments.
You can’t be them.
The cool thing is, they can’t be you.
Let others be who they are. Your customers, your vendors, your suppliers… they aren’t going to change. Don’t expect them to.
Pick one source of frustration and decide what you will do differently, including, possibly, walking away.
When you stop focusing on negatives you may start to notice the positive qualities you missed. Rarely are people as bad as you make them out to be—and if they are, it’s up to you to make whatever changes are necessary.
Help an employee. Don’t wait to be asked. Pick someone who is struggling and offer to help.
But don’t just say, “Is there some way I can help you?” Be specific: Offer to help with a specific task, or to take over a task for a few days, or to work side-by-side.
A general offer is easy to brush aside. A specific offer not only shows you want to help, it shows you care.
Help a superstar. Counterintuitive? No way.
Compared to others, the best-performing people don’t need help so they rarely get it. As a result they’re often lonely, at least in a professional sense.
Offer to help with a specific task. Not only will you build a nice interpersonal bridge, some of their skills or qualities might rub off on you.
Help anyone. Few things feel better than helping a person in need. Take a quick look around; people less fortunate than you are everywhere.
For example, I conducted an interview skills seminar for prison inmates (after all, who needs to know how to deal with tough interview questions more than a convicted felon?) It only took an hour of my time and was incredibly rewarding.
Most of the prisoners were touchingly grateful that someone—that anyone—cared enough to want to help them. I got way more out of the experience than they did.
Change measurements. Over time we all develop our own ways to measure our performance.
Maybe you focus on time to complete, or quality, or end result. Each is effective, but sticking with one or two could cause you to miss opportunities to improve.
Say you focus on meeting standards; what if you switched it up and focused on time to complete?
Measuring your performance in different ways forces you to look at what you regularly do from a new perspective.
Change benchmarks. If you develop apps it’s fun to benchmark against, say, the success of Angry Birds. Setting an incredible goal is fine—if you don’t aim high you won’t reach high—but failing to hit a lofty goal can kill your motivation.
So choose a different benchmark. Look for companies or people with similar assets, backgrounds, etc. and try to beat their results. Then, after you do, choose another target.
Aim for the heights, but include a few steps along the way. The journey will be a lot more fun.
Go opposite. If you haven’t reached a goal then what you’re currently doing isn’t working.
Instead of tweaking your approach, take an entirely different tack. Pick one goal you’re struggling to achieve and try a completely different approach.
Sometimes small adjustments eventually pay off, but occasionally you just need to blow things up and start over.
Drop one thing. We all have goals. Often we have too many goals; it’s impossible to do 10 things incredibly well.
Take a look at your goals and pick at least one that you’ll set aside, at least for now. (Don’t feel bad about it. You weren’t reaching your goals anyway, so what’s the harm in dropping a few?)
Then put the time you were spending on that goal into your highest priority. You can’t have it all, but you can have a lot—especially when you narrow your focus to one or two key goals.
Change your workday. Get up earlier. Get up later. Take care of emails an hour after you start work. Eat at your desk.
Pick one thing you do on a regular basis, preferably something you do for no better reason than that’s the way you always do it and therefore it’s comfortable, and do that one thing in a different way or at a different time.
Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. Sometimes familiarity breeds complacency, and complacency is a progress and improvement killer.
Choose a new habit. Successful people are successful for a reason, and that reason is often due to the habits they create and maintain.
Take a close look at the people who are successful in your field: What do they do on a regular basis? Then adopt one of their habits and make it your own.
Never reinvent a wheel when a perfect wheel already exists.
Choose someone to mentor. I learn more when I teach than the people I’m trying to teach. (Hopefully that says more about the process of teaching than it does about my teaching abilities.)
When you mentor another person you accomplish more than just helping someone else. You build your network—and more importantly, you learn a few things about yourself.
Chronic procrastinators are riddled with internal conflict. We may talk to ourselves or others about what we are not doing, like “I didn’t get anything done today.” “I can’t focus.” “I need to get this project done already.” We feel as if we are a slave to their brains, not in control of our behaviors and even our minds.
Yes, I’m saying “we” because I’m admitting that I have a problem. But I think I may also have recently stumbled upon an important part of the solution.
Two things that maintain chronicity in psychological or behavioral problems are a) lack of specificity and b) lack of taking responsibility or seeing what’s in your control. Self-deception has been found to require vague language, while an “external locus of control” frames the situation as something we can’t do anything about, therefore it’s not our fault and not our responsibility.
To begin to regain control, one can see past actions clearly using specific language, and then label them as choices. For instance a person could say to themselves, “I chose to browse Facebook for 3 hours this morning.” Simply by labeling an action as a choice to yourself, you can immediately regain an “internal locus of control.” (Note that this might not be a good idea to go around telling others about your choices, especially if they determine your employment status, but being honest with yourself is an important step in changing your behavior in a way they would approve of as well.)
Every moment of every day you are being productive, even if you take 20 minutes to just sit on the couch and do “nothing,” that is a something perhaps called “sitting on the couch letting my mind wander.” You are always producing some result. The question isn’t whether you are doing something or not doing something, but whether you are doing what you want that is serving your needs and moving you closer to your outcomes.
The thing is, we all have multiple wants and needs. Nobody only wants to work or to play, to focus or to wander. At some times we have lots of energy and at other times we are tired. This is normal.
We can imagine these conflicting wants and needs as a board room with multiple people around a big conference table, all trying to make a decision together. How is this group going to make decisions? One way is by consensus, where everybody goes around and says what they want and what they think is best to do, and all parties keep hashing it out until they can all agree on a single course of action. This kind of negotiation leads to group cohesion but can take a long time in some groups, especially if each member is worried that their department’s needs won’t be met. Other groups bring it to a vote. And still other groups make decisions by having a single appointed party be the decision maker who gets all the information they think they need from the various members and then makes the decision. Any of these decision making styles can work well depending on the group and the context.
What chronic procrastinators do though is more like a boss who fails to call the meeting, and therefore doesn’t even make clear decisions, thus dodging responsibility for making any bad decisions and blaming it on others lower down. “Hey, I’m not in control here–those guys screwed it all up. It’s not my fault!” The chronic procrastinator similarly blames lower drives, or even his or her brain for being the one in charge, thus framing the situation as being a victim to forces outside of my control. Even by saying “I procrastinated” instead of “I watched YouTube videos featuring incredibly cute puppies for 90 minutes” is a way of being vague to avoid accepting the consequences of one’s actions.
The first step therefore is to get sufficient available information and take responsibility for decisions, even the decision to allow something or someone else to make the decisions.
You don’t have to be 100% in control of everything to do this (you won’t ever be anyway), you don’t have to have 100% of the information, and you don’t have to only make decisions that all parts of you like in the moment. You just recognize what information and control you actually do have, acknowledge it, and recognize that “if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”
A chronic procrastinator can begin to transform into a decision-maker who is in control of their life by keeping an inventory of his or her time, saying, “I decided to do that. I fully accept the consequences of my decision.” Instead of saying, “I did nothing all day,” you might say, “I played video games for two and a half hours, then checked Facebook and Twitter for about 40 minutes, then read several blogs for 90 minutes. Then I did about 10 minutes of work on my report.”
Note this language is non-judgmental. Most procrastinators when they are specific about what they actually did are highly judgmental, saying things like “I wasted away 3 hours on Reddit like a freaking idiot. God, what’s wrong with me?!?” Keep your language objective and neutral, purely descriptive. You can also describe how you feel about your decisions. Again, keep it descriptive. For instance, “I decided to play Skyrim for 12 hours today. I feel physically exhausted, my eyes hurt, my body is stiff. I feel worried about my project that is due Monday, and notice that when I think about that, my heart rate becomes elevated.” This clear, specific, objective language provides you with the information to make more intelligent decisions. Thus talking to yourself in this way makes you smarter than someone who talks to themselves in vague language.
Other popular methods for tracking what you actually physically do are to keep a time log (write down what you did during each 15, 30, or 60 minute interval) or to use the Pomodoro Technique or other “time boxing” methods.
So once you get clear about what you actually are doing with your time and see your actions as decisions, what then? Most people when they consider doing something that bring short term gain for long term pain only think about the initial good feelings. They might say to themselves, “Man, I’d so much rather be checking Facebook right now,” or just make a mental picture (often so fast they don’t even notice) of how good it would feel to do so.
What they almost never do is make a mental movie that starts with doing the thing that creates the good feelings and plays out all the way to the unpleasant consequences before deciding. Instead they just play a captivating movie inside that motivates them to do the thing that feels good in the moment. Then they might compare that movie to what they are doing right now and choose the action that feels better. That’s what we call a poor decision-making strategy!
Later they look back with feelings of guilt and regret. But then since the action happened in the past, there’s nothing they can do about it now, yet they feel terrible and want to feel better or avoid feeling bad, so they may indulge again in the thing that feels good now. This is what we call a feedback loop, or a downward spiral.
Hey, could you use this information to motivate yourself differently and make better decisions? You betcha. It could even reverse the loop, creating an upward spiral. While you can’t do anything about the past, you can learn to make better decisions by making mental movies that play out until the logical consequences, thus getting a more accurate feeling about how you’ll feel in the future. This solves the whole problem about hyperbolic discounting and present bias by making the future real now. It’s also what people who don’t procrastinate do automatically.
Here’s how you do it:
Think about a behavior that feels good in the moment but has long-term consequences that you don’t want. Close your eyes and make a mental movie starting with the choice to do the short-term behavior and play a movie that goes out long enough to link that choice up with the natural consequence—that is, until you feel the pain now of what would happen if you made that decision (instead of feeling pain in the form of guilt and regret later when it’s too late to do anything about it). Then think about an alternative behavior that has more desired long-term consequences and make a second mental movie. Again play the movie out all the way until the natural consequences so you can feel what that would feel like if you made that decision. Compare the movies side by side and choose which one you want. You can make as many such movies as you want given however many decisions you want to consider.
That’s it in a nutshell. If you think you’re terrible at visualizing, you’re probably not (everyone dreams vividly every night whether they remember it consciously or not), and in any case it doesn’t really matter because just pretending to visualize usually works just as effectively. So just try “acting as if” you can see it, or even write out the consequences in sensory specific detail as if writing a novel, then read over the stories and decide which one you want.
For best results, practice in advance, when it’s easy. Don’t wait for the moment of temptation when it’s hard. Practice again and again and again until you realize this new decision making strategy is better and you choose it every time.
This is but one strategy that is useful for overcoming chronic procrastination. Although can’t say I’m totally reformed yet, I’ve made huge strides myself in making better decisions (and I was the WORST!), so I believe that you can do it too. I also provide personal change consulting for those who want professional support in making such changes, so feel free to get in touch with me if you’re interested.
2. Take yourself out of harm’s way.
You can’t easily lash yourself to a mast, but you can selectively avoid temptations. If you want to lose weight, it makes sense to remove your favorite high-calorie foods from the shelves, and to tell the waiter at restaurants not to bring the bread. If you want to get challenging work done, turn off your email entirely for designated periods of time rather than try to resist its Pavlovian ping.
3. Whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t.
The more powerfully driven you are to take instant action, the more likely you shouldn’t. When the pull is intense, it’s likely you’ve activated your fight-or-flight physiology. That’s great when you’re actually facing a life-or-death situation and need to react instantly. In most life circumstances, it serves you better to reflect before you react.
4. Sleep as much as you must to feel fully rested.
For nearly 98% of us, that means at least 7 hours a night. “Fatigue,” said Vince Lombardi, “makes cowards of us all.” Specifically, it undermines our capacity for self-control, and we’re more likely to default to instant gratification. The best sleep ritual is not just to choose a precise bedtime, but also to begin winding down at least 30 minutes before turning out the lights.
5. Do the most important thing first in the morning.
That’s when the vast majority of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions. Our energy reservoir diminishes as the day wears on, which is why it’s so difficult to get to the hardest work late in the day. Conversely, the more focused you are, the higher the quality of work you’ll do, and the more you’ll get done. I often get more important work done during the first 90 minutes of the morning than in the rest of the hours of the day put together.
6. Eat energy rich foods in small doses at frequent intervals.
Food – specifically glucose – literally fuels willpower. Unfortunately, the body can only make use of a limited amount at any given time, so we need to refuel at least every three hours. Sugars and simple carbohydrates provide a surge of energy that doesn’t last, while lean proteins and complex carbohydrates provide a steadier, more enduring source of energy and therefore willpower.
7. Do one thing at a time.
With so much coming at us so relentlessly – emails, texts, people, and information – we assume the only way to get to it all is to juggle multiple tasks at the same time. In fact, moving between tasks creates something called “switching time.” When you shift attention from one focus of attention to another, the average time it takes to finish the first task increases by at least 25%.
8. Work in sprints.
Human beings aren’t meant to operate like computers, at high speeds, continuously. Rather, we’re designed to pulse between spending and renewing energy. The ultradian rhythm refers to a 90-minute cycle inside us, during which we move from a state of higher physiological arousal progressively down towards fatigue. Focus intensely, ideally without interruption, for no more than 90 minutes at a time. Then take a real break, for at least a few minutes, to relax emotionally, give the mind a rest and physically recharge.
Exercise 1 – Revisit your childhood. What did you love to do? “It’s amazing how disconnected we become to the things that brought us the most joy in favor of what’s practical,” says Rob Levit, an Annapolis, Md.-based creativity expert, speaker and business consultant. Levit suggests making a list of all the things you remember enjoying as a child. Would you enjoy that activity now? For example, Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s greatest architect, played with wooden blocks all through childhood and perhaps well past it.”Research shows that there is much to be discovered in play, even as adults,” Levit says. Revisit some of the positive activities, foods and events of childhood. Levit suggests asking yourself these questions to get started: What can be translated and added into your life now? How can those past experiences shape your career choices now?
Exercise 2 – Make a “creativity board.” Start by taking a large poster board, put the words “New Business” in the center and create a collage of images, sayings, articles, poems and other inspirations, suggests Michael Michalko, a creativity expert based in Rochester, N.Y., and Naples, Fla., and author of creativity books and tools, including ThinkPak (Ten Speed Press, 2006). “The idea behind this is that when you surround yourself with images of your intention — who you want to become or what you want to create — your awareness and passion will grow,” Michalko says. As your board evolves and becomes more focused, you will begin to recognize what is missing and imagine ways to fill the blanks and realize your vision.