Saturday, January 30, 2010

5 mistakes smart people make

Time to read this post: 7 minutes.
Just back to New York after three days in Madrid for work. I've been receiving a lot of requests in the last few weeks from friends and (increasingly) friends of friends asking for advice. They are always interesting, always smart and generally feeling a little lost. When we meet I tend to end up explaining one of five commons themes that smart people often forget. Here they are:

1. Success and happiness are not the same thing

When I ask people to summarize what they are wanting out of life they throw out a lot of words. Stuff like ‘Love’, ‘Achievement’, ‘Family’, ‘Fame’, ‘Peace’, ‘Money’. If you summarize the thousands of responses each aspiration really falls into just two categories.

First, “Success”: deep down many of us want to win the game of life. We want to accomplish something extraordinary. We want to be recognized and applauded. We feel pleasure when we take a step toward this goal. This can show up more strongly in some of us but we all have this need to some extent.

Second, “Happiness”. We want to enjoy our short lives on this earth. We want to fall in love, to experience joy and generally feel good. Both success and happiness are good and reasonable goals. Here’s the problem: they are not the same thing. Many business leaders spend years scaling the mountain of corporate success only to find they feel empty inside. Conversely others seek fulfillment and enlightenment; they believe happiness comes from within. But giving up on their ambitions and dreams is hard - they find themselves wanting to make progress, to take action and fulfill their need to feel competence.

Understanding what will make you successful and what will make you happy are two very important questions. But they are different questions and getting your head around that is step one.

2 .Choice is paralyzing

I know this sounds nauseating but you really are extremely lucky. Of all the times in history that you could have been born, and you go and show up at the end of twentieth century. Good job. Make no mistake the Dark Ages would have sucked. In terms of your life prospects and the opportunities available to you, you are luckier than 99.9% of humans ever to walk the planet. Today we have unprecedented levels of opportunity. Apparently we can be anything we want to be. What a luxury.

Or not. Having an infinite number of permutations and combinations for our careers is not everything it is cracked up to be. Unlimited choice can produce genuine suffering or more commonly, total inaction. When faced with 258 types of cookies in the supermarket aisle many people will simply just walk away. Why risk making the wrong choice?

In the British version of The Office, Tim is reflecting on why he is in his mid 30s doing a job he doesn’t like: “If you look at life like rolling a dice, then my situation now, as it stands - yeah, it may only be a 3. If I jack that in now, go for something bigger and better, yeah, I could easily roll a six - no problem, I could roll a 6... I could also roll a 1. OK? So, I think sometimes... Just leave the dice alone.”

Are you someone who gets paralyzed by choice? When does it happen?

3. Don’t believe your feelings

One of the worst pieces of advice to come out from popular self-help is to ‘trust your emotions’. Take a long hard look at yourself, it says, and you will work out what to do or who you want to become. But psychology has taught us that this is mostly nonsense. We as humans are terrible at predicting how they will feel in the future . If only I could get the promotion then I’d be happy. If only I could take six months off work to go travelling then everything would be good. If I could just lose 6lbs… Furthermore, we are also terrible at remembering what made us happy in the past.

When I’m feeling down and I ‘follow my feelings’ then I typically end up eating junk food on the couch watching Law & Order re-runs. This isn’t very helpful. Similarly making big decisions about your career and relationships when you are not in a good place is even more dangerous.

To oversimplify for a moment: your mental well-being is a complex mix of what you are thinking, what you are feeling and what you are doing. Many life gurus will assert that A leads to B or B leads to C: “Fake it til you make it”…” and suchlike. No-one has proven it conclusively but it’s clear that causality goes in multiple directions.

For example, I find going for a run (‘doing’) makes me feel more energized (‘feeling’) and helps me have creative ideas (‘thinking’). Indeed, I am increasingly convinced that we are “much more likely to act our way into a new way of being than to think our way into a new way of acting” .

All that’s to say if you are feeling stuck in a rut then I would caution you against making dramatic life-changing decisions.

4. Change is not linear

If you are like most people you may believe that cracking a major career question goes something like this: realise that there is something wrong about your current situation
  • reflect on what you really want to do, your ideal end point
  • identify your options against your fixed goal
  • take a series of linear, sequential steps to get there.
It’s a great plan on paper. Unfortunately it’s not the plan followed by people who successfully reinvent their career. Alternatively you might imagine a storyline more like a movie script. The film’s hero (you) has an epiphany about what they will do for the rest of their life. They write a Jerry Maguire-like memo and stick it to their boss. They start afresh in a new industry and become incredibly successful. The End.

The reality is much messier. Successful career changers tend to start experimenting with new job ideas. You might start volunteering somewhere at the weekend. You might go and work-shadow a friend who has a job that kind-of appeals to you.

Change happens in fits and starts. It is rarely the transformative revelation that great novels & movies will make you believe. Neither is it a slow, steady, gradual evolution. You will likely start chipping away at a new idea, suddenly you will get huge traction and everything will be changing and before you know it, it has all slowed down again.

The main message here is that opportunities for significant transitions in your life will come and go. If you are looking to make changes then you will need to embrace these moments of opportunity even though you will never feel quite ready for them.

5. You are good at things you don’t enjoy

Many career sessions involve trying to understand what gives you energy. What do you enjoy doing irrespective of whether you are being paid for it. These are typically labeled skills or talents or strengths. Sometimes the career coach will then interview the client’s friends and colleagues to get a more complete perspective. They will hear that you are also really good at some other things that you don’t enjoy. Most of us get confused about activities that we have had a lot of experience. These are ones that we might have accumulated years of experience and we get praised accordingly either verbally or in our performance appraisal. But that doesn’t mean that we like doing these things.


The chart is relatively straight-forward and one good way to think about this stuff . In the top-right you have your Realized Strengths. These are the things that energize you, that you are good at, and that you get to do frequently.

In the top left you have your Unrealized Strengths. These are the things that energies you, that you are good at, and that you may not get to do very often. They are by definition hard to identify because you have had less experience using them. In this quadrant lies huge amount of personal opportunity.

In the bottom right, you have Learned Behaviors. These are the things that you are good at, but that drain you when you are doing them. For me this is project planning. Sometimes they are necessary evils. Other times they are the primary way that you are earning your living. Overly focusing on this quadrant is the cause of most people’s unhappiness in the modern workplace.

In the bottom left, you have your weaknesses. You are neither good at these, nor do they give you energy. These are best avoided at all costs.
Which of these five most applies to you? What's your plan to overcome them?

26 comments:

SpDL said...

thanks this is a great article - I recently took the Strengths 2.0 test and found that to be really insightful.. as a way to better know my strengths and focus on those over my weaknesses.

also taking a note from Tim Ferris and trying to do 1 thing that I fear everyday. it's slowly changing my perspective on what is possible!

Lois said...

This is a nice piece. I will say that as a happy and successful person (I like your distinctions - VERY true). I do follow my instincts. I do that because I have had success with that in past. If one is not happy or successful, then they may need to be more fact based, if they have gotten to their current zone by following their emotions. Is following your emotions the same as following your gut?

shrinkthecamel said...

Excellent, excellent advice here. I hope you don't mind if I borrow some of this at some point (giving full credit, of course!)

Plenty to chew on.

Aventurine said...

Smart people make stupid mistakes but stupid people do accidentally make right choices. It all depends on the situation and outcomes. Well, life in itself is mystical. It has both black and white, and the best is grey, the middle way.

brigittekm1 said...

I like how you presented such complex ideas simply and in list form.
The article needs to be read and re-read to really sink in as the subject matter is something we all battle with on a daily basis and is the cause of much frustration, especially life-altering decisions regarding life and career that don't really pan out as we imagine.
Thank you for posting.
Brigitte

The Old Wolf said...

There are some good thoughts here, and, I disagree with the "Don't trust your feelings" premise. Accepting that where we are at any given moment is the result of the sum total of the choices we have made in life is the first step to realizing that feeling "down in the dumps" is a choice also, one that it takes only a split second to step out of. Note that I'm not referring to clinical depression, which is a medical condition, but rather the bumps and grinds of daily life that we're all subject to. The path of "do-have-be" leads to frustration and dissatisfaction, where as "be-do-have" is more likely to result in peace of mind, expanded creativity, and greater fulfillment.

vista said...

ok, in general i agree, espesially 1. Success and happiness are not the same thing. Really wonderful post, thanks
but
3. Don’t believe your feelings...
Here I can not agree with you, I learned to trust my feelings. I can imagine future goal my hot dream, and I can taugh her, feel and see myself into this station. I have a strong intuition, even sometimes i make decisions faster than think it over until the end.
Moreover, if the cases I have not very successfully, I try first to think and calculate. But if i do not find a reasonable way, the logic is powerless and can't help me, I allow myself to feel. That is, I meditate, and ask myself, where is the error, where I turned onto the wrong path. and the answer comes from within, not from the head.

d0ti5 said...

Fabulous! We are so often told things like Don't sweat the small stuff - and it is all small stuff!, which is to misunderstand that life is made up of small stuff. What else are you supposed to sweat?

This insight is right to the point - you can be happy and successful, but not if you confuse the two.

Tony Noland said...

This was a great article, very insightful - thanks!

Mikko said...

I think you can be imagining your "new life", and start to act accordingly - of course those are very practical pieces - small acts, like spending time in Facebook to find new companion, etc. So I think I am a walking example of that - last year my life totally changed.

christina said...

Brilliant!Basic, simple stuff, that we just plain forget. thanks for the reminder!!

Hjelholt said...

A great article, which i surely will have to read again beofre long.

As others have stated I do however not agree on "Don't believe your feelings".

I know your example about the choice between the couch and the going for a run all too well...

But feelings can also be a powerfull motivator for change in your life, and therefore should also sometimes be believed.

I ususally listen to my feelings, but most of the time also just take a reality check with the brain as well. Which I think is your point put in other words.

I must however also admit, that some of the most existing experiences in my life have come after just listening to my feelings and "go for it".
This sort of action has of course also caused a few lows. But you sometimes have to gamlbe to win, and be prepared to loose.

Louis J. Alloro said...

Love it. Thanks Alan. Some really sound advice here.

Nick said...

Wonderful post -- say it like it is!

Josh Bulloc said...

I have found that happiness comes from success but we have to realize that success is not just in one area of our lives. If we have a great income but no family time then you are successful in one are but lacking in another. Success is not one dimensional and we have to define success for ourselves.

Josh Bulloc

Josh Bulloc said...

I think the problem with our view of happiness is because we think how the outer world affects creates happiness. If you lose the weight you think you will be happier because of the way people perceive you. You cannot affect how others perceive you so easily. We just need to get to better know ourselves and they we will find what makes up happy. Most likely there are things in your life that keep occurring and you have ignored. These may be the hidden gems that make you happy. Getting to know yourself is not an easy task but it is needed to find true happiness.

urvin shah said...

nice post
happy realization

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deefurn said...

Thanks for the article. I had a discussion with my girlfriend a few days ago about the ramifications of obeying emotions and the practice of rationally reflecting on them - a practice rarely administered but quite important.

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