5 Mistakes Smart People Make

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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.

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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?
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