Your best friend loves playing baseball. He’s good at it and looks likely to make it to near-professional level one day. You’re a total klutz at the game. You don’t enjoy it, but you keep trying because your friend is so keen. He does his best to help you, but however hard you try, you don’t get much better.
What should you do?
About 99.9% of people will tell you to give it up and play something else. That seems to make sense, doesn’t it? It isn’t your game. Maybe you should try basketball or soccer or golf instead? So why is it that people at work urge you to go on trying to get better at things that you have little interest in and no talent for either?
I’m raising this because it seems to me that many, many people make themselves (and others) unhappy by slogging away at types of work that simply aren’t their game. The reason is that sneaky little word “ought.” Nobody believes you ought to be a good baseball player to be counted a worthy person in this world—or even in the organization where you work. It’s fine if you are, and just as fine if you aren’t. But they take a very different attitude to things like making presentations, writing reports, being able to sell, being a team leader, or making that next promotion.
It begins in school. You ought to be good at math—or English, or science, or whatever. If you aren’t, you’re a bad person. Pull yourself together. Make more effort. Get a grip! Later, it spills over into working life. You ought to be more decisive, or more creative, or more organized, or a better team player. You certainly ought to be more ambitious, a higher achiever, or more likely to be next in line for that promotion. If you aren’t, you’re certainly not “the right kind of person” we want around here. Never mind what other strengths or abilities you may possess. If you don’t match the stereotype of the “good employee” that’s laid down in the standards for performance appraisals, you must—by definition—be a bad one.
And since this is often the time of year that those performance appraisals take place, you can expect to be criticized and humiliated during that process. You know that performance appraisals are meant to motivate people? Well, not in your case, buddy. Your job is to pull your socks up and get with the program—or else.
Why is this nonsense?
Here’s the reality. Some people are good at certain things, some people aren’t . . . but we’re all good at something. It’s simply something different from whatever the next person’s good at. And that’s a good thing. If everyone was good at the same things, imagine all the gaps and problems there would be.
Suppose that you had a whole department full of people who were great sales people. Sales would soar . . . until you discovered that no one was any good at making the product, no one was giving after-sales service, the accounts were a total mess, and there was no kind of planning for the future. If you had a mass of highly-organized, finance-oriented employees, the figures would be in apple-pie order, but you might well find that creativity was at an all-time low.
And here’s another thing that should give you comfort if you sense that you don’t fit too well with conventional images of the “good” employee: most highly successful entrepreneurs never fitted either. That’s why they started their own businesses. Can you imagine a Steve Jobs being given a performance appraisal in a typical, conservative corporation?
“Well, Steve. You’ve produced all kinds of wild ideas again, I see. That’s all very well, I suppose, but we work as a team here. You haven’t been following approved procedures in presenting these so-called ideas of yours to the right committees. And you really upset the guys in the technical section by going around them when they pointed out that your mad notion of some kind of pocket music player was not in line with the company’s established, long-term planning process. I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go. You simply don’t have the sort of talent that we need.”
Or what about trying to appraise Richard Branson against the stereotypical image of a high-flier? Can you imagine trying to convince him to spend less time on marketing ideas and attend a few courses about the intricacies of double-entry bookkeeping?
Be yourself and say goodbye to guilt
Nobody ever built a satisfying working life from natural weaknesses, or the kind of work that really doesn’t suit who they are. Nobody enjoys spending their days doing things they do poorly. So why do so many people do it? Because they feel guilty. Because they’ve been convinced that they ought to be able to do it better.
We’re so good at allowing others to set the standards for our lives. We want people to like us and approve of us, so we bend and contort ourselves to fit in. Let’s get it clear. Having weaknesses and gaps in our talents is part of being human. We are all like that. It’s no big deal. What matters is seeing what to do with the talents we do have, not fretting about those that we don’t.
Weaknesses come in two kinds:
- Those you can do something about.
- Those you can’t (or only with massive and constant effort).
That’s the way it is. There’s nothing to feel guilty about. Guilt is the most pointless and futile of all human emotions. If you want to change something about yourself (and that change is possible), do it. If you don’t want to change it (whatever others say), or change isn’t possible or likely to work, forget about it and concentrate on what does work for you. That’s it. Not an “ought” in sight.
If you try some kind of work and it doesn’t feel right—if it’s really hard on you and every day seems like an overwhleming effort—that doesn’t mean whatever it is is wrong in itself. It may be a great job, or a truly worthwhile way of making a living. But it isn’t your great job. It isn’t a good way for you to spend your time at work. No one should be lead by others into something that isn’t right for them—at least, not if they want to feel happy and fulfilled.
Success comes easiest when you stick to being who and what you are. And if you’re worried that people won’t like you if you don’t fit in, consider this. Once you start doing what fits you best, you’ll likely encounter a crowd with very similar interest and talents. They’ll love you, because you cannot help but fit in with them. If you feel an outsider where you are, reflect that you may not be the only one who’s out of step. They’re out of step with you as well—so go find some others who aren’t.
- The Road Least Taken to Happiness at Work
- Thoughts About Success (Part 1)
- The connection between a good job and happiness is overrated
- The Plain Truth About Work/Life Balance
- Yet More Last Minute Holiday Gifts to Yourself
- What makes a manager a high flyer?
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to create a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.
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