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You Don’t Have to Conform to Be Successful

You Don’t Have to Conform to Be Successful
Talnet

    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.

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    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.

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    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?

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    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:

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    • 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.

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    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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      Last Updated on July 17, 2019

      The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

      The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

      What happens in our heads when we set goals?

      Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

      Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

      According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

      Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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      Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

      Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

      The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

      Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

      So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

      Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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      One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

      Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

      Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

      The Neurology of Ownership

      Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

      In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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      But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

      This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

      Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

      The Upshot for Goal-Setters

      So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

      On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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      It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

      On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

      But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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      Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

      Reference

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