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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 January 21, 2020

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

      This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

      The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

      The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

      Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

      Curiosity

      Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

      People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

      Patience

      Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

      When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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      Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

      A Feeling for Connectedness

      This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

      A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

      The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

      How to Self-Taught Effectively

      With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

      1. Research

      Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

      Learning the Basics

      Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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      Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

      What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

      Hitting the Books

      Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

      Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

      Long-Term Reference

      While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

      My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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      2. Practice

      Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

      A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

      Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

      Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

      3. Network

      One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

      These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

      Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

      Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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      4. Schedule

      For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

      Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

      Final Thoughts

      In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

      If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

      At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

      More About Self-Learning

      Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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