thought for the day: personal development

I had an interesting conversation today that led me to reflect both on myself and my peer group, defined for the purpose of this article as young professionals trying hard to advance their careers.

I think we all go through a phase where we think to ourselves “if I were x, then I could advance.” And “x” gets filled with LOTS of things. For example, “more aggressive” “more charismatic” “more organized” “better at a given skill”. Then there’s things that fit with “if I had x” like “better contacts” “more senior role” “more credentials”. The list goes on.

What’s interesting to me is that the more focused we are on this advancement, especially if we want to reach lofty goals, the more this phase (which, I suspect for some could last an entire career) can be counter-productive. Why? While it’s great to keep an eye on personal improvement and development, this focus can be taxing on our psyche. Within this line of thinking lies a dissatisfaction with our current state. If this goes unchecked and we become too focused on what we want to become, we lose respect for who we are.

An alluring but faulty logic is “if who we are hasn’t gotten us where we want to be, who we are isn’t ok.” For one thing, the logic is in itself incorrect because progress always takes time, and “who we are” is probably working just fine, just not fast enough for our liking, so to speak. But more fundamentally, a persistent mental state of dissatisfaction of who we are is both self-reinforcing and de-motivating.

The remedy is to remind ourselves what is good about who we are. I don’t mean this in a feel-good kind of way. I mean that it’s productive, in the midst of all our desire to “get better,” to examine the good that’s already there. Number one, a positive attitude keeps us on the offensive. Number two, I think this process of assessing the positive helps us focus and build on our strengths. Particularly in a situation where the “x” above has grown into a laundry list of improvements, we benefit from narrowing those down to one or two improvements that leverage existing strengths, are very aligned with our goals, and that are achievable.

One corollary thought I’m considering is, with the thought “if I were x, then I could advance”, a good exercise might not be to worry about “x” so much as this vague “advance” part. What if we replaced “advance” with “y”. Now “x” needs to lead to “y”, which ought to help us get more specific. Maybe we need to take a harder look at “y” when we have a runaway improvement list.

If “Y,” as a pre-requisite, needs to be either a tight goal or specific problem to be overcome that is truly something we want, the important things that fill “x” should also become more focused…and at the same time, my suspicion is they will often turn out to leverage our existing strengths more.

I think this is more intuitive by jumping outside of personal development, and rather to just problem solving in general. When a problem is vague and distant, what’s necessary to overcome seems larger than it really is. The more defined a problem, the more we can envision tangible routes to a solution. Along the way, our brain can then be resourceful…looking for existing pieces of the solution to leverage and then for the new ‘work’ that will leverage what is existing to produce the solution.

Still can’t relate? How many times have you heard yourself or someone else say, “I don’t know what I want to be”? Or how about “I want to be successful, but I’m not sure how to get there.” Certainly everybody has heard these things and the great majority have thought these things. For anyone with these thoughts, their “Y” is vague and chances are they have a laundry list of “X”.

To me, the following prescription makes sense:

1. Take a look at your existing strengths
2. Pat yourself on the back
3. Look for a goal you really want and where some of your strengths can be leveraged. (Y)
4. Analyze: the distance between your goal and your present is essentially the gap between your existing strengths and the goal. That is “X”. Is “X” definable? Within your reach? Is the goal worth it?
5. If and only if “X” and “Y” pass your tests should they have any real meaning to you. Cut away thoughts of improvements (X’s) and goals (Y’s) that don’t pass muster.

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