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How often are you clearing hurdles you set for yourself?

Today is March 5 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “are you clearing hurdles you set for yourself?” Michelangelo noted "The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high, and we miss it, but that it is too low, and we reach it."

Robert S. Kaplan, Emeritus Professor of Leadership Development at the Harvard Business School, discovered the truth in Michelangelo’s observation when he studied executives who, at least on paper, had impressive backgrounds. Kaplan observed that “fulfillment doesn’t come from clearing hurdles others set for you; it comes from clearing those you set for yourself.” Instead of allowing others to set hurdles for themselves, Kaplan understood those who reached their potential set their own goals.

Throughout his career, Kaplan realized that ambitious professionals spend a substantial amount of time thinking about strategies that will help them achieve greater levels of success. By striving for a more impressive job title, higher compensation, or increased responsibility, ambitious professionals often allow their definition of success to be influenced by family, friends, and colleagues.

Despite their achievements and high level of success, Kaplan found that many ambitious professionals lacked a true sense of professional satisfaction and fulfillment. Kaplan wrote that he met many “impressive executives who expressed deep frustration with their careers. They looked back and felt that they should have achieved more or even wished that they had chosen a different career altogether.”

In an August 3, 2017, Harvard Business Review article "How to Find Meaning in a Job That Isn't Your True Calling," Emily Esfahani Smith posed the question ‘why do so few people find fulfillment in their work?’ to Amy Wrzesniewski from the Yale School of Management. Wrzesniewski explained that “students think their calling is under a rock, and if they turn over enough rocks, they will find it.”

While the research overwhelming confirms meaning is the top benefit Millennials want from a job, Wrzesniewski’s research shows that less than 50% of people see their work as a calling. So many of her students are left feeling anxious and frustrated and completely unsatisfied by the good jobs and careers they do secure.”

Smith went on to write “the four most common occupations in America are retail salesperson, cashier, food preparer/server, and office clerk, jobs seldom associated with ‘meaningful career paths.’ All these workers need to do, according to Smith, is to see how their work exists to help others.

Smith added “Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has shown how people who see their work as a form of giving consistently rank their jobs as more meaningful.” Well perhaps a change in perspective might help. Some workers may indeed view their tasks in a more meaningful way if they considered how they help others. Helping others is a common trait found in meaningful work so that is one viable strategy to navigate the chaos.

The shortcoming involved with this ‘change of perspective’ strategy is that the workers are still relying on the job for their own happiness. Research from Gallup suggests such a strategy is far from successful as statistics show 85% of employees remain far from engaged at work and few know how to attain it. “Given that the average person spends 90,000 hours at work in a lifetime, it is important to figure out how to feel better about the time you spend earning a living.”

To that point, let us turn our attention back to Kaplan’s observation “fulfillment doesn’t come from clearing hurdles others set for you; it comes from clearing those you set for yourself.” Another way of thinking about this question is by asking the following questions:

  • When is the last time you cleared a hurdle, you set for yourself outside of work?

  • How often do you set goals that have nothing to do with your current job?

  • How often do you obsess over working a job that lacks meaning while doing nothing to help yourself develop your potential outside of work?

  • How often are you frustrated your work lacks the ability to challenge you?

  • How often do you blame your boss for not fulfilling your aspirations?

  • Why are you so caught up with finding the right job that challenges you? Are you incapable of setting hurdles for yourself?

  • Why are you giving your ability to be fulfilled away to your boss? Do you not want to take ownership of your own fulfillment?

These are difficult questions to answer. Today’s reflection requires an honest look at what you do, where you are at in your career, and how much responsibility you take for your own fulfillment.

One other additional thought here for today’s reflection, remember the observation made by Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of the book Bring Your Brain to Work, “No job that anyone could take uses all of a person’s skills so rather than focus on a job title as a defining characteristic, we should instead think of a job title as merely one component of a complex person who has other skills, passions, challenges, ideas, values and more.”

  • How often do you remind yourself that you are a complex person who has many skills, passions, challenges, ideas, and values and is so much more than just a job title that you currently have?

  • How often do you focus on your job as the defining characteristic of your life?


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