Editor's note:When it comes to improving your leadership abilities, Professor Robert Steven Kaplan is a big believer in starting with a look in the mirror. In fact, he wrote a book on that subject: What To Ask The Person In The Mirror: Critical Questions For Becoming A More Effective Leader And Reaching Your Potential. Kaplan continues his theme of self-directed assessment and improvement with his new book, to be released in early May, What You're Really Meant to Do: A Road Map for Reaching Your Unique Potential. He offers a step-by-step approach to defining success on your own terms—and pursuing your goals accordingly. In this excerpt, he discusses the unfortunate and all-too-common tendency to focus on extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivators.
Who Sets Your Benchmarks?
From, What You're Really Meant to Do: A Road Map for Reaching Your Unique Potential
When I was growing up, my parents often talked to me about the importance of working hard and becoming successful. "You should go into a profession," they would say. "Doctor, dentist, lawyer are all good professions. Orthodontists also do very well!"
My parents justifiably believed that professional status would allow me to have a better life than they had. They grew up during the Depression, and both began working at young ages to help support their families. They both continued to work long hours throughout their adult lives. My father traveled extensively as a jewelry salesman in the Midwest, and my mother was a real estate agent who took on other work as money needs arose.
They both hoped that I wouldn't have to deal with the financial stresses they had faced. They wanted me to have a nest egg. They hoped I would achieve professional success and social status. Like most parents, they wanted to be proud of me and wanted to feel confident they had launched me on the road to a better life.
Although most of us grow up as products of our families, we are also heavily influenced by the social norms manifested in popular culture. I had a pretty typical upbringing. I watched a lot of television and read popular magazines. I was influenced by the media, which regularly celebrated "winners." Just as they are today, the winners were usually described as those who had made a lot of money and attained wealth, power, or influence. I read the advertisements and magazine covers, which were dominated by the smiling faces of people who had "made it." Boy, they sure seemed happy!
As a student, I was regularly assessed, tested, graded, and otherwise measured against "objective" metrics. As is true for most of us who grew up in the latter half of the twentieth century, the first twenty-two years of my life seemed to revolve around an unending series of tests designed to rank me versus my peer group. At the end of each grading period, my mom would ask me if I had made the honor roll. She was disappointed in me if I hadn't—not a good feeling! I internalized these standards and began to believe that academic metrics and accomplishments would be critical in determining where I could go to college and the kinds of jobs I would be able to get after college. To the extent that I thought about it, I figured I would eventually focus on what I wanted and who I was—but, for now, if I wanted to take the next step up the ladder, I needed to excel at what I was doing.
Later, when it came time to pick a job and career, I asked my parents and friends for advice. I didn't fully understand what was involved in various types of careers, so I wasn't really sure what I would like. As a result, I gravitated toward those jobs that everyone else seemed to want. If everybody else wanted certain jobs, I thought, they must be worth pursuing. Once I was actually in a job, I focused intently on how to excel at it so that I could be in a position to get a good review and be promoted. I certainly did not want to have to explain at a cocktail party why I had been passed over for a promotion.
Although I'm exaggerating this narrative a bit to make a point, I do think that many of us are trained to dream of success in terms of benchmarks, accomplishments, and milestones. At the same time, we are trained to fear the stigma of failing to achieve these critical metrics. Many of us are encouraged to focus more on extrinsic motivators—those that can be manifested visibly (money, status, title, etc.)—as opposed to intrinsic motivators, which are those things that motivate us internally (such as passion for the mission, intellectual stimulation, and close relationships).
Many of us motor through our young adult years trying to rack up one achievement after another—being "successful"—without thinking through what we truly want. At many points along this journey, we seek or get guidance from well-meaning peers, friends, family, and loved ones who advise us what we should desire and what we should avoid. Little of this advice is based on any deep understanding of who we are as individuals, but rather on the advice givers' own experiences, desires, and understanding of social norms.
Fortunately, some young people get the kind of wise guidance and coaching that help them focus at an early stage on their strengths, weaknesses, passions, and sense of self. Others gain this insight later in life, perhaps with the help of mentors and other people with whom they have strong relationships and who take the time to understand them as individuals. With this support, they develop the strength, confidence, and self-awareness to gravitate toward paths that fit their passions and skills.
As discussed earlier, over my career I have spoken with and advised a steady stream of young, middle-, and later-stage professionals who excelled for a period but then began to struggle professionally and to experience doubt about what they wanted.
In the early stages of their careers, they have the opportunity to develop new habits and make choices that will get them on the right track. At later stages, it is still not too late, although they may feel that they've "accomplished" their way into a dilemma: a life that looks good to others but doesn't tap their true capabilities or fulfill their passions and desires. They regret that they waited too long to develop good habits for honing their skills or for thinking deeply about what they wanted.
Does any of this sound like you? Are you making the most of your capabilities? Do you feel as if you're on someone else's path? If so, is it too late to make changes? Is there another way to manage your life and career and climb the next mountain?