These are the real life lessons I’ve learned in my 15-year career. I learned them the hard way, by making every possible mistake and realizing there is a better way.
1. You are not your job
I used to think my value was derived from my title. When something went wrong at work, my self esteem hit the floor. I had to get the title, the promotion and the recognition to feel good about myself. I let my work take over every aspect of my life, set my priorities and drive my decisions. In theory, being dedicated to your job can be rewarding, but when you tie your identity to something as fragile as a job or a title, it’s a recipe for disaster. The first time I was out of a job I felt useless and unworthy and I couldn’t bring myself to believe I’m a successful professional, even though I was one.
Here is the good news: you are not your job. Your value does not depend on what you do. It comes from who you are and what you believe in, not your profession. You can be unemployed, you may miss out on that promotion and you would still be valuable.
If you struggle to accept this belief, tie your identity to something that is antifragile. Connect your self worth to your skills, beliefs and habits. For example, you can decide to see yourself as the learner. You can choose to believe what separates you and makes you special is your ability to learn and grow. Believe that on a long enough timeline, you’ll out-learn anyone and achieve your goals. Alternatively you can tie your identity to your desire to help others. You can be the teacher, the mentor, the leader and derive your value from your ability to make an impact on others.
2. You can define what your success looks like
I used to believe there was only one way to define success, my way. Successful people move up the corporate ladder, they get the title and compensation that comes with it. To me success was about having more, being better than anyone else.
I was wrong. Success means different things to different people and you get to decide what qualifies as success in your life. Success is what you want it to be, whatever makes you happy and keeps you fulfilled, not what society deems as “worthy”.
We are constantly bombarded with images of what success is supposed to look like, even though we are looking at another person’s success. We keep playing the comparison game, and more often than not, we end up on the losing end. Here is the thing, you can’t compare your journey to someone else’s. We have different starting points, different upbringing, different circumstances and different goals.
If you are not sure what success means to you ask yourself these questions:
What makes me feel fulfilled? Proud of myself?
What gives me energy and gets me through my days?
What do I look forward to at work?
If I could only be known for one thing, what would it be? What would be my legacy?
3. It’s more important to get the right things done, than it is to get more things done
For the longest time, I was under the impression that more was always better. If I worked more hours, if I crossed off more tasks and took on more responsibility I would win.
I was wrong.
There is a big difference between producing outputs and delivering outcomes. It’s the difference between checking boxes and making a real impact.
Spending the majority of your time doing things that impact your job, your business, your career and your life is much better than doing more of the things that don’t matter.
I remember being very skeptical when I started to realize this was the case. I was afraid doing less will hurt my reputation and my ability to succeed. I needed some guarantees so I ran an experiment. I outlined all of my tasks for that week and ranked them by order of importance. Then, I completely eliminated the bottom 20%.
Do you know what happened?
Absolutely nothing! No one noticed or cared. Those tasks were not impactful, which meant eliminating them didn’t make a difference. The good news was that I got time back to focus on the things that moved the needle for the company I worked for, allowing me to make a bigger impact through my work.
4. You can create your own opportunities
This is a big misconception. We are brought up to believe we are supposed to play the game, wait for our turn and hope that the opportunities we want will magically find their way into our lives.
Let me tell you a secret, hope is not a strategy. If you want to achieve anything in your career you need to create your own opportunities and drive your career forward.
You have the power to design your own career roadmap. You don’t need to wait for your manager, the company you work for or anyone else to give you permission. It’s up to you to imagine the future, figure out what it takes to get from where you are now to where you want to go, and do whatever it takes to get there.
You want to become a manager? Volunteer to mentor others. You want to be promoted? Start doing your superiors job before you actually get it. You want to pivot into a new profession? Spend time with the relevant team inside your organization. Help them out in your spare time.
5. It’s better to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission
I’m all for following the rules, but sometimes, the rules are…well, stupid. Especially in the workplace, some rules may be outdated, irrelevant simply illogical. They may stand in the way of innovation and growth, and in those cases, it is better to take action and ask for forgiveness, than ask for permission.
Use common sense to decide when to cross the lines, and when to be compliant. I would consider breaking the rules when it impacts my ability to deliver results or interferes with my team’s ability to succeed. I probably won’t try to change company wide processes by crossing the lines.
If you are still not sure, consider this: I have received more praise than criticism for consistently breaking the rules for more than a decade. It’s one of the practices that fueled my success.