What to Do With an Avalanche of Choices

We like having lots of choices.  Yet with each option, there is always the lurking possibility we’ll make the wrong choice.  And, we hate being wrong.

Which is the absolute right choice?

In her book, Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schultz points out that, “As a culture, we haven’t even mastered the basic skill of saying “I was wrong.” Instead, we justify our choices and actions with false apologies and rationalizations: “I was wrong, but” … or “mistakes were made.”  She explains that, we do it so that we can “distance ourselves from responsibility.” (Schultz references statements by Nixon and Reagan.)  Yet our choices continue to impact our lives.

What’s more, she says, “Our default attitude toward wrongness — our distaste for error and our appetite for being right — tends to be rough on relationships.”  (Here’s her intriguing Pop Tech video.)

Given our distaste for being wrong, what can we do to make better choices? 

What can we do to increase our success and happiness — at work, in our relationships, and maybe even improve the world a bit along the way?  

1.  Limit your choices.  Yes, it seems counter intuitive.  But Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, makes a good case. But it’s not easy to do in a world of seemingly endless choice where you’re faced with literally dozens of toothpaste options or hundreds of dating choices on Match.com. She says, “more choice leads to less satisfaction or happiness.”

Meaningless minutia” bogs us down so that every little difference matters way too much.  We end up constantly second-guessing our decision: “How do I know that there isn’t something better?”  Your enjoyment of this avalanche of choice, Ivengar contends, “will be diminished by your regret over what you had to give up and leaving you less satisfied than you would have been if you had had less choice.”

The perfect is the enemy of the good. — Voltaire

Fearing that you’ll make the wrong choice, your anxiety increases. “We exhaust ourselves in the search,” she warns us.  “Even the most unbiased source can’t promise that a new finding tomorrow won’t reverse recommendations. The more information we seek out, the more confused we become.”  In a study involving 401k investments, “more choice, had, in fact, lead to worse decisions.” Of course, there are times where we really need more choices and do our research, such as weighing job choices or considering surgery. (Check out Iyengar’s TED talk.)

In Acquired Tastes, author Peter Mayle takes you on a journey with the wealthy and their choice dilemma. He says, “I’m not at all sure that they enjoy themselves as much as we think they do.  And why?  Because, damn it, something is always not quite right.”  He explains, “expectations tend to increase in direct proportion to the amount of money being spent, and if you are spending a fortune, you expect perfection.  Alas, life being the badly organized shambles that it so often is…perfection is rare.  Details that we would consider trivial assume enormous significance: the breakfast egg is inedible because it is marginally under boiled…the list of maddening blots on the landscape just goes on and on.”

Regardless of our financial situation, this search for perfection infects most of us. Not only do we hope to find the perfect job, life partner, or doctor, we expect to find perfect all around us:  the perfect cell phone contract, romantic restaurant, or pair of shoes.

2.  Know who you are.  This sounds ridiculous at first.  It’s not the trivial choices that require you to know yourself; it’s the decisions without any easy answers.  Just think about the decisions you’ve had to make recently — about healthcare, a mortgage, a job change, or a relationship conflict.  All too often we don’t know what we want until a situation arises.  Ivengar says, “we don’t bother to mull over the tough questions until we’re caught between a rock and a hard place, and by that time, we’re in no shape to give the answers most beneficial to us.”  We’re so busy racing around that when the time comes to make a tough choice, we’re usually too overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed. 

Often there isn’t an obvious right or wrong choice. So “it becomes exponentially more difficult” to choose.  Paradoxically, she says, asking for more options proves that we don’t really know what we want.

For important decisions, Ivengar recommends that we do some honest soul searching — and be open to thinking and acting differently.  But that takes time and reflection.  Most of us aren’t willing to do that.  Then we only have time to react, and fall back into our “I was wrong, but” excuse.  While keeping the status quo seems easier, it’s unlikely to improve our choices — or our happiness. Habits acquired over the years don’t change easily. It is hard work! If we are truly interested into thinking better and improving our decisions, it’s worth it.

3.  Get your automatic brain under control. Ivengar reminds us that, “even when you know what you ought to be doing, what you would prefer in the long run, you can find yourself distracted and dazed by options that set off the automatic system.”  So you over-indulge at the dessert counter, or worse, sabotage a relationship and end up paying the price for a bad decision for years.

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, refers to the automatic brain as “the elephant.”  It’s enormously helpful because it effortlessly, subconsciously, operates our bodily functions and more.  But for many key decisions, you need more — logic and reason — or what he calls “the monkey” brain.  Your logical brain is “completely absorbed in looking out for problems and opportunities.”

Unless you make an effort to control the elephant brain, your automatic thinking will kick in about 95% of the time according to Gerald Zaltman.  The elephant brain can get you into trouble — reacting instinctively to pleasure (over-indulgence) and danger (anger). Oscar Wilde said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”   Imagine how much happier and successful you’d be if you could just engage your logic and reason a bit more often.

4. Learn to be an expert in the process of choosing. It sounds complicated, but it is easier than you might think. Ivengar recommends borrowing the knowledge of others because they can help you develop insights and expertise more rapidly than if you attempt it on your own.  Find a mentor to help you test your thinking.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust your judgment — but rather test your judgment where you know it needs improvement.

Ivengar says you need to “find reasons not to choose what you’re immediately drawn to. Have a heavy dose of skepticism about your own thinking.”  Work with your mentor to probe into how and why you make choices. Start by paying attention to your decisions (which is easier said than done!). Brainstorm about ways to reduce your reaction mode.

Having an outside expert doesn’t solve the problem of your having to choose, she warns. “Given how many ways one can go wrong when choosing, it’s tempting to pass off a choice I’m supposed to make as an opportunity for another person to express an opinion.  This way, I don’t have to take responsibility for the choice, and the person I ask often enjoys giving advice.  Your mentor can’t make decisions for you — or make perfect recommendations.  They can probe deeper, recommend alternatives, and share decision-making successes and failures.  Over time you “can learn to simplify, prioritize, and recognize patterns.”

Don’t start with your most complicated choices.  Instead, begin with something easier so you’re willing to take risks and it will be easier to see progress.  Simplify your decisions and decision process. Invengar and others recommend limiting your choices to 3 — or groups of 3s. (McKinsey consultants apparently use this with their clients.) In a New York Times article, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, says, “When looking for a new camera, limit yourself to 3 Web sites.”  (That makes sense, unless you’re a photographer.) Or if you’re wrestling with something bigger, such as a career change, break down the decisions into groups of 3s.  Instead of thinking of all the possibilities at once, consider categorizing them into types of organizations:  nonprofits, government, or social enterprise.  Then repeat the process of creating job categories.

No one can make the right choice all the time.  But you can stop wasting time on meaningless minutia.  Instead, invest your thinking time in decisions where you feel that you’re making progress in your life.  Leverage them to your best interest — and best self.  Feel more in control and less on automatic pilot.  Get there faster with a supportive mentor who can accelerate your ability to learn and grow.

How I Took the Leap: My 9 Steps

Taking the Leap: It takes both optimism and thoughtful planning

by guest blogger Angela Bushman

I recently left an enviable, reasonably well-paying job at a Fortune 500 company in favor of a free-fall into the great, unknown landscape of opportunity.

The sort of role I (until recently) occupied offered splashy, exciting projects, travel and connections with people of mind-blowing talent. It was, as many have told me, “a dream job.” It just wasn’t my dream. And that dissonance made it stressful.

I am a blend of free-spirited idealist and responsible mother and homeowner. Yet my own experiential evidence supports what might otherwise qualify as irrational optimism. I have been hired during hiring freezes, in poor economies, in dire times, when pundits and public alike have preached doom and gloom. Others in my circle have made recent moves that have offered both higher pay and reduced stress. Even the LinkedIn newsfeed notified me that a rather significant percent of my connections had made a move in the past year. Thus, I am choosing to believe in great possibilities based on the tremendous value I offer, my network of supporters and luck.

Each day I face a kaleidoscopic range of emotions, from confidence and excitement to fear and doubt. Even my optimism has a pragmatic bent — I’d begun networking and found positive support among outside colleagues even before I leapt. I have a financial cushion, and there are folks I know I can call for freelance, contract, and project work. My resume, bio, and online profiles had been diligently updated.

I struggled in my recent job for some time. Even when I began, I knew my stay would be temporary. A position in an established department of a large company calls for a narrow set of skills.  I’m better at creating something from nothing, synthesizing disparate ideas or programs and establishing the structures and systems to support what I’ve built.

And yet my ego told me I wanted this recent job on my résumé, even if for only a short time. What I planned to be a two-year stint turned into nearly four years as project after project came at me, causing a hamster-on-a-wheel effect. I had no idea how to get off. Developments in my personal life made the relative stability of staying put a necessity. Now that I am a single mother of two, established in a new life routine, I’m re-prioritizing my own health and happiness.

Within days of having made the decision to take this leap, friends and colleagues began asking me what was different?  Was I in love? Had I lost weight? Did I do something different with my hair? I was immediately happier and more joyful — and those around me could easily tell. Stress no longer plagues me. I’ve begun sleeping restoratively through the night. And I actually crave healthier foods. Even if this leap of faith seemed crazy, I know I’ve made the right choice for me.

Are you ready for a major life or career transition? If so, give yourself the gift of planning:

  1. Prepare the tools you’ll need for next steps. Update your resume, LinkedIn profile, bio and other tools you might use in your search.  Or have your business plans drafted.
  2. Start networking. Ask colleagues for recommendations, connections and contacts. Go even further:  tell everyone you know what you’re looking for and what makes you great!
  3. Plan your finances. Save or negotiate a financial cushion.  Six months of expenses is often recommended.
  4. Craft a personal marketing plan. Identify your key strengths, competencies and types of roles and organizations you’ll target. Be sure to think about what skills or services you might be able to offer on a freelance or contract basis.
  5. Notice cues in your environment. When you stop hearing “Are you crazy?!” and begin hearing, “Good for you! Let me give you some names,” — you know change is afoot. Allow yourself to be fueled by the positive energy around you.
  6. Look for evidence. I’ve recently seen a number of colleagues not only find a better work-life balance but also achieve higher earnings. There’s a trend I can embrace!
  7. Consider your total compensation. Evaluate your salary and benefits and find ways to discover how you can leverage your strengths in growing industries.
  8. Build a support system. You may experience times of uncertainty or self-doubt. Have a plan for managing through these times. Find a mentor — or counselors, colleagues and friends who can affirm your value and skills.
  9. Adopt a sales mentality. Every “no” means you’re one step closer to “YES!” in theory, but here is a link for practical tips to help you in the process.

So what’s my plan?

  • I’m taking my time and re-focusing my career direction to better leverage my strengths and achieve greater work-life balance.
  • I’m viewing opportunities in the way I view dating:  I’m not a great fit for everyone, and not every one is for me. Still, I can always get excited about meeting new people and learning about new opportunities. I’m working on finding a match that’s rewarding for both of us.
  • I’m searching for an opportunity that values and rewards my strategy, program-building, communication and relationship skills.
  • I’m connecting fearlessly by reaching out to people in decision-making roles and expanding my network.
  • I’m exploring how to publish the children’s books I’ve written.
  • I’m researching the costs and potential market for two new products.
  • I’m writing business plans for two or three business ideas that I believe have potential.
  • I’m blogging.

I wish you the very best on your next leap of faith, and I hope you’ll return the favor.

Angela Bushman is a Minneapolis-based writer, marketing communications consultant and mother. Contact her at writetouch@gmail.com.  


Going It Alone? Think Twice.

Guest Blog by John Schuerman

Want happiness or expert-level success or both?  The research shows that going it alone is not likely to get you there.

The American psyche is profoundly informed by mythologies of individual heroism — which unfortunately do not map to reality.

There is a great conflict between the mythical hero of Hollywood that rises against all odds and the real road to success. Our individual heroes simply don’t get to be heroic or expert without the guidance and support of caring teachers. The Harvard Business Review featured an article, The Making of an Expert, which reported that in almost every case the practicing of the expert was supervised by a personal teacher/mentor. Expert level success required personal guidance from a caring and qualified teacher.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is a research-based and systematic dismantling of the notion that heroes rise simply on their own ingenuity. “People don’t rise from nothing… The people that stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allowed them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”

And this conflict of myth and reality has a darker side still.

Above all, we are taught to be our own person. Our consumer culture, fueled by marketing, creates choices and hunger for evermore choice and personal control. The myth of the free market is that the individual is the center of the universe. According to Martin Seligman, renowned research psychologist at the Positive Psychology Center in Pennsylvania, “The society we live in exalts the self.” He links this “waxing of the self and the waning of the commons (higher purpose)” with the dramatic rise in depression over the last 60 years.

If we are suffering from our own self-absorbedness what is the antidote? Meaningful attachments to other individuals and to purposes larger than self seem like plausible answers. The research on happiness and life expectancy find that, above all, friends and family relationships matter (and “cholesterol doesn’t,” from the famous Harvard Study of Adult Development longitudinal study, begun in 1937).

Partners, by John Shuerman

Work, and in particular progress in work, also positively affect our experience of “a good life.” When it comes to progress in work, both the HBR study and the Malcolm Gladwell book state absolutely that there is no substitute for hard work. Without long hours — you simply won’t get there, but for true expertise, long hours won’t be enough. A caring teacher is essential to have in the equation.

My colleague Beth Parkhill, Founder of Mentor Planet, says that a mentor is a smart friend. It now strikes me how sharp that definition is, answering both the relationship and learning aspects of “a good life.”

If you are like me and have “gone it alone” more than was best, perhaps there is still time to think twice.

John Schuerman, artist and consultant

Is it crazy to consider a career shift in this economy?

Is now the right time? When would it be a good time? Certainly there are valid reasons not to change. The economy is tough and if you’re earning a decent living it is easy to rationalize staying where you are.  All too often we put this decision off.  We wait for the perfect time or for the perfect opportunity to come to us.

Interestingly enough, many of us are living in limbo. We aren’t fully committed to our current career or to figuring out what might be a better option.  Isn’t life too short to linger in a career that isn’t a good fit anymore?  Why wait — until you’re too locked into your current situation to change, you can’t stand your work situation any longer, or you’ve actually lost your job — before you actively consider a career shift? Exploring options while you’re in your back-up mode — worrying about finances or feeling like you’re living in limbo — isn’t an ideal environment to be open to new possibilities or actively take a risk.  (It can work, but the stress can be stifling.)

Time is life’s real currency. Are you living your life’s currency wisely?

Why not invest in yourself now? Doesn’t it make more sense to do it while you have the energy to thoughtfully evaluate your possibilities?

Time is life’s real currency.  The heart of the question is: Are you living your life’s currency wisely? Many of us start our careers optimistically, without much analysis of our choice.  Out in the real world, we gradually figure out that it was nothing like we had imagined.  Few of us did more than rudimentary skills testing.  Perhaps only a fraction of us found a mentor to help us provide real-world insights to see if we were making a good choice.  Maybe you loved your job for years; only now it has lost the excitement or the meaning it once held.  Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to be quite successful, too well, in fact, so that you don’t even consider what might make you happier — your “best self.”  Let’s hope we don’t sell out for golden handcuffs, especially if the salary isn’t all that great to begin with (or even if it is), because it’s our lives we’re talking about here!

Why not raise the bar? Consider a career change to find one that is more interesting, rewarding, and meaningful — perhaps one that is “more livable” too.  Naturally all careers have trade-offs, but the trouble is that we don’t often take the time to find a better match for ourselves.  We stay where we started just because it seems easier.  On reflection, and once we’ve made the shift, we wonder why we waited so long!  (Some of you may find that this process helps you determine that you’re in the right career; all you needed was a little rejuvenation!)

Take the time to imagine what your life would be like if only you could make a shift. According to Civic Ventures, more than 8 million Americans between 44 and 77 are embarking on new careers. We’ve all heard stories, but somehow we can’t see ourselves — our options.  So stimulate your thinking with a few real life examples:

  • An intellectual property consultant switched to his love of the ocean and now sells sailboats.
  • A banker opted out of corporate life; he prefers to work on his own, remodeling houses.
  • A computer programmer went back to school for a degree in nonprofit management; and now works in energy conservation.
  • A beautician went back to school to become a massage therapist.
  • A stockbroker now teaches fitness and relaxation.
  • A photographer’s representative switched to planning travel for touring musicians.
  • A public relations consultant who loves language, is now a teacher (teaching English to French students).
  • A copywriter went back to school to become an acupuncturist.
  • A dancer/actress became a marketing consultant (also farms part-time).
  • A marketing strategist became a stay-at-home dad, web entrepreneur, and real estate investor.

Don’t start exploring career options with the job market.  Start by asking the more important question: “What do I really want?” Career experts often recommend evaluating the future growth in a particular field, researching potential employers, estimating income and advancement options, etc.  That’s vitally important, but that’s actually the easy part — and it shouldn’t be where you start.

External analysis should come AFTER your internal analysis, which is often more challenging. You know yourself better than you did right after college or your first job. All too often, we know what we don’t want rather than what we want.  Knowing what we don’t want helps us cross options off the list, which is good. Getting us out of our routine and into the more exciting, dynamic world of our passions, possibilities, and motivations is what’s key.  Of course, money matters.  But it’s not solely about the money.  As Henry David Thoreau said, “Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.”

According to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, you’re more likely to be successful when you find a strong convergence between these two factors:

  • a career that taps into your values (meaning), interests, and abilities and
  • a vibrant field with plenty of job options and upward mobility — and one valued by society.

Start exploring career options by expanding your network. One of the biggest barriers is your existing network. Colleagues know you only in your current role — which is a very narrow view of your potential. Schedule informational interviews with people outside of your current circle — people who are open to seeing you in new roles.

The good news is that it is fairly easy to network these days. Even though everyone is busy, most people want to expand their network too.  Make a commitment to yourself to meet at least one new person each week — with the precise intent of helping to identify what you value, your deepest passion, and your strongest interests. Meet in person, over coffee or lunch, so you can truly to get to know one another in a meaningful way. Be sure to help them expand their network too.

Remember to document what you learn from each interview. Keeping track of your efforts will help you feel like you’re making progress.  It’s likely to take time to piece together all the components of a successful career move. Unless you’ve been training as a concert pianist since the 2nd grade, and built up 10,000 hours of practice, chances are you’ll be in the research phase for a while.  If you’re typically used to making quick decisions, try to enjoy the process and allow yourself time to dig past the first good idea.  For people that love thinking about options, find someone that will help keep you on track so you don’t get lost in the options — a colleague, a coach, or mentor.

It’s important to remember that your career isn’t limited by your direct experience. Sure, many employers are looking for someone with a perfect fit.  But more and more, smart business people know that skills can be taught.  What matters more is a person’s ability to learning and adapt.  As the senior editor at Inc Magazine, Norm Brodsky says, companies should “hire for attitude not skills.”

Authentic Mentoring

Why mentor someone? Everyone is busy.  No one boasts about having too much time on their hands.  Yet people offer their time, energy, insights and knowledge to others — often complete strangers. These strangers reach out to connect and offer up their best selves to help someone else.

It seems odd perhaps, in a world that emphasizes networking (even speed-networking), to consider the exact opposite — taking the time to truly get to know someone well enough to provide meaningful support. Wanting to give someone advice is easy; you see a problem and you think, “I know how to fix it.”  Offering advice is easy too, especially if you aren’t really responsible for the outcome.  Authentic mentoring, on the other hand, takes time — quality time  — and your commitment to stay connected.

Allow people to see your authentic self

Mentoring is unique; it’s different from life coaching, executive coaching, therapy, and consulting. Each of these options can provide tremendous benefits.  But money changes everything — our expectations and the dynamics of any relationship. As a mentor, you are offering yourself — one person to one person.  Yes, there is always opportunity for mutual benefit; and this is usually the case with good mentor matches.  But an authentic mentor places the emphasis on the person they are mentoring, not the next billable hour, next client referral, or even the drive to reach a specific achievement.

A mentor is there first and foremost to provide support — a deeper leverage point.  It takes a real relationship to feel any significant level of support, to encourage real change. That entails getting together often, maybe weekly, for six months or a year.  You’re there as the conversation deepens and the topics become more complex.  You’re helping someone overcome obstacles and make real progress.

At it’s best, I believe a mentor serves as a role model for being open minded, building trust, and being authentic. This mirrors the teachings from a two-day Mindful Leadership retreat I attended early this month. Bill George, Harvard Business professor and former CEO of Medtronic, and Yongey Mingur Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk, lead discussions about emotional intelligence, happiness, compassion, active listening, self-actualization, building trust — all essential components of authentic mentoring.

Bill George was quite frank, remarkably open during his interactions with us.  In front of 400 people, he was striving to walk his talk.  He was vulnerable and acknowledged his greatest fear: “becoming obsolete.”  At first glance, it might be easy to discount his “vulnerability,” since he has been so successful and still has a great deal of influence.  But that is precisely why he was so intriguing to me.  My experience with successful business people has been that it is too risky for them to remove the mask in public, even slightly, and admit their weaknesses, mistakes, or fears.

George admitted to being impatient and a host of other shortcomings, all leading up to his currently held belief in self-knowledge and self-control, which he said are important if we are to truly lead others. He went further, stating that we need to move beyond the use of our minds (which he said may be overvalued in our society) and use our hearts as well.  This was clearly not your typical left-brain, command and control leadership approach, of which George declared, “It is dead,” or dying, and enlisted us to “help him kill it!”

So how do we become better leaders, better mentors in a world where authenticity is not the norm? I think one of the best ways to accomplish this is for all of us to become authentic mentors. Lead by example. Start changing. Increase EQ (vs. IQ): increase emotional intelligence through self-awareness.  Be open and vulnerable. Share your life story — your successes and failures. Allow others to learn from our entire range of experiences not just our success.  We’re all human.  None of us live perfect lives or can give “perfect advice.” But we can show up with that rare ingredient — authenticity — so we are better equipped to offer thoughtful counsel.

It is tough taking a chance on someone, to seek a mentor to ask for guidance, particularly if they are perceived to have no weakness, no heart.  Keep in mind that the person you are mentoring is constantly asking:  “Can I trust this person?” As we allow others to see our authentic self, they are more likely to trust us, to open up and tell us the truth — about their real issues, deeper problems.  This way we can offer more than a quick-fix or bad advice.  Instead we’re more likely to probe further, listen more, and help someone think through their situations for more meaningful action.

I know that the more I mentor others, the more critically I evaluate myself and learn more about what’s important to me. I take mentoring quite seriously even though I fall short at times. Was I actively listening or running other projects through my head as we were talking?  Was I trying too hard to solve the problem quickly rather than asking better questions? Was I giving feedback in a way they would hear it or was I merely being efficient?  Did they see me consider their feedback to me in a way that showed I took it to heart?  Nothing is more important to me than connecting with someone on what matters most to them. It is an honor that another person opens up to me, sharing their dreams and fears.

I hope you’ll be inspired to mentor someone. You don’t need to be a superstar or a former CEO, just someone who is willing to share their hard-earned experience and real-world insights.  If you’re interested in becoming a mentor, please contact me.  MentorPlanet.com is getting ready to launch.  I hope you’ll be a part of it.  So send me an email and I’ll send you the details. I already have profiles on lots of people that are looking for mentors. Mentors Wanted!

Are you truly committed to your own happiness?

On the surface, the question seems ridiculous. Of course we want to be happy.  Why else would we be working so hard at it — trying to find a better job, the right job, or any job.  Why else would we try so hard to improve our lives — we have a long list of what we think we must do in order to be happy.  We’re smart people; we’ve tried so much, in so many ways. On good days, life seems okay. But there aren’t enough of them, even for many of us that wouldn’t call ourselves unhappy.

But are we making any real progress?  What’s keeping us from being happy? We start with good intentions. We lead such full, hectic lives that we’re often overwhelmed — even depressed at times.  It’s difficult to find time to think about what to do differently — or where to start.  Or we know what we want, but changing feels nearly impossible. How will we find time to do one more thing?  Our careers demand a great deal.  Our personal lives are complicated.  So figuring out what could improve our happiness is illusive.

Our expectations are high. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, many of us are extremely frustrated. “We believe that we can do anything and are profoundly disappointed when reality doesn’t meet or even come close to perfection.” To compound the problem, Lyubomirsky states that our independent culture doesn’t provide the support we need to cope with increasing stress and uncertainty. She uses a “happiness continuum,” a scale that ranges from very, very low to very, very high.  Some people that are ranked on the low side minimize success, explaining it away as merely luck or persistence.  Others are more resilient and find support to adapt to even tough challenges.

Learned Optimism author Martin Seligman has been studying optimists and pessimists for 25 years and the theory of “learned helplessness.” He says that:

  • Pessimists believe that bad events are their fault, will last a long time, and undermine everything. They feel helpless (lacking control) and may become depressed.
  • Optimists believe that defeat is merely a temporary setback or a challenge — it doesn’t knock them down. They have a perspective and mindset to move forward.

Fortunately, there is a great deal we can do to overcome pessimism and increase our happiness — even those of us that might not paint ourselves as pessimists but have some tendencies when life gets more challenging. “Pessimism is escapable,” asserts Seligman. Rather than merely adopting “a positive mental attitude,” he provides practical techniques on his website, Authentic Happiness.

Learning new skills help you take action, accomplish more and start feeling better — happier.  Lyubomirsky agrees; she says that 50% of our happiness factor is due to genetics, which we can’t do anything about.  Another 10% is based on circumstances, which come and go.  But a large percentage, 40%, is influenced by what we do and what we think.  This means there is a great deal we can to impact our own happiness. But it isn’t easy.  She cautions, “Aiming for greater happiness is no small endeavor…(it) requires effort and commitment.”

So what does it take for us to change, to actually commit to our own happiness? Let’s start with a little myth busting from FastCo:

What Doesn’t Work

  • Fear doesn’t work — it instills denial.
  • Crisis doesn’t work — perhaps for the same reason fear doesn’t.
  • Facts don’t work — if they don’t match our perceptions, they won’t make sense.
  • Small, gradual change doesn’t work — it takes too long to see results.

What Works

  • Positive visions motivate.
  • Emotional appeals inspire.
  • Radical change to generate quick results.

While Seligman and Lyubomirsky offer proven techniques to help improve your happiness, reading a book about behavior change might not be inspiring enough — or produce quick results. So here’s a tip from that unconventional short-cutter, fast-tracker Tim Ferris (Mr. 4-hour Work Week) who stated in a recent blog: “To learn a skill, I often look — not for the best in the world — but for people who’ve made the greatest progress in the shortest period of time.”

That’s what I’d call a good combination of positive vision and quick results. When changing behavior, momentum matters and milestones matter. Ferris’s blog featured Leo Babauta, author of The Power of Less, who believes:  “The only way you’ll form long-lasting habits is by…focusing on one habit at a time, one month at a time…focus all your energy on that one habit.” He says changing simple basic habits are the “force multiplier” for long-lasting success.  Here’s his easy, 4-step approach:

  1. Select one habit to focus on this month. Pick whatever you think will have the biggest impact on your life right now.  Example: If stress is your number one issue, choose to exercise.
  2. Write down your plan — state your specific goal for each day.  Example: Exercise 30 minutes every morning at 6:30 a.m.
  3. Select a “trigger” that signals it is time to act. Example: Select “brushing your teeth” as an action that reminds you its time to start exercising.
  4. Post your goal publicly and tell as many people as possible.  Example: Tell all your family and friends or set up a chat group and keep them posted.  (Okay, this idea didn’t appeal to me.  Perhaps Leo would say I wasn’t that committed. For me, I wouldn’t want to bother most people with my daily exercise routine.  But I would select several of close friends to support me and motivate me to succeed — and not let me off the hook!  This helps overcome the lone cowboy mentality and help us get the support we need while we’re trying something new.)

Alternatives to Exercising: Before you get out of bed each morning, journal for 30 minutes.  Every day at noon, take a 30-minute break to unplug and relax.  As soon as dinner is over, take 30 minutes to create art.  As soon as you get home from work, care for your garden for 30 minutes.  Every night at 9:30, meditate for 30-minutes. The key is do it DAILY for a SET amount of time — and focus on fun rather than a chore. (If you hate gardening, then let the weeds grow and focus on something else!).

This routine might not sound like fun, or significant; but I’ll bet doing it everyday produces results!  Persistence isn’t pretty, but the results prove to you that once you set your mind to something you can do it. Once accomplished, you gain confidence in your commitment to yourself; you believe you can make progress on tougher challenges next month, next time.  Success breeds success.

Interestingly enough, this idea of focus matches management guru Peter Drucker’s thinking: “You can only have one number one priority.” “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”

Okay, so having one priority sounds ridiculous, impossible. Drucker and Babauta aren’t suggesting that you don’t do other things — only that you seriously focus on just one activity.  Your endless list of projects and responsibilities won’t go away.  But you can take control over something, one thing.

But how do you decide what to do first?

Drucker explains, “It’s so easy to do what’s familiar, comfortable, or fun. It’s so difficult, sometimes, to tackle the highest priority. And sometimes it’s difficult to even know your top priorities. We get lost in options, opportunities, and choices.” “If you can’t establish clear career priorities by yourself, use friends and business acquaintances as a sounding board. They will want to help. Ask them to help you determine your first things and second things. Or seek an outside coach or advisor to help you focus. Because if you don’t know what your first things are, you simply can’t do them first.”

So what’s your focus this month — pick just one thing! Appeal to your emotions; pick one thing that will inspire you.  Pick something that you think will give you quick results. Don’t tackle the most difficult or complicated. Don’t do something too reckless. Don’t use this particular exercise to start searching for your dream job, finding your soul mate, or learning French, not yet.  Start with something fun, that you can do on your own, that will make you feel a bit happier.  No it won’t change everything, but it might just kick-start your enthusiasm — and your commitment to your own happiness.

After all this, I’m inspired to pick my monthly focus.

Now, what about you?  Don’t know where to start? We’ll talk about that next time.

Career Passion Shouldn’t Be an Oxymoron

Work, we spend most of our waking hours there — and a majority of our creative energy.  You’d think more of us would choose something we truly cared about.  If so many of us are unhappy at work, why not do something we love? There are many reasons, even seemingly good reasons. We settle in, glad to have a job, and doing something we excel in.  It’s familiar.

But, what is the price we’re paying? Are we setting the bar too low, selling life short in a career we don’t value?  You can’t ever get that time back.  Ever. Today it isn’t as though we have only two choices:  making a decent living and barely getting by.  Actually most of us have more career options than ever before.

What's Your Career Passion?

In a recent Forbes article, Lisa Earle McLoed says that when you love what you do it “delivers just about the best return on investment you can get.  Because when you show up with your heart, your mind works at a far greater capacity than when you leave your heart at home.” It’s tough to solve problems and face harsh obstacles when you aren’t fully engaged.  Sure, many of us do amazing things at work, even under really difficult circumstances.  But imagine what you could accomplish if you had more career passion.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Job Versus Vocation — What I Didn’t Learn in B-School, Andrew J. Hoffman stresses the importance of career passion — “There’s pure joy when you take a risk to pursue your dream and find work that you deeply connect with.”   Well, his definition of “pure joy” might be different from mine; but I agree with Hoffman’s point —  take time to think about what you want.  Do you want a job, a career, or a calling? “A calling” might be too strong a word for many of us, but why not seek out a career to be passionate about?  It’s the passion that says you’re leading a life worth living, worthy of all your hard-earned knowledge and your genuine interest.

Cynics might criticize this approach as being too idealistic, too impractical. But as author Seth Godin says: “impossible and perfect” are the two biggest principles stopping people from making progress. I think he’s right. We think it’s “impossible” to have our dream job (or anything like it), and so we focus on all the obstacles.  Or we look for the “perfect” career,” one that’s an absolutely sure bet.   

Often what is really holding us back is a lack of commitment to ourselves.  Figuring out what we’re passionate about can be hard work. Not all of us know what we want.  All too often we only know what we don’t want — and we’re too burned out, frustrated, or busy to make time to think about it.   Or we have a few ideas, maybe even a clear picture of what we want, we just don’t know how to get there. Sometimes it takes trial and error. Gone are the days when our destiny was tied to whatever our parents did or being stuck to one career. Instead, we have a torrent of possibilities even if it doesn’t seem that way. The good news is that today’s career options are so varied; the bad news is that it’s confusing to sort them all out.

THREE WAYS TO RE-ENERGIZE YOUR CAREER PASSION

1. Can’t quit your current job? Re-energize yourself by taking on a new project.  At first glance, this appears to be counter-intuitive.  Even if you’re working long hours, according to research psychologist Dr. Steve Wright, people are happier when they have a job that fully engages them. So find something that’s interesting, challenging, and a good match to your strengths. Find a project, or better yet create one, that you find stimulating.  Or, if you’re passionate about your job, but the environment is sour, mentor someone that could benefit from your expertise.  It won’t fix your current situation, but it might make it more interesting and expand your network.  Or make yourself the new project, and find yourself a mentor. Seek out someone in your field that might reignite your passion for the job or help you start thinking about possibilities.  We all have options though they seem illusive when times are tough.

2. Don’t have a clue what to do? Try a few tools to help you get to know yourself better.  There are almost too many to choose from.  As a place to start, here are four very different approaches to consider:

  • Gallups’ StrengthsFinder 2.0, is a book that gives you a code to take their online test, which automatically generates a personalized Strengths Insight Report and Action-Planning Guide.  Ranked #1 bestsellers by both the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek, the book costs $25.
  • The Artists Way and The Artist’s Way at Work are both popular 12-week workbooks.  You complete detailed exercises each week to “rediscover your creative self.” which I think all of us need to be innovative at work.  I found they are more interesting than many career-focused workbooks. The Artists Way has sold over 2 million copies worldwide, so you can easily find them for under $25 too.  They encourage people to work together, in groups, to provide support while you explore options.
  • Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is “the world’s most widely used personality assessment,” with roughly two million assessments taken every year. You can take the assessment test online, free http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp It is so popular that there are other tests, books and resources available on line, compete with career suggestions by personality type; many are free or under $25.
  • Find personal support — books and tools can only go so far. Often what we need is a person to help us sift through the options — a life coach, executive coach or mentor.  Each approach has pros and cons, but what’s important is that you find the support you need to figure out what’s next.  Life coaches often charge $100-$150/hour, executive coaches may charge more.  Mentoring, on the other hand, is free.  With either option (fee or free), it’s important to find a person that fits your values, interests, and personality.

3. Know what you want to do, but don’t know how to get there? If you’re passionate about a career option, then finding support to help you on your way is key.  Often our existing networks aren’t as effective to get where we want to go.  Instead, I recommend finding a mentor to accelerate your transition.  They have the direct, real-world experience and insights you need that are relevant to a specific job.  What’s more, they have a network to help open doors to vital connections. If they specialize in the area you’re interested in, life coaches and executive coaches might be useful too.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have several careers I was passionate about.  There’s an ebb and flow. What I wanted, worked for a time.  Then as I learned more about the job and myself, I gained courage. I was willing to ask important questions about what I really wanted. Each time, I’ve been grateful for the chance to try something new — and live more of the life I envisioned. I’m hoping you’ll be inspired to make the time to invest in yourself and explore your career passion.

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