Ah, the hard way.
Why do we so often force ourselves to endure the mental and emotional cross-fit that is learning lessons the hard way? You can tell your toddler not to jump off the coffee table but only after doing it, crash landing and two scraped knees and a busted lip later will she believe that jumping off the coffee table is a bad idea. You can hear your friends tell you that your love interest is bad news, but only after being subjected to those consequences yourself, do you choose to believe it.
Well, the same goes for your career. Working with extremely successful professional women, some of these same hard-won truths continually surface in sayings like, “I just wish I had learned this 10 years ago,” or “If only someone had told me.”
So, here you go: This is your golden ticket to skip the line for some of the most expensive, heart-wrenchingly challenging life lessons, thanks to the experiences of top-performing senior executives.
1. You do not and cannot control what others think or feel.
Thank god, am I right? Thank god you don’t have to be accountable for how your mom thinks and feels. Or your boss. Or your unstable coworker. You don’t have any control of your spouse’s emotions. Even your kids thoughts are not your responsibility.
You want people to behave a certain way and you may even try to persuade them to think one way, but here’s the lesson: The only thing you can control is how you think. Your thoughts determine your entire experience of every single situation.
One of my clients tells the story of having a really hostile boss in her middle management days. This boss had a reputation for corporate backstabbing and political coercion. My client saw examples of this behavior, but felt fortunate that they had maintained a relatively peaceful relationship… until one fateful day when in the presence of the boss’ leadership team, my client’s reporting indicated risk within her project (read: her boss was ultimately responsible). Once they were alone, the boss began berating my client. She hammered at every mistake my client had ever made and questioned every decision she’d made on her reporting and the work that led up to it.
Is it my client’s responsibility for her boss feeling angry? No, certainly not. This example is powerful because the boss is so clearly the antagonist. You may even feel some degree of defensiveness for my client.
Now, let’s consider the alternative: What if the boss was kind and supportive? What if my client’s analysis was faulty? What if my client had insinuated or outright accused her boss of negligence? Would she be responsible for her boss’ feelings? No. Regardless of precipitating circumstances, each of us is only ever responsible for our own feelings.
2. You should question your own assumptions.
“The moment you know something with certainty, you become a liability,” said my client, a founder and CEO of a telehealth startup.
Certainty, of anything, is built on assumptions — and assumptions are risks. Raw data, even when analyzed by experts, is subjected to assumptions and variables. If gravity, ladies and gentlemen, is a theory, then how can we expect that we can divine any absolutes in our own circumstances.
In your career and life, look for instances when you say “I know…” and ask yourself: “What about this do I believe is true?” and, “Why?” This does take extra work but it saves you effort, heartache, money, and time in the long run. Check your assumptions by doing the following:
When you assume people understand instructions, verify by asking them, “Can you please just recap what you heard to make sure I didn’t leave anything out?”
When you assume you know what expectations someone has of you, restate back to them, “So what I’m hearing is… Is that right?”
When you think you have an interview locked up, ask your interviewer, “What remaining questions do you have?”
When someone mentions a current event you know about, dig in a little, “That’s so interesting. I was reading about that too. Tell me more about what you heard.”
3. Plan strategically, then be invested in the process — not the result.
My clients are high-achieving professionals who come to me when they’re not getting results that they want or, alternatively, when they are getting results they don’t want.
I’ve found that your results always prove your thinking.
Once you set your intention and mindfully curate your own thinking, you will be able to do anything you set your mind to. The concept of mindfulness and clean-thinking is simple enough, but doing it can be hard.
Here are the steps my clients learn:
Set your intention. What result do you want?
What action do you need to take to get that result?
What feeling do you need to fuel you to take that action?
What thought can you believably think that will generate that feeling?
Continue focusing your thoughts as you set about taking the strategic action.
For example, my client wants to exercise so that she can lose weight and feel better.
Her desired result is to lose weight and feel better.
She needs to take the action of adhering to her intake and exercise plan.
To eat right and exercise, she wants to feel capable, prepared, successful.
She chooses to focus on the following thoughts: “I am capable of making the choice to eat this food” and “I know how to exercise.” She’s also reminding herself that “This is the action I want to take.”
She made a strategic plan for exercising and eating right. She knows the math of doing these things will produce weight loss and the results she wants. All she has to do now is work the process by focusing her thoughts, which will fuel her emotions and drive her to take the planned action.
4. Confidence is your willingness to feel any feeling.
Confidence doesn’t mean you’re braver, smarter or better than anyone else. Confidence is not the absence of feeling afraid. And it’s not certainty that you will succeed.
Confidence is when you feel [insert the feeling you most dread: anxious, fear, embarrassed] and you decide to do [insert the action you’re avoiding] anyway. It’s when you feel stage-fright and you decide to sing on stage anyway. It’s when you feel unsure but you go on that first date anyway. It’s when you feel afraid of rejection but apply to the new job posting anyway.
Master coach instructor Brooke Castillo says that “Discomfort is the currency to your success.” If you have a goal, you have a plan and doing the next step of that plan is uncomfortable (e.g. like exercising is uncomfortable, or asking for the sale is uncomfortable), doing the uncomfortable thing is the key to achieving what you want.
A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.
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