‘What got you here, won’t get you there’ is the title of a book by Marshall Goldsmith that I often find myself quoting to the people I coach. It’s a theme I see again and again with people who are at an experienced or later stage of their career.
Understandably, we tend to repeat what we’re good at. We get affirmed and validated for it. We get the results, so we do more of it. And others (or the business) usually want us to do more if it too. Our working life therefore often gets shaped around these strengths.
Our greatest strength can be our greatest blocker
Most people I work with, however, have reached a stage where they want something a little different in their life. They might want more time, or a greater sense of purpose or meaning in their work. Or they might be considering moving away from the level of intensity of the work they’ve been doing, while still wanting to feel the same sense of achievement and to be fulfilled by it.
At this point, the greatest asset in their working life to date – often their hard work, tenacity, drive, focus, determination, willingness to go the extra mile – actually starts to become their greatest weakness. Or at least the greatest obstacle or blocker to living the life they now want to be living.
A client who was a very successful entrepreneur who no longer needed to work for financial reasons, for example, had always loved his work and could never imagine himself retiring. He saw it as an essential part of who he was and what made him happy. After significant work on what he really wanted out of life, he recently said to me he was starting to wonder was it the absence of an alternative that made him assume that continuing working was what he wanted to do. He simply didn’t know what else would keep him stimulated, challenged and interested.
The Catch-22 of success
Therein lies the Catch-22. If most of your time, focus and energy has been on work, it often becomes the way you feel good about yourself. It’s where you get your sense of self-worth, identity and status. This pattern is then repeated and reinforced again and again over many years, and so it becomes more ingrained, more part of who you are (or think you are) and therefore harder to let go of.
Alternative sources of identity or ways to feel good about yourself may be less obvious than they might be to someone who has been less validated throughout their life for their work and achievements, or who gave work less priority.
Being on autopilot
In fact, this conditioning is often so strong that we are actually on autopilot much of the time without realising it. There’s an amazing business or career opportunity in front of us – so we go for it. There’s work to be done, so we do it. And what happens over time is that this habit of working and achieving becomes so automatic, so ingrained in us that we default to it without necessarily actively or consciously choosing to do so.
It can be so instinctive we often don’t even to stop to think if there is a different way. If there are other ways of working or living or behaving. Other choices.
Although we all like to think we are making our own choices (and it can be quite uncomfortable to consider the fact we might not be), these patterns of behaving are often so deeply ingrained (and the neural pathways so well established) that our conditioning and automatic responses are often actually choosing our behaviours for us. Unless we are aware in the moment and consciously stop and choose, they are literally filtering out the alternatives so we don’t even see or consider them.
It’s why we often genuinely want something – to be less busy, get fitter, spend more quality time with friends, start those tennis lessons or whatever – but then we don’t actually do it. Our desire is generally no match for years and years of conditioning and reinforced habits.
It’s one of the reasons why coaching is so powerful and life-changing. It allows us to step out of the day-to-day, see our automatic habits and behaviours as they are happening, and be able to make more active and conscious choices aligned with what we truly want.
The need for a mindset shift
When I restructured my business a number of years back in order to be less busy and spread less thin, I removed about 30% of my business offerings and took on two people to help with the administrative side of things. I was shocked to discover that absolutely nothing changed as a result. I felt just as busy as I ever had.
What had happened was I’d made the outer changes – what often looks like the answer, even the hardest bit to do – but I hadn’t made the shift in mindset and in my thinking to prioritise time for what was important over results, achieving or simply getting my work done.
Making real and lasting changes in your life that positively affect how you live and feel, is not as simple as making an outer change like a new role or new company or stepping down as CEO. It also means a mindset shift.
Changing the way you are being. Making a change in the way you are thinking. The old way of hard work, drive, perseverance or not giving up will simply keep you on the same path, even if you change your circumstances.
So if you are serious about wanting things to be and feel different, the old patterns and default responses will need to be unlearned, or at least made less automatic or softened a little in order to do so.
You will need to recognise and embrace the fact that what got you here, won’t get you there.
A process of unlearning
A business owner I worked with had been independently wealthy for a long time but was still not that comfortable spending money, or at least not getting the best price or value for something. This was despite the fact that he was fully aware he had far more money than he or his family ever needed in their lifetime.
This was because his conditioning and his attitude to money hadn’t changed even though his circumstances had. Until he worked on changing his guilt associated with spending, this was a significant block to him enjoying his life as fully as he could and wanted to.
Another entrepreneur/business owner always took the hard path. It was part of what had made him so successful in the first place – his ability to take on things others would shy away from or not be capable of. His inner confidence was so strong that he always knew he could do it – whatever it was.
But being able to do it and it being right for him to do it are two different things – something he rarely consciously thought about since his automatic response was because he could do it, he did it.
Again, this was blocking him from enjoying his life as much as he could because he always did the thing he felt needed to be done, no matter how difficult or challenging or whether it would affect his quality of life. This was something he worked on to unlearn, so that he could grow into the next stage of his life. A life of greater ease and happiness – something he really wanted.
These are all examples of how things that have served us at one point in our lives or often helped us get to where we are, can become the very things that hold us back from getting to and enjoying the next stage of our life. To be living a life that is truly right for us at this point in our lives.
We can change our circumstances, but unless we change our thinking and therefore our automatic, unconscious habits – what got us here, won’t get us there.