When you start working in an organization, you do good work and slowly climb the corporate ladder. Over time, you keep getting more “opportunities” by way of promotions with more demands on your time. You keep saying yes to those opportunities and inevitably spread yourself thin to a point where you can’t sustain it any more. We bite more than we can chew. When the demands of our work inevitably exceed our capacity to do it, burnout ensues sooner or later. This is the paradox of success. In other words, the very success we started with leads to failure at work (and in life).
Of course, it would be silly to think this happens overnight. It reminds me of the boiling frog metaphor (as dubious it might be scientifically). Here’s the thing: no one gets fat overnight. Our work demands slowly creep up on us over a period of time and we are slowly absorbed by it to the point that we lose perspective. We are so busy doing the everyday work that we don’t have space to think about if the work we are doing is the work we want to continue doing in the first place.
The idea that we can do it all is a fallacy. At some point, we are forced to accept we can’t do it all (even though we knew this all along, but refuse to believe it or ignore it). Of course, this doesn’t stop the average knowledge worker from committing to more projects than they can do justice.
We are forced to learn things the hard way. We can do anything, but not everything. The reality is there are far more opportunities in the world than we have time to invest in. We can either take on fewer commitments and do them well, or we can spread ourselves thin by doing many things poorly. Either way, the amount of effort required in both approaches is the same, though the choice is always ours. With the latter approach, we end up going a mile wide and an inch deep, which isn’t effective.
Here are some ideas for dealing with the success paradox.
The first thing to do is to accept we can’t do it all. This means we need to make choices. One way to make those choices is by starting with the end in mind, which requires us to commit to a few things at the onset. When we say yes to one thing, it means implicitly saying no to others. We need clarity on the one thing we need to do where we can make our greatest contribution in terms of who we are and the impact we can make.
Remember, almost everything we encounter in the world is noise, while only a few things matter in the end. Only when we commit to fewer things for the long term can we say no to almost everything else that doesn’t fit in our vision, and only then can we do those few things well. Because we are committing to doing a few things later on, we have the freedom to explore more of those things in the beginning and make informed choices.
If you visualize an inverted triangle, think of the top as exploring options and the bottom as being something specific that you do. Start from the top and move toward the bottom. This is consistent with the principle of divergence and convergence.
We need to prioritize ourselves before we can help others. We cannot help others at the cost of our own self. The other thing is we cannot please everyone. When we try doing that, we end up pleasing no one, and we risk losing our own identity in the process. The best thing we can do is to remain true to ourselves. Only then will we attract those who believe what we believe. This is as true in work as it is in our personal life.
Take the fast no and the slow yes approach as an example. Once you know what you’re committed to, your default response to potential projects can be negative unless it somehow overlaps with your vision. Saying no to most things can also mean turning down some terrific opportunities.
When we start declining things, we might initially get pushback from others because it’s going to take a while for others to unlearn what they have learned from us (by virtue of what we have taught them). In other words, we are trading our short-term popularity for long-term respect and focus.
Our work should revolve around our life, but we have it backwards. Remember, the work we do is only one area of our lives, while the other two involve our selves and our relationships. Spending too much (or not enough) time on either of the three (or some combination thereof) will likely create an imbalance in your life.
In order to stay the course, we need to put boundaries in place. Sometimes that can mean defining what is acceptable and what is off limits. A simple example would be when you leave the office to go home, your work stays at the office. The same applies to the weekends.
For instance, I am committed to inspiring others to do a few things better and help them live to their potential so that we can create a better future together. This is what drives everything I do. Anything that falls outside this goal is easy to automatically decline, and it’s this level of clarity that makes the decision on what to work on so simple for me.
I have been a huge advocate of the Less But Better philosophy, which is how I lead my life. The philosophy embodies the idea that we can either do many things poorly or a few things well. While the amount of effort required in both of these approaches is the same, the choice is always ours.