What drives you?
It can be fascinating and revealing to look back at periods in your life and try to work out what the "light" was that you were following at the time. What were you aiming for, what were you running towards or away from?
Thinking about what's driving you is informative, since not only can it explain our past behavior, what we did and didn't do, and identify patterns, but it can also force you to consider what is driving you now.
Sometimes what is driving you is "out of date" and incomplete, you're reaching for a goal that you don't even want anymore, perhaps not even consciously. Perhaps you don't feel any drive and that's because you haven't committed to identifying what you really want out of life, and targeting that. You're instead targeting what you think you should do, what you were historically good at, the job you fell into after college and so on, not where your heart lies.
I'm in the process of writing a new introduction to The Good Life Book for its fifth anniversary, and it got me thinking about such a time in my own life, more than 20 years ago, when I felt at a low point and a book helped me. Let me share it with you now.
* * *
Early afternoon Sydney suburban summer sunlight. Jasmine scented breeze blowing off the green park through the bright rectangle of mosquito netted window illuminating a gray room. My bedroom circa 1995.
In 1995 I was 22 years old and washed up. I’d dropped out of college several times already. After spectacular growth, a large outdoor event I’d produced for my events business had recently and publicly failed to meet expectations. I was living with my parents and working in a call center to pay back my debts. What stung the most was that I’d had so much potential, or so people had told me.
One lunchtime I wandered into the self-help section of a local bookstore and picked up a book that had a pivotal effect on my life in the years to come. That book was Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The single idea that stuck with me most at the time was about proactivity. That I could create my future, rather than being defined by the present or past.
A powerful desire arose within me to prove to myself and others that I was enough, and more than the way I’d been living. The next ten or so years were a blur of activity, graduating at the top of my undergrad class and falling into management consulting. Getting an MBA, and moving to London to live out my schoolboy vision of travelling the world for work. By 2010 I was miles and light years away from the person in that suburban bedroom.
Except that you can’t outrun yourself.
A millisecond after reaching the mountain peak of my career to date, the thought of continuing on to climb other mountains felt unmotivating and simply like more of the same.
I began to drift, still delivering my client work (which I enjoyed) but metaphorically moving beyond the peak down the other side into some fairly treacherous career valleys that lay beyond. I’d lost my mojo to move up the ladder, and that was obvious to those around me at work, even if I didn’t let myself see why I felt that way.
Months later, while I was looking out the window of a business hotel in South Africa at night, the phone rang. I got the news that I’d been passed over for promotion.
I’d dreamt for so many years about being “someplace else” and exciting work travel. Now I was there, and at a crossroads trying to work out where to go next.
This setback was notable but not for the reason that you might be thinking. Life and work events
can serve as a trigger to reconnect with what is really important. Mine served as a reminder that I’d never planned to be a “lifer” consultant, and instead just use consulting as a stepping stone to get back into a startup, even my own business idea about creating shared experiences (that I did eventually start years later as Total Life Complete).
After starting my consulting career, I'd gotten lost and caught up on the treadmill and that took on a life of its own. I'd encountered many small setbacks and missteps along the way, as we all do, but my success/effectiveness mindset, and desire to prove myself, made me push on.
Instead of these small "speedbumps" making me remember the big picture and what was really important, I was unshakable from the desire to double down where I was. Two years turned into twleve.
Still, successful people by definition never give up, right?
After South Africa, I got back to London and planned a week vacation to ponder everything, ending up literally on the other side of the world doing some diving off Sipadan Island near Borneo, East Malaysia. Even before my dive bag hit the floor of the water bungalow (I'm laughing, but I love being able to write that cringeworthy sentence), I concluded that I should definitely start the business and later even sketched out a business plan on the back of a dot matrix printed airline itinerary (cocktail napkins are so passe).
Joking aside, this was the “textbook” moment to make such a move. I was single, in my 30’s, living in an
ideal city to start the business (London) and with a job that let me manage my own schedule and workload.
Except I didn’t start the business then, I let fear of change and pride drag me back into proving I could get promoted, which I did the next year but that’s beside the point.
I was so hung up on proving that I wasn't a failure that it prevented me from changing to what I really wanted to do (which inevitably requires trying and failing). I was also too comfortable with the minor trappings of success I'd experienced so far, the disposible income and frequent flyer miles. I had something to lose. That decision to stay (or lack of one to change) eventually cost me seven years and lots of heartache.
When I did finally decide to leave my job in 2016 and launch the business in 2017 it was an objectively worse time. I had two young kids and was now approaching my mid-40’s and living in a city (Dallas) where I didn’t know many people outside my wife’s friends.
My confidence had taken a beating from having one foot in and one foot out of my job. I was overweight and stress-eating not because of pressure at work, but since I saw myself (my identity) as an entrepreneur and wasn’t doing that in practice, not even close. I was stewing in my own personal self-loathing and existential crisis. At the same time the demands of consulting in a huge firm to global clients meant that I was fighting for a job that I didn’t believe in or even want. Crazy stuff!
* * *
The reason I did finally quit my job and start the business was that by then not changing was not an option. Revisiting that time was informative to me, and hopefully informative to you as well.
Be careful what you wish for, but also recognize that we all need the time and space to periodically check in on where we are going and why. Certainly, if you can't convince yourself about seeing a future in what you're doing you should look at changing things up somehow, despite any perceived "sunk cost". It's also obvious to those around you that something is up, they can perhaps see it before you do. Recognize that you're fighting the wrong battle.
In a way, I see my book as complimentary to "7 Habits" and others such as What Got You Here Won't Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith, which I read after my career setback and helped me see what I needed to do to get promoted. You need to do the right (different) things in the right way to take the next step up the ladder. You need to find your own "burning platform" and do another set of different things if you want to change tracks, and that's one of the things that I write about in the book.
A performance/effectiveness mindset is critical for whatever you do, BUT you also need to ensure that you are doing what is right for you, for now and in future. Work out your personal definition of success.
That is what I see as conspicuously missing from some of the wonderful self-help books out there, and what I've tried to address in my own.
Disable cruise control from time to time and check that the car is pointed in the right direction and your map is current before pushing the gas pedal again. Otherwise you might end up someplace you don't want to be, even if it's where you originally set out for.