Being caught in a negative thought process could be keeping you from finding success in your career.
I spent one third of my career as a management consultant. It was a great experience filled with a lot of learning and a lot of tough moments, too.
That means I was paid to find what is wrong, root it out, and figure out a better path forward. It made me a great problem-solver, but it had a downside–I (and others in similar jobs) was being conditioned to point out the negative in everything I saw.
The thing is, we all do this, especially with ourselves. Listen to how people talk about their workload or the hours they work. It almost becomes a competition for who is the most beaten down.
You often hear things around the office like, “I was at the office until 10 last night. I’m so tired!” Then a coworker will often respond, full of pride, with something like, “10? Wow, you have it easy. I was here until midnight, and then did another three hours once I got home.”
Let me ask, which one of them is the winner in this debate?
Or when you try to commend someone on doing a good job, they often point out where they went wrong rather than just taking the praise. I remember giving a big presentation to a client early in my career, and a peer told me I did a great job afterward. My immediate response was, “No, I totally messed up that section about their growth strategy. Luckily they forgot about that once we showed them the savings involved.” I could not even start by saying, “Thanks,” before pointing out my failure.
And it is not just in work situations. Next time someone has you over for dinner, compliment them on the food, and watch what happens. You are likely to hear something like, “Thanks, but I overcooked the meat.” Or, “Maybe, but the vegetables needed more salt.”
This has become a major focus of my coaching work–helping people to get comfortable with being good at things. We are so entrenched in self-deprecation or denying our achievements that we end up framing ourselves with mediocrity at best or incompetence at worst.
How can you possibly be successful if you see yourself as mediocre or worse? The answer is obviously that you can’t.
However, you can change the situation. Here is the exercise I give people I work with. I call it “Stop the But.”
Stop the “But”
Say something good about yourself or something you did. As soon as you feel the word “but” forming in your mind, stop yourself. Just say the good part without moving onto anything to downplay it, take away from it, or negate it. Just allow the good.
Here are a few examples from people I work with.
The first is from working with a woman who was so caught in her not being smart enough for the job she wanted, she thought they made a mistake or there was something wrong with the company when they offered her the job.
So I asked her about how she did in college. She said, “I got good grades, but…”
I jumped in there and cut her off by saying, “Stop. You got good grades. Leave it there.”
But she could not do it, and responded with, “No, that does not matter. It was so long ago. And what I studied is not relevant to what I want to do. So who cares?”
The point is just to allow the good thing about you to sit unchallenged. Of course that good thing may not be relevant in every situation, so why bother naming specific reasons for it to be invalid in any one context? Good grades are also not relevant to whether she is good at basketball, can fly a plane, or any number of other unrelated things. So choosing one to focus on to discredit the good is no more rational than just letting the good be as it.
Another person was having trouble getting along with his boss, and was broadening that out to a general issue with people, and then catastrophizing that he was unemployable, and his career was doomed.
So I asked him, “Do you have friends?”
He said, “Of course I do. But–”
I cut him off right there. “You have friends. People who were not born into knowing you actively choose to be connected to you. Are they close friends or just acquaintances?”
“Good friends. In my circle of friends, I am kind of the go-to person when people are really struggling with problems in their job. They all turn to me.”
I said, “Ah ha! So people are specifically turning to you for advice about career issues. People have made a decision based on the kind of person you are to do this. And they want your advice about what you think you are afraid you are not good at. Doesn’t that seem disconnected?”
Through this exercise (which we repeated a few times) he stopped seeing himself as doomed because of his inability to be a relatable person, but rather realized there are people he does get along with well and others that may take more work. And then we focused on doing that work so he could improve, which he has.
This is something I have people do daily to start to counter-act the years of negative self-talk they have been engaging in throughout their lives, let alone their careers.
What about humility?
One person I was mentoring pushed back. He said he was being humble when he inserted the “but”. He did not want to seem egotistical, so a little self-deprecation was just about good social skills.
I told him I think that is a cop out. Let me explain with an (extreme) analogy.
If I fired someone for harassing another employee after a specific and severe incident, that would be a justifiable reason. If I fired everyone who ever disagreed with a coworker for harassment, that would be over-using the reason. That is, sometimes it is appropriate, and sometimes you are using it as a cop out, so do not just overuse it under the excuse of humility.
If you want to be successful, you have to allow for the possibility that you are actually good at things and capable of success. You cannot discredit every little attempt to credit you with a win and expect to have hope that you can achieve what you aspire to in your career.
This post is inspired by my best-selling book, “Do a Day: How to Live a Better Life Every Day” available in print, eBook and audio book formats. It originally appeared in my Inc.com column on January 10th, 2018.