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The Trap of the Competent

October 19, 2022

Part of the trajectory in life is building our reputation -- through our own eyes and through the eyes of others. Pure experience adds to our wisdom and compiling successes increases expectations of everyone aligned around us: managers, employees, spouses, children, and community. 

When we’re successful, we bask in our strong reputation and without noticing, we take on the persona of superhero. Our thinking becomes, “Without me, things will fail.” We also hold the myth that heroes can’t have flaws and we need to make sure disappointment remains hidden behind the corner.

Okay, I admit that ‘superhero’ is an exaggeration for anyone experiencing success. However, we can get caught up in our own sense of self-importance. The mythological powers we assign to ourselves as superheroes set unrealistic and unobtainable capabilities. We are achievers, based upon our prior track record of prevailing over deterrents, and we expect to be able to always succeed. 

Trapped by the High Bar of Expectations

By setting this bar set for ourselves, we believe others expect us to always succeed as well. We are aware that our manager, spouse, children, parents, friends, community members, etc., have some connection to this reputation, be it expectations or dependency. When the time comes for us to want to ask for help, how can we expect the people around us to be impartial? How can we fully trust their counsel? If we believe they trust us to always ‘save the day,’ showing weakness by asking for advice about creating a more fulfilling life will create conflict. So what do we do? 

An Opportunity to Discover a Better Life

After seven years as the top performer, I was laid off. Financially it made sense to the company, as I had the highest salary in the department, so my two direct reports were considered the better solution for those lean times. The truth is, though, I stayed too long in that role. It was familiar. The money was good enough. Most importantly, I didn’t know what the next step to take to change any of it. 

You, like many others, may find yourself in a similar situation where you cling to the familiar rather than putting extra effort into creating opportunities to move beyond status quo. 

The layoff removed my sense of financial security. As part of the severance compensation, I was provided a coach. I used the sessions to uncover my true interests. I discovered a marketing path and educated myself about what it took to create opportunities in that area. The new direction excited me. However, this promising future was cut short as my severance money was ending and bills needed to be paid. 

The Comfort of Status Quo and the Familiar

The pressure of immediate financial needs held sway over whether to take a similar role or pursue the unclearly defined possibility of the new career path. My intuition pointed me toward marketing, but my family responsibility favored the more conservative choice. As a result, I took a job like the one I had left because it was available. This choice provided safety in the near term by meeting my financial obligations. Unfortunately, I did not make the decision as a strategy to buy time while I developed a new marketing career path. I instead did what most do – focused solely on the new familiar-feeling job. 

I will never know what might have happened with my career or family had I chosen differently or stayed committed to exploring marketing in parallel while working that new job. I found the urgency of finding a better solution dulled as I collected the new consistent paycheck and created a comfortable daily routine. 

My connection to the coach also ended, removing the one place I had to explore my interests and develop strategies. I lost the one person who was invested in my interests and long-term prospects and gave me unbiased space to try on ideas that otherwise would feel selfish or narcissistic. 

I know I came close to making several career changes later in my life and each time I picked the safer choice. Fear won out because I lacked the support to figure out solutions that would address my financial concerns and put me on a more satisfying path. 

Moving into a Life You Love

The time eventually came where I finally did create my future. During the process, I saw how close I had come previously, but I couldn’t regret my past decisions.

The difference in remaining in a status quo life or creating a life you love is in assembling the support you need and finding solutions to the obstacles that arise. I would have failed starting my current business if I hadn’t assembled this quality of support. I brought balance to my decision by elevating my voice and my perspective in concert with those I care about. As a full participant in this latest decision, I avoided the trap of my previous successes.

We cultivate reputation and image in business for purposes of achievement and reward. We work to polish and enhance our skills to improve our competency in our jobs to attain promotions and raises. We demonstrate our capacity to take on more responsibility by reliably delivering regardless of the obstacles encountered. The conundrum as we build our capabilities and reliability become the growing number of people relying upon our success. Conversely, we end up reducing the number of people we can share our insecurities or vulnerabilities with.

Humans Need Human Connection

Success is known to foster isolation. The challenge then for the competent is to remember they are human; still capable of making mistakes. It’s important to not get lost in the image of being stronger than they are. 

The strategy to avoid being trapped by your own success is to seek and foster relationships outside of your family, friends, and work with the focus of getting unfiltered feedback.

Reach out to me through to arrange for a conversation about what paths you are considering, or if this would be a good fit for what you have planned.