Friday, October 28, 2011

Authors of Our Own Lives

Kurt Vonnegut once remarked that the secret of writing fiction is to make the reader really want something and then take it away. You find that in life, of course, but the person who is taking it away is usually not some outside author or director but the main character.

I knew a candidate for an executive position who was bright and skilled but prone to self-sabotage. Just when the goal was in sight, he'd do something weird. Often, he would survive the cut regardless of the problem but in other cases he was sunk by his own actions. If I had been managing his career, I would have suggested a trip to an isolated cabin two weeks before any selection decision.

Those of us who self-sabotage, however, usually do so on an incremental basis instead of in one dramatic event. We acquire a collection of bad habits that eventually drag us down. In some respects, they resemble those dreams in which you discover yourself back in school, the final exam is today, and yet you've somehow forgotten to attend class all semester.

I suspect that many of our incremental blunders stem from faulty assumptions and not from a hidden intent to harm our careers or relationships. For example, if we assume that long-term thinking is admirable, we may not catch how frequently it causes us to miss or trip over things that are right in front of us. If we are impatient for achievement and regard that impatience as a commendable sense of urgency, we may not see how it drains pleasure from the processes that will eventually lead to achievement and how the depletion invites depression. As I've written here before, our vices may hide within our virtues.

If I were to urge one task for anyone experiencing career frustration, it would be to examine the assumptions that have governed daily life. You are the author and you may need to rewrite the story.


Steve Wilheir said...

Leaders are just human, like anyone else... they need a certain degree of complexity in their lives, at times. When things go beyond their comfort zone, they push things back into the area where they're confident again.

Michael Wade said...


Interesting observation. We create our zones of comfort and sometimes they become cells.