27 September 2023

Caught in their own web: Traps high achievers need to avoid

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Lisa Earle McLeod* says there are reasons why the best person sometimes doesn’t get the top job — she lists four of them.

I’ve seen incredibly talented people not get the job, miss the promotion, or even lose business to a less skilled competitor.

You probably have too, or maybe you’ve even been one of them yourself.

It’s not that these high achievers aren’t motivated or talented enough; it’s that they succumbed to some of the traps so common to high performers.

Here are four traps that often weaken otherwise A-players and how you can avoid them

Being terrified of big, public failure

Being afraid of failure, especially public failure, can keep otherwise ambitious people on the sidelines.

Yet the innovators and entrepreneurs we admire fell flat on their faces, sometimes multiple times, before their ‘breakthrough’.

If you’re finding yourself afraid of failing, consider these rebound stories.

Early in his career, Walt Disney was fired from a Missouri newspaper for “not being creative enough”.

Vera Wang only went into fashion after she didn’t make the United States Olympic figure-skating team.

Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, only created LinkedIn after his online dating network called SocialNet flopped.

If you’re a high achieving person, tattoo this into your heart: You’ll fail more often and it will hurt more. It’s the price to pay for ambition.

Saying no to perceived ‘tangents’

I started my first role at Procter and Gamble with one clear ambition: To claw my way into middle management.

From there, I would move into a regional role, and then into senior leadership, hopefully one day, I’d be an executive.

It all sounded so perfectly constructed, a quick moving, linear journey sure to impress.

It didn’t go like that, because hardly anyone’s career goes according to the plan they had at 22.

It’s a natural evolution that can sound the alarms in the brain of high achievers.

In his book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World, author David Epstein cites his research of the world’s top performers.

He demonstrates that the paths of high achieving people aren’t always perfectly linear.

High performers often find their paths late; they explore a huge breadth of ideas, roles, and industries.

So if your next role, project, or industry feels like a big wrench in your most perfectly laid out plan, recognise that high performers often do things that don’t initially seem like they go together.

Being overly dependent on positive feedback

High achievers are often driven by that ever-present, subconscious whisper of not being good enough.

Many have come to determine that an effective way to get that voice to be quiet is to drown it out with positive feedback.

The challenge: Waiting for positive feedback subjects you to the whims of others.

It can become gut-wrenching when your boss walks off in a hurry or your so carefully constructed email goes unanswered in the swirl of daily business.

To mitigate this trap, make a practice of complimenting yourself.

I know, it sounds a bit silly at first, but mentally acknowledge yourself when you go the extra mile, and being proud of yourself will enable you to stay emotionally levelled.

Never giving up

Most motivational speeches end with some form of never give up.

It’s terrible advice to give a naturally ambitious person. The truth is, sometimes you should absolutely give up.

Cutting the cord on a bad idea or a crumbling organisation may be the smartest thing to do.

As author, Amanda Setili wrote: “There are people who get stuck trying to succeed doing something that makes no sense for them to do.

“Or, perhaps more often, they’re so busy pursuing something with moderate success that they feel they can’t pivot to pursue even bigger opportunities.

“Knowing that quitting is an option gives you the ability to be clear-eyed regarding what to do next”

Imagine if Reid Hoffman had never given up SocialNet? If you are an ambitious person, recognise that giving up is always a choice, often a quite viable one.

High achievers are known for their ambition, dedication, and hard work. If you’ve set out to make it big, don’t let these four traps hold you back.

*Lisa Earle McLeod is the leadership expert best known for creating the popular business concept Noble Purpose. She is the author of Selling with Noble Purpose and Leading with Noble Purpose. She can be contacted at mcleodandmore.com.

This article first appeared at mcleodandmore.com.

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