Like it or not, we are all captains of our own ship. If we focus on the things we cannot control – the circumstances into which we were born, the opportunities we happened to have or miss, and the people we chanced to meet, or didn’t – we deny ourselves access to the one thing that truly matters: our own choices. Whatever stuff life throws our way – be it crappy or sublime – we all have choices about how to react to it and what to do about it. We are all CEOs of our own lives.
Being CEO of anything is a position that frightens many people. It’s a demanding job. It can also be a thankless one. But ask yourself this: When you’re 80 years old – should you be so lucky – and looking back on your life, would you rather keep mumbling that it was all somebody else’s fault? Or would you want to know that the choices you made mattered, and that those choices in turn transformed you into something better than you could possibly have imagined?
If you want to be a better CEO of “You, Inc.,” start with the following.
Take the Helm. Just Do It.
It is a psychological truism that many of the constraints we impose on ourselves are self-inflicted. On their face, they are self-destructive yet we accept them because they actually benefit us in some way. They protect us from feelings of inadequacy. They have become part of our identity. Or we simply don’t have confidence in our ability to craft a different response to the world.
I would be lying if I told you I knew exactly how to enable you to go from feeling like you can’t to feeling like you can. It might take you years of professional therapy. But I can tell you for a fact that the literature is full of stories of individuals who simply woke up one day and decided they could – and were going to – take control of their lives. Many such stories involve emotional epiphanies – “aha” moments. I’ll leave it to people who are smarter than I am to explain exactly how. But I can tell you for sure that it is possible. It’s happened to people I know. It’s happened to me.
Clarify Your Strategic Intent
As the Cheshire Cat said, if you don’t know where you want to go any road will get you there. Yet most of us make most of our choices in life without a clear understanding of where we want them to take us. Why is this so difficult? Perhaps because we all grow up doing what our parents tell us is right and then graduate to doing what our peers tell us is desirable. And that’s not altogether a bad thing. It (usually) keeps us out of trouble and gets us through school and to a place where we actually have more options than we would otherwise have had. Yet at some point most of us realize that the only person we’re not truly listening to is ourselves.
Ultimately, it’s okay not to want what your parents, family, or peers want for you. You’re not letting them down by deciding for yourself. You are simply growing into who you are supposed to be. But you need to be explicit about it. Did you really want to be an artist rather than a Wall Street guy? No problem; but admit it. Or did you really love cost accounting in college – much to the chagrin of your artistic girlfriend? Just go with it. Be clear about it. Lose the guilt about it. Learn to listen to your own inner voice.
The ‘achievement’ you might want doesn’t need to be a life of fame and glory. Indeed, your heart’s desire may be to lead a quiet life, happy in daily interactions with family and friends, and far from the rat race of professional ladder-climbing. Or you may have a spiritual goal that you’re a bit embarrassed to admit to your career-minded fellows. Alternatively, you might just want to start that business. It all depends – on you.
Don’t Be Afraid to Say ‘No’
Forget money for a moment. Each of us has a limited amount of time and energy in this world, and those resources are precious. The only way most of us have a shot at leading the life we want is to prioritize how we spend those resources. If we try to do everything, we end up achieving nothing. We need to focus.
Though it might be counter-intuitive at first, the ability to say “no” to what you don’t want is even more important than the clarity to say “yes” to what you do want. We all hate saying “no.” It smacks of denial. It makes us feel like we’re being mean or selfish, like we’re letting others down.
I know only two antidotes to these feelings. The first is simply the strength and passion of one’s desire to say “yes.” If strong enough, it drowns everything else out, including reluctance to let non-priorities go. The second is an honest evaluation of what we’re feeling bad about not doing in the first place. Do the people you think you’re letting down really care what you do? If they do, do they have a right to care, or is it their own selfishness that is driving their emotional demands on you?
Play to Your Strengths
A business coach once pointed out to me that each of us engages in two kinds of activities: those that we find energizing and could do all day, and those we find enervating and that drain our focus and enthusiasm. To be successful – whatever your definition of success – you need to do more of the former and less of the latter. That means either outsourcing, finding substitutes for, or dropping activities that are pulling you down. But you need to evaluate the situation to decide which is best.
If you hate ironing but like wearing crisply ironed shirts, outsource the job. If you hate ironing and are okay with a crumpled look, drop it altogether. Another example: I can’t tell you how many people hate keeping track of their finances. Does that mean that they should simply let go of everything financial? Actually, probably not, since financial resources are among the most powerful tools we have for achieving our goals. So why not find substitutes for or outsource many of these functions? The important thing is not to feel bad about delegating some things in your life.
Enlist the Support of Others
Most people fail to give the world the precious gift of themselves, of who they were truly meant to be. If you embark on a journey of positive personal growth, I believe that for every individual who is ‘disappointed’ by your choices there will be more who enthusiastically support and welcome them. Learn to listen to people to inhabit the place you’re moving to – and not just the ones you’re moving away from. They’ll help you stay on course. They’ll help make the journey fun and exciting. They may even help you realize that “You, Inc.” isn’t just something that you’re doing for your own selfish reasons, but rather something that is good for the world.