After 20 years of working counterintelligence cases, I was asked to become the spokesperson for the FBI in Northern California. My first reaction was “No”—I was very comfortable in my position as a case agent. By this time, I knew every step in the manual and had my network of informants in place so I could launch an investigation against a foreign intelligence officer with very little effort on my part.
I felt the quiet pleasure of smug satisfaction with my existing situation. But in the back of my mind, I knew I wasn’t continuing to hone my skills; I wasn’t striving to do my best. In truth, I had become complacent; I had reached a plateau.
When I said “NO,” I was refusing to take my career to the next level. I was successful as a case agent, but my complacency was not nurturing a desire to grow professionally, or personally either.
“The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.”—Benjamin E. Mays
Stanford researcher Carol Dweck observed, “There is no relation between students’ abilities or intelligence and the development of mastery-oriented qualities. Some of the very brightest students avoid challenges, dislike effort, and wilt in the face of difficulty. And some of the less bright students are real go-getters, thriving on challenge, persisting intensely when things get difficult, and accomplishing more than you expected.”
In other words, it’s not always the people who start out the smartest who end up being the smartest.
I had always been a go-getter, but somewhere in those 20 years, I had settled into a comfort zone that produced mediocrity.
Complacent strength is our greatest weakness—LaRae Quy
I eventually did say “Yes” and represented the FBI for 4 years in Northern California. I’m going to share 4 effective ways that I took it to the next level, and so can you:
1. BUST THROUGH A PLATEAU
Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein, talks about the “O.K. plateau.” It’s when we reach a skill level where we’re able to do the task without having to really think about it. Your performance is automatic.
While the OK plateau can what be we need in certain areas of our life, there may be other areas where OK really means that we’ve hit a wall. We’re not unhappy, exactly, but not entirely sure where to pinpoint the growing sense of restlessness. We say, “We’re fine” rather than “excited about the next step in life or career.” There’s a niggling feeling that assures us there’s more out there for us to conquer in the world.
People used to believe that they couldn’t bust through plateaus because they represented the limit of our talent or genetic ability. In recent years, Psychologists have discovered that all it takes to bust through a plateau is the right attitude.
How To Make It Work For You:
Take the long view. When we look at the big picture, it’s easier to see plateaus as temporary breaks where we can take the time to strategize about not only our vision for the future but the steps it will take to get there.
Take risks. No one likes to move out of their comfort zone but only wimps use them as an excuse to hunker down and stay in a place that looks more like a rut over the years than an exciting life. Often, it’s your ego that you want to protect because there’s a chance you might fail if you try something new. The result is that you stay in a safe and boring pattern that involves no risk. In the process, you’ve just become Wikipedia’s image of a wimp.
Embrace the suck. Unless you want to live on a plateau, going nowhere for the rest of your life, you will need to embrace things that are hard and difficult. Yes, it sucks but once you’ve gotten in touch with your vision for your life, the sprint will be worth a few knocks to the ground. But here’s the thing: unless you learn from the failures that will litter your path along the way, it will all be for nothing. Each failure has the potential to make you smarter than before, but only if you embrace the lesson.
2. FEEL THE BURN IN YOUR BELLY
Self-help books can’t offer you guidance on this one. The burn in your belly comes from a deep understanding of what is important to you and why you’ll persist even when things look hard. Often, our career or path in life is influenced by a teacher or parent in our youth. We find ourselves stuck on a treadmill to nowhere because our heart isn’t in it; the path we took belonged to the parent or teacher, not to us.
Complacency is often a pinprick to our heart that we’ve taken the wrong turn somewhere along the road. You can’t take it to the next level until you take a closer look at why you’re doing what you’re doing. Complacency can be flat terrain that’s an opportunity for you to assess the direction your life is going and decide whether this is where you really want to go.
The number one reason most people don’t take their life to the next level is that they feel they don’t have control over their life. It’s far easier to take the wimp’s way out and blame their situation in life on someone else—the government, the demands of their job, their crappy childhood, their partner…the pathetic list goes on. Wimps see themselves as victims of life, but what really separates wimps from victors are the choices they make. Your choice is 100% within your control.
How To Make It Work For You: Stop using loser words like “I can’t” and “I shouldn’t.” Turn those thoughts around and claim control of your situation. Your current work environment may not be ideal, but you choose the attitude with which to approach it. Would you rather eat or starve on the street? That question can be a jolt to the way you look at your job. Does it mean you need to stay in a bloodless profession for the rest of your life? No! Give yourself a kick in the butt and get off-center but it does mean you need to take ownership of the way you approach your life. When you stop being a victim and understand that everything really is your choice, you develop the mental toughness to take your life to the next level.
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3. DISTINGUISH BETWEEN A PLATEAU AND BURNOUT
You can’t take your life to the next level until you know whether you’re experiencing a plateau or a burnout.
In a plateau, you can find ways to become empowered and recharged. Burnout is trying to do the same old things, or do things in the same old ways, without recognizing your need for reassessment. People in high-intensity jobs like first responders and law enforcement are very prone to burnout but they’re not the only ones. One of the best ways to detect burnout is to answer this question: “Do you notice that you’re working hard and long hours but accomplishing less than you used to?” Yep, that’s burnout.
According to psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, the signs of burnout are:
—Emotional exhaustion: Drained, unmotivated and tired—both physically and psychologically.
—Depersonalization: You stop seeing the people you work with as people and instead start to see them as burdens, which builds up a mounting sense of resentment.
—Lack of ability to focus: Working hard and long hours but accomplishing less.
While it can be hard to distinguish between a plateau and burnout at times, the cures are much different:
The cure for a plateau is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm will propel you to learn new skills and acquire more information to keep moving forward.
The cure for burnout is excavating the resentment you feel for what you’ve had to sacrifice in order to get where you are in life.
How To Make It Work For You: Take the time to envision what a perfect work environment would look like for you. Take small, realistic steps to bring your reality closer to what you imagine a perfect work environment looks like. Think not only in terms of physical space but of the actual work you’d be involved in as well.
4. RECOGNIZE THE LURE OF MEDIOCRITY
While success is defined differently by all of us, mediocrity is a word we all recognize for what it is: settling for less than we deserve in life. It’s a place that’s often soft and safe, but at the same time, offers little fulfillment or self-respect. When we slide into mediocrity, we settle for less than we know we can be in life. It’s giving up on finding a path that will bring us greater joy and happiness.
Mediocrity is a rut that looks a lot like a coffin over time. The reason most people get stuck in mediocrity is that they refuse to fail. The reason people refuse to fail is that they associate failure with defeat. Their fear of defeat paralyzes them to the point that they won’t move forward.
People are not finished when they’re defeated; they’re finished when they quit.
How To Make It Work For You: Hacks will tell you to start living your dreams. A much more effective approach is to stop living your fears. Fear produces anxiety that paralyzes the way we think, feel, and behave. The only way to move out of mediocrity is to be brave enough to face your fears. Don’t face them all at once. Be strategic and pick off the easier ones first because once you slay them, you’ll gain the confidence to move on to the bigger bullies that keep you cornered and afraid to move forward.