Taking Stock in Where You Are

Women in Business - January 2016


January is the time for setting resolutions for the New Year. It is a time of hope and great ambitions about wiping the slate clean, letting go of all the bad habits of the past and embracing a new set of behaviors. Reflection is a big part of this process. Think back on your hopes and dreams of last year at this time, and how they have evolved—or haven’t. Surveys show that about 45 percent of people set New Year’s resolutions and less than 10 percent actually accomplish them. Not surprising, this same trend is true about life goals in general. So if you have difficulty following through on your New Year’s resolutions and want to understand why, take a look at your life patterns.

When we first enter adulthood, most of us have a glimpse of what we want in life and expectations about what our future careers will be like. For some, expectations are big, such as being a prominent leader or owning a successful business and being financially prosperous. For some, expectations are more modest, such as having a good job and a comfortable life. And, sadly, for others, expectations are quite pessimistic, such as continuing a life of struggle to make ends meet in jobs that lack meaning.  In looking at these three groups, the expectations of the third group are most predictive. A fair share of those in the other two groups will do much better than they expected and there will also be those who do worse. Why is that, and how can you be in the “better than expected” group?

There are three primary factors that determine how your life evolves relative to your goals and expectations: your beliefs, commitment and approach.  Let’s take a look at each:

Your beliefs. What you believe is possible is foundational. This is why the third group is the most predictive; they do not believe a better life is possible. Beliefs will either limit or unleash your potential. This is demonstrated by Stanford University professor Carol Dweck’s research on at risk students. When you help these students understand how intelligence develops and can be improved, their intelligence does improve and they become better, more motivated students. Opening the mind to possibilities, also opens the doors to those possibilities.

Your Commitment. Following through on any goal you set takes commitment, which is more about will than it is about willpower. When you set a goal, it typically lies somewhere on the continuum between “I will pursue this if it is easy, quick and convenient” at one end and “I will do this at all costs” at the other end. The closer you are to the latter end, the stronger your will and commitment; the closer you are to the first end, the more you are in a state of wishful thinking.  Any goal that you set is going to be in competition with a multitude of other life priorities. Your commitment is influenced by how your goal stacks up against these other priorities, as well as your passions and values. Let’s say you want to be a top producer in your organization. What happens when this hits up against other important priorities, such as making time for family, social relationships, healthy habits, hobbies and community service? True commitment means that you are willing to make the considerable effort it will take to manage these conflicting priorities rather than approaching them as either-or propositions.

Your Approach. Even when your beliefs and commitment are strong, you will encounter bumps and blocks along the road as you pursue your goals. Your approach to these unexpected and undesirable circumstances will either move you forward or take you off track. You may have a combative approach, where anything that runs contrary to your plan, beliefs or values is resisted or rejected. In this case, your energy will be focused on pushing back and stepping back. At the other end of the spectrum, you may have an adaptive approach where your energy is focused on engaging and exploring. The adaptive approach is not about becoming a chameleon that lets go of values and beliefs when they are inconvenient. In contrast, it is about moving into opposing circumstances to learn more about and from them, to turn those circumstances into opportunities for growth and expansion.

We live in a complex, diverse world. You will always encounter people who have different goals, beliefs and values. The environment is constantly changing and circumstances will only be ideal for snippets of time. Learning to be adaptive by positively leveraging adversity is often a differentiating factor between success and disappointment.

As you start this New Year, reflect back on how your career and accomplishments have evolved relative to your original expectations. Regardless of whether you have surprised yourself by going beyond or falling short of your expectations, seek to understand how your beliefs, commitment and approach are helping or hurting you. Look for patterns. Take stock in the ones that serve you well and consider taking a step toward changing at least one of those that is not.

Cindy Petitt is an executive coach and management consultant. She has conducted studies on factors that help and hinder the advancement of women to executive levels in male dominant corporate environments. She also conducts workshops for women on topics such as personal presence, communicating with influence, and leadership; and workshops for men and women on gender differences.

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