Hippocrates refusing the gifts of Artaxerxes

Maybe You’re Not Successful Because You Don’t Want That

E. Forrest Christian Careers, Underachievers Leave a Comment

You probably get told that you could be successful if you want to. I got that a lot, too. One day, my executive coach — a wildly insightful guy named Mark Pletcher — leaned in, looked me straight in the eye, and shot the truth right between my eyes:

“Maybe you’re not getting all that because you don’t want it”

Well that’s a fine how-do-you-do.

“You’re a smart guy,” he said. “If you wanted to be successful in that job you would have found a way to get there.”

If that don’t beat all. It just happened to be true.

And maybe the same is true for you. Maybe the job that you think you want to succeed in, you don’t really want at all because it’s a bad fit for you.

I talk a lot about work levels, and I spend a great deal of my time working with them. You can see a lot using that lens. But you can’t see everything. I was lucky enough to work with Warren Kinston, who has some incredible IP on expanding this. (Some of this was discussed at the 2007 GO Society conference in Toronto.)

Another piece of your puzzle is your domain of work. There seems to be different hierarchies in different domains, and just because you are at, say, Level 4 in work domain A’s hierarchy doesn’t mean that you can do Level 4 work in domain B.

I started thinking about this after some conversations with Byron, our strategic HR pal who is currently severely underemployed. He seems to be getting fired after letting his bosses know that they did not seem to be in compliance with some important labor laws and regulations, and this dismissal is distressing to him. But he is taking the opportunity to really look at where he can be successful.

Discussing the War in a Paris Cafe - Illustrated London News, 17 September, 1870 by Frederick Barnard (1846-1896)

In a way, Kinston has fleshed out in volumes of important IP what Jaques pretty much just dismissed as “wanting to do the job”. That has led many people to think that it is a matter of changing your mind, but it’s nowhere near that easy. It has to do with your language of achievement, which determines which domain of work you can succeed within.

Byron, for his part, will probably not be successful in these large, capital-intensive industries that make up “organisations of tangible products / services” such as the bearings and mining companies in which Jaques did much of his work. He would do better in an IP-focused business in software development or biotech. He would do best in something more transdisciplinary.

I started thinking harder on this as a result of going through Brian J. Mahan’s excellentForgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition. Mahan describes something said by death-row legal activist Bryan Stevenson many years ago. Stevenson had bewildered most people by leaving Harvard Law and going to work with death row inmates in Alabama, long before such things were trendy liberal careers. Mahan writes:

When asked directly why, after all, he did not take the money, [Stevenson] expressed dissatisfaction with the question: “What people don’t understand when they say I could be making all this money is that I couldn’t be making all this money…. If the death penalty were abolished tomorrow, I wouldn’t be a corporate lawyer; I’d probably be a musician.”

(Not an idle statement: he had an uncanny auditory memory and was an extremely talented performer.)

Do you get the point? A lot of you are sitting around trying to figure out an answer to a question that doesn’t make any sense for you. Stevenson wasn’t going to “make all this money” because he is not suited to work within the corporate legal environment, whether as a suit in a conglomerate or in a boutique law firm. And he’s not suited because his language of achievement is fundamentally different than that of the those environments.

Another reason why I keep telling you that the rules for most people — whose language of achievement is fit for “tangible products / services” — won’t work for you. You have a totally different language, literally a different way of thinking and speaking, which is anathema to their success.

Work comes in many domains and the tangible products is the simplest one. Byron speaks about systemic social problems and their solutions. This is not the language of achievement within tangible products, or even discipline-based firms such as software development. It’s a language for building society, for talking about how we shall live.

Another associate of mine, “Wim”, can’t succeed in even Chicago’s legal landscape but he has been shortlisted twice for jobs at The Hague, and is a regular consultant to them. He cannot succeed at the “simple” legal world of corporations but can succeed at the level of nations. Why? Not because he’s so much higher Capability than his friends in Chicago but because he speaks a fundamentally different language of achievement.

So why keep trying to succeed where you can’t? Why not succeed where your language of achievement matches that of the environment?

Ask yourself:

“Do I speak the same language as the people who are succeeding in the field?”

“Do I really want this?”

Because, it turns out, you’re the killer app.

Image Credit: “Hippocrates refusing the gifts of Artaxerxes”. Anne-Louis Girodet (de Roucy-Trioson)?
Small inset: “Discussing the War in a Paris Cafe” from Illustrated London News (1870) by Frederick Barnard.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

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