Winter at Lofoten (2008). By Tackbert. Public Domain.

Are You Trying to Succeed Where You Can’t?

Forrest ChristianCareers, Underachievers Leave a Comment

Some time ago, I was complaining to my own executive coach about how I wasn’t getting rich when he leaned in, looked me straight in the eye, and shot the truth right to the heart of it all:

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

“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.”

I sat in shock. Because what he was right.

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.

Because if you are trying to succeed in the wrong place, it’s never going to happen.

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 just with work levels.  

You need to know what entrepreneur, organizational consultant, and psychiatrist Dr. Warren Kinston calls your natural domain of work.

Kinston has fleshed out what Jaques just dismissed as “wanting to do the job”. That led many people to think that a bad field-to-person fit is simply matter of changing your mind. “If only this recalcitrant so-and-so would just grow up and stop being grumpy!” they say.

But it’s nowhere near that easy because it is about what feels natural for you to do and where it feels natural for you to do it.

What you feel natural doing has to do with your language of achievement, which determines which domain of work you can succeed within.

Many of you simply aren’t likely to succeed in the large, capital-intensive industries that make up “organisations of tangible products / services” in which Jaques did much of his work. You would do better in an IP-focused business in software development or biotech, an environment that is less tangible and more transdisciplinary.

I started thinking harder on this as a result of going through Brian J. Mahan’s excellent Forgetting 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.

The rules for most people won’t work for Hidden High Potentials, because they are written for normal people whose language of achievement is fit for “tangible products / services”, the normal organizational life. They use words as classes of things to describe work.

You use words totally differently when you talk about work. The very language of work is different for you. When you open your mouth to speak, you “talk funny”. They don’t understand, not because you are thinking farther out but because you conceptualize work and achievement differently.  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. I have a client who speaks about systemic social problems and their solutions. This is his natural language of work, his natural thinking about what is real work. 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.

Talk like that inside of a normal products or software firm and you’ll find yourself seeking new employment soon. 

An associate of mine can’t succeed in even Chicago’s legal landscape, but he has been shortlisted twice for jobs at international judiciary bodies 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.

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: “Winter at Lofoten” (2008). By Tackbert. Public Domain.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *