To get ahead, don’t let others define your career path

This is article originally appeared in Linked In.

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

There are moments in every career when the comment, “Oh, you can’t do that,can either derail you or give you just the push you needed.

I learned this early.

I went to a public high school in Queens, New York. During a field trip, we visited Princeton University to see a play. The campus was an open, expansive contrast to my densely populated, concrete neighborhood. I immediately fell in love with it and decided I wanted to go to Princeton University to study math. When the time came to apply, my college counselor said, “They never accept our students…don’t bother.”

I took her advice, and I’ve always regretted it.

Every day, people who should have more confidence than 17-year-old high school students allow themselves to be gated by others’ opinions. It’s easy to fence people in.

Math is all she’s good at.

He’s bad at project management.

You have to be tall to excel in basketball (uh humm, Steph Curry).

You may have had a manager tell you you don’t have the skills for a position, or you don’t have enough experience. It starts early in your career.

Fences neatly contain what’s inside. Real life is messier and doesn’t adhere to boundaries. Es dificil — it’s hard not to get boxed in. Especially when you are constructing the fence from the inside. You’re ceding your life’s desires to others by disproportionately listening to others and incorporating what they say into your self talk.

The power you give up when others decide who you are

So few of us realize we have power in every situation. We’re taught early on to accept almost unquestionably any input we receive from those we perceive to be senior to us (parents, counselors, managers etc.). Seeking feedback is valuable. It’s up to us to decide what to do with that feedback. That is OUR power. Listening to yourself and not letting others define you is crucial to living YOUR life. You may try something and fail. I’d rather fail doing something the way I think it should be done versus failing on someone else’s plan.You’ll expend the same energy pursuing your plan versus someone else’s, so why not try?

You are more likely to succeed at something you love and want to do because you will be in the flow. In a Harvard Business Review article titled, “Managing yourself: what brain science tells us about how to excel,” psychiatrist Edward Hallowell argues that selecting the right position for yourself is critical to happiness — inside work and outside. He writes, “In work, your goal should be to spend most of your time at the intersection of three spheres: what you like to do, what you do best, and what adds value to the organization.”

When it doesn’t feel like work, you are in your sweet spot. But there’s tension when you work at cross purposes to yourself. When others attempt to define you, they are projecting their fears and doubts on you. Do you really need that “help” or do you already have enough of your own fears and doubts?

Rewriting the definition of YOU

At the end of my high school years, the universe put another Ivy League school in my path. This time, I heard the call. Internalizing the worst case scenario (I might not get accepted and I would have wasted the application fee) helped me move forward. I decided I could live with that outcome if it happened, but I couldn’t live with the “what-if” of not having tried.

Think about a time that you “went against yourself” or let someone else define you. How can you rewrite the definition of you?

  • First, be aware of what you want. If someone says, “you can’t do that” or “you don’t have the right background to do that,” ask yourself if you believe them. If you do, ask yourself a second question: “Do you want to change that?” If the answer is yes, think about HOW you can get there versus whether you should try.
  • Second, consider the downside of going after you want. What will happen if you fail? Will you learn anything? Will it kill you? How can you mitigate any risk?
  • Lastly, seek input from people who may have a different perspective. What if I’d asked another counselor or teacher their thoughts about Princeton? Yep, I get that I just said to rely on yourself, but you aren’t committed to following others’ input. Input is just that…one data point.

Here are three things you can do today to put this into practice:

  1. Choose your career to define yourself. Are there aspects of what you do today that you’d like to double down on? For example, do you love the art of the deal but only get to participate on the periphery? Ask your boss to let you work on a business development deal from start to finish. Set a personal goal to do at least X more in a year.
  2. Start with the “no.” If your boss, says, “no,” ask what skills he or she believes you need to develop in order to get the career you want. Get a commitment that if you develop that skill your boss will assign you to the next appropriate negotiation.
  3. Listen to the right people. Find others who are doing the job or skill you need to develop and seek their input as to how you can get there.

Looking back, I shouldn’t have accepted the answer, “Princeton never accepts anyone from our school.” Instead, I should have tested that for myself. I was seventh out of a class of more than 1,000 students, and I had a 99.6 grade point average. I ultimately applied and was accepted to Columbia’s School of Engineering, and I earned several scholarships to cover costs. I graduated as an electrical engineer with a computer science major. The decision to apply changed my life. You can change yours by tearing down the fences that keep you where you are — no matter who erected them in the first place.