One of the most eye-opening conversations I’ve ever had was with my boss, exactly a year after I joined the company. As he reviewed my performance for the year, he said:
“Nathan, you’re doing OK. You’ve had a decent year all round. But if you keep this up, you’ll go nowhere in life.”
I was confused. If I had done ok, why didn’t I have a future? He explained to me:
“See, there are people at this company who come in every day, do almost the same thing, collect their paychecks at the end of the month and that’s enough. But you’re better than that.”
Ok. So what was I supposed to do?
“Your problem is that you’re not proactive with your learning. Nobody becomes successful by just showing up. You have to work for it”
Becoming Older Doesn’t Make You Smarter
I used to think intelligence and success were a natural byproduct of just living your life. Since you’re so much smarter at 20 than you are at 10, all you have to do is live your life and the knowledge and experience will follow, right?
As Titus Maccius Plautus said, ‘Not by age, but by capacity, is wisdom acquired’. You don’t become wiser by living longer. You could be 25 and miles beyond a person twice your age. It comes down to what you know and how you apply it.
For example, in my first few months as a developer, I learned to design web pages, and over the rest of the year, I just got better at that particular skill. But I never actually went beyond my scope. As my boss explained to me, if you enter a company as a junior and do the same thing for 15 years, never expanding your skillset and just leaving it to time to build you up, you’ll get better at what you do, but you’ll never go beyond it.
For some reason, I thought making the same kind of websites over and over again would get me promoted. I had the mindset that seniority was based on years worked at the company as opposed to the level of knowledge and responsibility you had.
Don’t Make a Mistake and Leave It up To Chance
The reason you grow so much as a kid is because a lot of your education is taken care of by your parents and teachers. You have guidance and don’t necessarily need to be proactive in finding ways to learn. But when you become an adult, the majority of that responsibility is on you.
Life hands you opportunities to grow. Sometimes you have experiences or challenges you need to overcome. These are chances to test yourself and learn. But leaving it up to external forces to dictate where your life goes is a mistake. Why put yourself at the mercy of ‘whatever happens’ when you can take control of your own learning?
Your life isn’t planned out for you. And waiting for the universe to throw you a bone of opportunity is the worst possible approach you can take to self-development. Instead of leaving it to chance, it’s important to design your own future by being intentional about your growth.
How You Can Take Control of Your Life
Your hair grows naturally. So does grass. And this growth is based on the environment and resources available. Uninterrupted and under perfect conditions, they will naturally grow.
But because you live in an environment that is distracting and constantly in demand of your attention, leaving yourself to grow naturally doesn’t give you great results. Not being intentional with how you spend your time leaves you vulnerable to go in whatever way the wind blows you.
Earlier this year I was stuck in the same routine every day, spending my time on unnecessary things that took me nowhere. As I reflected on the previous year, I realized I hadn’t made much progress. I was still in pretty much the same place. It was only when I started to be intentional about my growth that I was able to break out of the ‘autopilot’ mindset I wasn’t in control of.
Intention is the first step, but on its own, is not enough. You need to put your intentions into practice by taking action, and here’s how you can.
Don’t wait for the perfect moment
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as an adult is there’s never a better time to start something than now. Whenever I wait to be less busy, more motivated, more wealthy, etc, I never end up doing anything.
Life just gets busier. You rarely end up with ‘free time’ that you don’t know what to do with. And in terms of money, your current finances are usually an indication of your future finances unless you start doing something different. So there’s never going to be a better time than the present to start. Don’t wait, just do the hardest part and start.
Understand that growth is uncomfortable
If you use the gym analogy, you understand that you literally go somewhere to make yourself uncomfortable in order to grow or become healthier. It’s often a painful process but one you recognize as necessary.
The same applies to literally everything else. You don’t grow in your career if you don’t push yourself. If you don’t face any obstacles, how are you supposed to grow? We’re built to adapt and overcome challenges, and understanding that this process of growth is innately uncomfortable is a good reminder whenever you’re afraid.
This year I decided to pursue writing. I woke up early every day before work to spend an hour writing. I was tempted to just give up every single morning, but reminding myself that the discomfort I felt was a sign of growth made it a lot easier to get myself out of bed.
You’re supposed to fail along the way. Of course, you’ll hit bumps in the road when you’re attempting something you’ve never done before. But every time you’re tested you have an opportunity to grow, and pressure creates diamonds.
Remember motivation comes with action — not before
It doesn’t matter if you’re broke or want to sit on the couch and watch TV at the end of the day, you gotta get up and do something if you want anything to happen. That’s where the intention comes in.
When you give in to your own desires, you lose many opportunities to grow. You will rarely feel motivated to get up and move. But the thing about motivation is that it comes with action, not before it. In the same way you drag yourself to the gym, but come out feeling pumped and motivated, you need to start working on your growth to get the motivation to continue.
So don’t wait around for the inspiration or desire to hit you. It won’t come. Push yourself to take that first step and you’ll be much more likely to keep going.
Take note of what you want to learn
Being intentional may look something like this:
- Instead of waiting to stumble across an interesting article to learn something, look for the things you’re interested in.
- Instead of avoiding work that’s outside of your job scope, ask to help out with tasks that you’re unfamiliar with.
- Travel when you can and look for new experiences
- Talk to new people and listen to their stories
What I’ve found helpful is to make a list of things I’m interested in learning about. I try to read up on these or watch documentaries about them when I can. I also look at my goals and try to reverse engineer what I’d need to achieve them.
For instance, if I want to be a project manager, what are the skills I need? I take note of everything (leadership, risk management, communication, etc) and work on those when I can. This way I know I’m building myself up to be a capable manager instead of waiting to magically become better.
Create a process
Something that’s helped me is coming up with a system. If you don’t have a system you’ll start every day from scratch. Growth requires you to gain some kind of consistency and momentum in order to break new ground. You don’t need to stick to a strict routine, but having a process always helps.
For example, I do most of my writing on weekends because that’s when I have time. I try to leave Saturdays free to focus entirely on my articles. I listen to podcasts and audiobooks during my commute. I consciously try to build momentum so my efforts aren’t scattered and amount to nothing.
I used to think growth happened naturally. It doesn’t. You’re given opportunities every now and again by people or circumstances, but you need to capitalize on those opportunities to turn them into anything. And if you leave it to those, your growth will be slow and unreliable.
That’s why it’s important to be purposeful about what you’re doing. To speed up the process and reach your full potential you need to be intentional with your time. Start now, acknowledge that it may be uncomfortable at times, and don’t wait to be motivated. Take note of what you want to learn and create a process out of it.
Because once you take control of your own self-development, you can design the life you’re truly meant to have.