Whether you want to achieve something big or just make a small change in your working life, the path to any new experience or outcome begins when you know what you want.
While that sounds straightforward, in reality it can be the hardest part of change because we often struggle to talk about what matters. We also have a tendency to deceive ourselves into believing that we have clearly communicated our hopes, expectations and desires to others when we really have not. Then we are confounded when they do not comply.
The frustration, disappointment, and apathy that often accompany the gap between “what we want” and “what we get” can be so dominant that negative emotions shape our outlook on the future. Over time, when our experience doesn’t match our expectations, we have a tendency to expect more unmet expectations. (Click here to tweet this thought.) The deep irony here is that most unmet expectations that lead to missed achievements, disappointing outcomes and relationship breakdowns were never spoken in the first place.
If we are going to create the conditions for the experiences and outcomes we seek, we have to first know what matters. While we are unfortunately well-versed in the experience of knowing what we do not want, there are four issues that make it hard for us to identify and communicate what is really important to us. Don’t let these four things stand in your way:
1. Don’t make people guess
In the absence of clearly stating what matters, you will make people guess and they will likely guess incorrectly. Most frustration and conflict in the workplace occur due to unmet needs. The irony of unmet needs and expectations is that they are often left unspoken. So when we rationalize ourselves away from clearly stating what we want, or what is most important to us in a specific situation or relationship, we may think that we are avoiding some confrontational pitfall.
The fact is we are simply digging the hole deeper by forcing other people to guess our relative perspective and priorities and to take action accordingly. And this is the reason dashed hopes, passive-aggressive standoffs and unresolved conflict in the workplace are such significant, repetitive problems. We are all pretty bad guessers when it comes down to it.
2. Don’t wait for progress to come to you
Getting what you want requires active movement toward it. It is self-deception to want something and remain standing still. Gaining the confidence to talk out loud about what matters is the first (and most important) active move. Once the picture of that desired future comes into focus and those around you are tuned in, you have to fight the attractive (but unrealistic) belief that the world will come to you. An aspirational achievement requires you to step toward it, no matter how small those first steps feel.
3. Don’t borrow other people’s definitions of success
We are often very good at wanting what others want, but unpracticed at wanting stuff that is consistent with who we are and what we value. In his 2009 TED talk, Alain de Botton, the acclaimed writer, philosopher, and commentator on work, described the challenge of distinguishing what matters to us and the noise we hear from the world:
One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people … [It] is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should … make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions.
4. Don’t say yes to distractions
Learning to go for what we want requires us to say “yes” and “no” in the right ways. In other words, we need equal amounts of courage and willingness to start and stop doing the things that are required to make something different. Saying yes to new things is a bit more straightforward than saying no because there is always a bit of risk with a polite turn-down.
However, we need to have the courage and willingness to say no, draw a line in the sand, and avoid doing things that distract from our goals. When the writer and cartoonist Hugh MacLeod said, “The best way to get approval is not to need it,” he pointed to a very important element in our effort to create the change we want to see: Be bold, then ask for permission.
When you take the time to work through these four issues, you give yourself room to focus on what matters most and separate from the baggage that often weighs you down in their pursuit. To have the experience and attain the outcomes you want, start by getting out of your own way.