It’s hard to grab hold of your own goals and dreams when you’re judging your progress against everyone else’s definition of success. We spend too much time gathering all of those rocks labeled “the right job” and “the right school” and “the right spouse” and drop them in our backpacks, running faster and faster on the treadmill of comparison, and then we wonder why we screech to a halt, burdened so heavily by this weight that we can’t move forward and we get stuck.
The solution is easier than we think. It’s as simple as ignoring everybody and their mistaken assumptions of what will actually make you happy. Yes, I know … ignoring everybody isn’t all that easy, but here are the best ways to do just that:
1. Don’t give a vote to people who shouldn’t even have a voice.
Let’s face it: Most of the people who give you advice — telling you to slow down, take smaller risks, dream a little more realistically — are doing so from a place of fear and anxiety, not about your life but about their own. Stop letting your audacity be constrained by the limits of other people’s imaginations. Politely excuse yourself from taking every opinion as fact, weighing them all with equal measure, and allow yourself to be your own dog, run your own race, carve your own path. And all those voices questioning your choices and telling you what you should do and need to do? They simply don’t get a vote — unless you give it to them. And that includes that voice inside your own head.
2. It’s time to say “Screw the Joneses.”
When we play the comparison game, we all lose. Social media puts us in a position where we unwittingly judge everyone else’s highlight reel through our own klutzy blooper outtakes. Of course we look like we don’t have it all together. Of course we feel like we should just do more of whatever it is that the brightest, shiniest friend is doing. Of course we’ll have what she’s having. But here’s the kicker: you can’t be insatiably hungry for someone else’s goals. And you won’t be satisfied by them, either. Let’s stop, once and for all, believing the hype, and stop hoping that “I’ll be happy when” and decide what will make us happy now. The journey is long, waiting is for suckers.
3. Realize that your fourth grade teacher was wrong about you.
Back in middle school, we were taught to pursue the gold stars, get the good grades, and shine across the board. We had no say in the skills that got rewarded; and often what we were rewarded for was different from what we loved. Therefore, rather than picking a path based on what makes us special — i.e., what we like, what we do well, and where we shine — most of us are forced to pick our path early, based on values attached by others and on interests that aren’t our calling. Remember that fourth grade teacher who said that you should become a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant? They possessed no crystal ball, and yet we internalized their notions as predictions rather than simply suggestions. What if, just what if, that prediction based on nothing more than anecdotal information gathered at a specific moment in time, when we still let our mothers cut our hair and pick out or picture day outfits, was wrong?
4. Believe that ambition is not a dirty word.
Ambition has gotten a bad rap of late. It’s a dirty word, and even more so if you’re a woman. (Oh, she’s so ambitious!) Part of the reason we’ve lost ownership of our unspoken dreams — those dreams so big and so scary and so exciting that we dare not say them out loud — is that we’ve been persuaded to allow our ambition to be subsumed into something that’s more socially acceptable: faux humility. But I’d ask you this: Why do you want to get ahead? What do you want to do with that power? Do you want to change your family, your community, your country, your world? Do you want to make a mark, large or small, on this earth? What kind of life do you want to live? How do you want to raise your family? Do you want to give back? If being in that elevated position, with that increased salary and that greater voice of leadership, allows you to make more of an impact on the very calling that you hold dear, it’s more than just your ambition. It’s your responsibility.
5. Gather your “framily.”
I’ve come to understand that in order for your life to feel right for you, it has to actually be right for you. The most powerful way to insulate yourself from the misguided, happiness-eroding (and often uninvited) opinions of others is to stop doubting your own damn self. That comes from having the confidence in the choices you make and the chances you take. And if you can’t find that on your own, it’s time to call a meeting of your “framily,” that combination of friends and family that see your greatness, even if you don’t yet. Tell them what you want to do, where you’re stuck, and what you think is in your way. And then let them help you walk through the walls, real or perceived, that are holding you back.
Laura Gassner Otting is the author of “Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life.” Want to live a limitless life? Take her quick quiz at www.LimitlessAssessment.com/thrive to see what’s holding you back, and what you can do about it.