Transform your unfulfilling career into something extraordinary using three strategies to overcome common assumptions that hold you back.
By Rick Smith
Do you ever find yourself asking, "Is this it?" Sure, you've had some successes in your career, made some money, received a promotion or two. Yet you can't help but wonder, "Is this what I am supposed to be doing with my life? Is this the limit of my contribution?"
These questions are familiar territory for me. At the age of 35, I was stuck in a career rut. Then, unexpectedly, my life turned in an extraordinary new direction. Over the course of the next 18 months, I wrote a best-selling book and then founded World 50, a company that brought me into close contact with some of the great leaders and thinkers of our time, including Bono, Jack Welch, Robert Redford, Alan Greenspan, and Lance Armstrong, among dozens of others. Despite no experience and few contacts, I was able to create a successful, influential senior executive networking company. And through it all I kept asking, "How could this have happened to of all people, me?"
My quest has led me to half a decade of intensive interviewing and research. I have discovered I am not alone: The world is full of ordinary people, everyday Joes and Janes, who have broken free from average performance and achieved extraordinary levels of impact and accomplishment.
These individuals all led unremarkable lives until something shifted inside them—transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. And I have concluded anyone can make the same leap.
What is holding us back? For many, it is simply that we believe the wrong things. Common misguided assumptions prevent us from imagining a new future for ourselves and then moving toward it. Three of these common myths are, "In order to make a leap in my performance: (1) I have to change who I am—fix my weaknesses, (2) I have to go it alone, and (3) I have to take big, scary risks."
These assumptions are all false. By applying the same three strategies used by myself and dozens of other people who have made the leap from good to great, you can turn an unremarkable performance (and an unfulfilling career) into something extraordinary. Where we may have stumbled upon these successful changes, you can be more deliberate. Here's how:
1. Discover Your "Primary Color"
In a study on professional career success, I found that on average, professionals believe that they would be 35% more productive if they were in a role that fully leveraged their strengths and passions. These intuitive assumptions turn out to be correct. Nearly every extraordinary leap I studied began with the individual finding their way to a job in which their unique strengths were consistently called on and their passions were fully engaged.
But according to my research, only about 5% of professionals say that they are currently in roles that leverage their strengths and passions every day. This represents an ocean of unfulfilled workers, and incredible amounts of untapped organizational potential.
Everyone has what I call a "Primary Color," that point on the spectrum that represents the intersection of your greatest strengths and passions. Few people ever find it or even know it's there. But it is, and aligning your daily activities with your strengths and passions is a critical first step to accelerating your impact and performance.
Identify where your strengths and passions intersect. This is where you acquire new skills and achieve new heights of performance the fastest. Next, think about the activities required by your current role. Is your role aligned with your strengths and passions, or far apart (and drifting further)? These questions lead to actionable insights that you can use to direct your activities and steer your career toward the path that is uniquely suited for you.
2. Focus on a Big, Selfless, and Simple Idea
In 2002, soft-spoken Silvia Lagnado, a recently appointed brand manager within the global conglomerate Unilever, began floating a bold idea around the company—that the company's marketing should be focused on real beauty and not elusive "aspirational beauty."
And she wanted to use the flagship Dove brand to get this message across. Within two years, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty had become a global phenomenon, propelling Silvia to the role of senior vice-president and changing her company and her industry forever.
How did she do it? Silvia's story shares something remarkably similar with all of us who successfully made the Leap.
First, her idea was big—that women of all shapes and sizes should be celebrating their own beauty and not be ashamed by it. Her idea was selfless—focused on confronting the pandemic of dieting and body self-loathing. And it was simple—every woman has the right to feel beautiful. It turns out that Big, Selfless, and Simple ideas are uniquely advantaged.
Big, ambitious ideas break through the clutter and get us to pay attention. Selfless ideas, those focused outwardly on the beneficiary, engage our sense of empathy and create the physiological urge for us to sign on. Simple ideas are quickly and easily understood, and broadly and consistently translated across large groups of people.
Nearly any goal or objective that you and your team are focused on can benefit from passing it through the Big, Selfless, and Simple filter. Broaden its ambition and you will get noticed. Articulate the cause and you will deepen engagement. Simplify the message (and the details) and allow others to move to action. When you do, you will naturally bring countless others along with you for the ride.
3. Let the Spark Sequence Happen
The Spark Sequence is how you mitigate risk and turn leaps into inevitabilities. The popular perception, reinforced by tens of thousands of TV and movie hours, is that great success belongs to the most fearless and aggressive in society—people consumed by blind ambition, the ones who dive headfirst into the water without ever checking its depth. However, those I researched who actually made the Leap from ordinary to extraordinary didn't come anywhere near fitting that mold.
Making a leap in your career comes from mitigating risk, not increasing it. The Spark Sequence is a series of low-risk, exploratory events that 1) build exposure to what might lie ahead, 2) create confidence in the skills to get us there and the passions to sustain ourselves, and 3) allow us to visit our new lives without quite going there.
For example, research your idea. Seek out and talk with others who have relevant information. Find a mentor who can help you dig up additional information.
But don't stop there. Pilot your idea—trying it out in a contained setting—to see how people respond. Don't forget to also experience your idea firsthand; for instance, by volunteering in a role related to the idea and drawing lessons from the work. These and many other activities are all available calculated bets, with large upside and minimal downside.
The Leap is not cookie-cutter predictable. It comes at different people from different directions. But however the Leap happens, the same three forces are in play. Align your activities with your greatest strengths and passions. Bring your unique Primary Color to bear on an idea that is Big, Selfless, and Simple. Ignite the Spark Sequence to give you the time to test out your new future until the upside is clearly enough determined to permit combustion to occur.
As these three steps demonstrate, you don't have to change who you are to make the leap to an extraordinary career. You don't have to go it alone. And you don't have to take huge risks.
So what's holding you back?
Rick Smith is the author of The Leap: How 3 Simple Changes Can Propel Your Career from Good to Great, co-author of the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek best seller The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers, and founder of World 50, an executive networking company. You can learn more by visiting www.leapbuilder.com.