Fighting Limitations

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I have a hard time sitting still. I just can’t do it. I like to stand as much as possible in meetings. I pick aisle seats on planes so that I can get up throughout the flight. I rarely watch TV; full movies even less. I prefer to be on the go. Always.

Over the years, I’ve realized this about myself and made some attempts to slow myself down a little, if for no other reason than to save the sanity of those around me. Ten or 15 years ago, though, that wasn’t the case. A few months before I graduated from journalism school (I promise I have a point to all of this), I was overly eager and a little too confident—actually, let’s change that to naively cocky, because no 22-year-old is ever as self-assured nor as self-aware as he or she thinks. I only knew what I knew, and had no thoughts or concerns about what I didn’t.

And I was ready to go. I needed to get moving on this whole career thing. Why wait?

I was lucky enough to get sound advice from a number of people in my life during that time, none that has impacted me more than that of a longtime family friend. He spent his career in advertising, working with some of the largest companies in the country and creating campaigns that many would easily recognize still today. Drawing on decades of success and experience, his message was very simple:

Always make decisions that push you further down the path to achieve your long-term goals.

That’s paraphrased from a larger conversation about how to approach both big decisions (pursuing and choosing a job opportunity) and smaller, day-to-day choices. It was about staying focused on the big picture of what I wanted, and making sure I pursued my career in a way that would help me grow, improve and, eventually, get to where I wanted.

But the most impactful moment came at the end, when he asked simply: What is your career goal? Well, that’s an easy question, I thought, because, after all, at 22, I already had that part figured out. So, I told him, right down to the specific job title at the specific publication, which to be honest, I thought was a fairly ambitious goal.  

He didn’t agree.

My goal, he said, wasn’t big enough (or well thought-out enough). If dedicated to it, I could get there in 10 years on an accelerated path; at a slower pace, maybe 20 years. I’d still have decades of my career left. What then? This is the message that stuck with me:

Don’t set limits for yourself—especially by being short sighted in what you’re capable of doing.

Again, that’s paraphrased a bit, but he encouraged me to reevaluate that goal and ask myself some important questions: What type of work do I want to produce? What type of impact do I want to have? How can I best use the talents I have and skills I’ve learned to have that impact?

I’d like to say that those words had an immediate impact on me. They didn’t. I couldn’t think beyond my goal at the time. A little less than four years later, though, I completely understood. I sat in a cube at the very publication I said I dreamed of working at, across a divider from the very person who held the exact position I said I wanted. I was, physically, just inches from that goal—less than four years later. And I quickly realized I wanted no part of it. I couldn’t imagine doing that job for the next however many years, being stuck in one spot, never moving or growing. It felt claustrophobic to me. I wasn’t even there yet, and I already felt trapped in it.

I readjusted everything.

Not-so-oddly, this whole experience flashed back to me in reading this month’s cover feature, “On the Brink.” Associate editor Nora Johnson does an excellent job describing the challenges and pitfalls of two (now) very successful business owners who were able to break past their own limitations to reach levels they hadn’t previously considered possible. And, even after doing so, both still push to achieve more.

Don’t set limits for yourself.

It’s a simple enough concept, but much harder in reality; balancing happiness and gratification against the pitfalls of complacency. In the end, I simply try to follow the advice I was given. I ask myself those questions, and try to keep moving down that path. Luckily, I don’t like to sit still for long.   


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