“Do what you’re good at.”

“Do what you love.”

“Do what you would do for free.”

Is there anybody reading this who found this kind of career advice as utterly useless as I did? For a variety of reasons, some of us don’t have the first clue what this goal might be. I have an actress friend of mine who always wanted to be an actress. She aimed her whole soul towards becoming an actress, and went to Juilliard. I envied her, and people like her, for easily discerning the call of their personal direction. I’ve always been a generalist, pretty good at a lot of different things that all tasted pretty much the same, with no really inclination one way or the other.

Now, I’ve accomplished a few things, but never really applied myself in one single direction. I don’t have a great idea of what my strengths are. The reason for that is that I was always over-sensitive to criticism or negative feedback. So when I was younger, I’d try one thing, hit my limits, and stop. Then I’d try another thing, hit my limits, and stop. I was searching for that area for which I had natural talent, figuring that when I found it, it would somehow feel easy and right. When I hit early failure, I took it as a sign that I was in the wrong pursuit, that I was outclassed, and that I should do something else.

Peter BregmanPeter Bregman is a leadership coach who writes a blog for the Harvard Business Review. He gave a TED Talk at TEDxFlint (I love using TED talks for blog inspiration) about how we learn and grow by deliberately embracing discomfort and criticism. More is achieved through inviting rejection and criticism than by trying to find the path of least resistance. I’ve included a YouTube posting of his talk below:

The bad news, Bergman tells us, is that it does not get easier. The emotional reactions we feel – the defensiveness, the fear, the discomfort – are always going to exist. The good news is that with time and practice, we get better at dealing with those emotions. This reminds me of two related truths that it took me a long time to discover:

TED Talks1. Do you need to change, or do they?

Some people enter the world assuming that when they put someone out, they need to change their own behavior to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That is how our parents taught us to be good little boys and girls. But then there are others of us who enter the world assuming that when friction arises, it is the other who is in the wrong. They trust their own rightness before the world’s. I’m sure you can easily think of people who fit both these descriptions. Defaulting to one assumption or the other is a sign of immaturity. Most of the people I admire trust themselves most of the time, but also have the self-knowledge to understand when they should be relying on someone else’s judgment.

2. Applying criticism with self-compassion

Last year, I wrote about Dr. Mark Leary and his Sociometer Theory. His work remains the most insightful I’ve ever read on the connection between social validation and self-esteem. He tells us that we have some control on how we interpret rejection and criticism, and how we bring it to bear upon ourselves. According to his research, those subjects who interpreted rejection the most severely, not surprisingly, suffered from esteem issues. But those subjects who were less moved by rejection, far from being egotistical or cocky, were actually the most well-adjusted and pragmatic in their self-evaluations.

Bregman asks us to actively seek out those uncomfortable emotions that make us want to shut down, and to practice pushing past them. I personally haven’t had to seek them out, they’ve found me. I’ve gone through some new class challenges, new challenges at work, and some challenging personal experiences that have had me feeling less-than-right this past few months. I would prefer to live a relatively easy-going life, and so my inclination is to give up at something. My lesson from Peter is that I would do better to make peace with the discomfort and anxiety of hard exertion and growth, and to get better at dealing with it.

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