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The Problem with Being Too Good at What You Do

Contributor: Marshall Goldsmith
Posted: 03/26/2017
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Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Marshall Goldsmith on his blog, Thinkers50. It has been reposted here with permission. 

When it comes to changing our behavior, there are two options that people usually try. The first is attempting a new behavior (like running Saturday mornings, or calling our parents on Thursday afternoons). The second option most people try is eliminating something.

Eliminating is our most liberating, therapeutic action—but we make it reluctantly. Like cleaning out an attic or garage, we never know if we’ll regret jettisoning a part of us. Maybe we’ll need it in the future? Maybe it’s the secret of our success?

The most significant transformational moment in my career was an act of my elimination. And, it wasn’t my idea.

In my late thirties, I was flying around the country giving talks about organizational behavior to companies. It was lucrative, and I needed my mentor Dr. Paul Hersey to point out the downside, or I never would have grown.

“You’re too good at what you’re doing,” Paul told me. “You’re making too much money selling your day rate to companies.”

When someone tells me I’m “too good” my brain shifts into neutral—I bask in the praise. Paul wasn’t done with me.

“You’re not investing in your future,” he said. “You’re not researching and writing and coming up with new things to say. You can continue doing what you’re doing for a long time, but you’ll never become the person you want to be.”

I respected Paul immensely and his words triggered a profound emotion in me. I knew he was right. I was too busy maintaining a comfortable life. At some point, I’d grow bored or disaffected.

And, it might happen too late in the game for me to do anything about it. Unless I eliminated some of the busywork (that was profitable), I would never create something new for myself, and I would “sacrifice the future on the altar of today,” as Peter Drucker had so eloquently put it.

I have always been thankful for Paul’s advice.

We’re all experienced at eliminating things that hurt us, especially when the benefits of doing so are immediate and certain. We will shed an unreliable friend who causes us grief, stop drinking caffeine because it makes us jittery, and stop a habit that might be killing us. When the consequence is extreme distress, we opt for elimination.

The real test is sacrificing something we enjoy doing—say micromanaging—that’s not ostensibly harming our career, that we believe may even be working for us (if not others).

If we can sacrifice something comfortable, that we’re “too good at,” that might even be holding us back, we’ll have more room to grow into the person we want to be.

Marshall Goldsmith's latest book, Triggers, is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller! Order it at Amazon. See The Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog for more of this video series.

Marshall Goldsmith
Contributor: Marshall Goldsmith