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The Peter Pan Syndrome

Why smart people fail.

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Many clients come to me thinking they'd be successful if only they had an idea for a more exciting career.

In fact, lack of success may more often be caused by what I call The Peter Pan Syndrome: They won't grow up.

Here are the Peter Pan Syndrome's most common manifestations:

An unwillingness to get working or stay working when you're not motivated. If you're only willing to work hard when you feel like it, you won't feel like it often enough. Working hard must be something you do; it's not a decision to make. It's foundational: believing that being productive is core to the life well-lived.

Dabbling: being unwilling to stay focused on becoming sufficiently expert at anything. Brilliant people can achieve excellence in many areas but most people can't.

Networking aversion. Not having taken the time to develop the deep connections with the right people that, alas, often are needed to land and succeed at a good job.

Betting on longshot dreams: becoming a self-supporting actor, artist, documentary filmmaker, sports marketer, environmental activist, fashion executive, etc. Yes, obviously, some people have achieved such goals but unless you are unusually talented and driven (ideally with great connections), your chances are small. Yet some people cling to their longshot dream, sometimes as an excuse for not doing the work required to launch a more realistic career.

Abusing alcohol or drugs.

Blaming your failure on something your parents, spouse, or former employer did to you. Many people who were terribly abused--including, for example, many survivors of the Holocaust or of Japanese internment camps--did just fine. You've probably suffered a lot less. Unless you suffer from a severe physiologically caused mental illness, you too can probably triumph over your past.

Doing an insufficiently thorough job search. Here's what a thorough job search looks like: identifying 50 people not advertising an on-target job but with the power to hire you for your target job or create one for you, and you not only pitch yourself to them but make the effort to build a relationship with them over months. You must also regularly contact your extended personal network to get leads and build the relationship, have a good LinkedIn profile, craft many top-of-the-heap job applications, including collateral material such as a white paper, a portfolio, and substantive follow-ups after job interviews, for example, a mini business plan describing what you'd do if hired.

The takeaway

Might any of those Peter Pan Syndrome behaviors apply to you? If so, is it a wake-up call? Or do you want to accept that you just don't care enough about career success to make the now usually-required effort? Alas, today, more than ever in my 30 years as a career counselor, I'm finding that unless you're lucky or brilliant, landing and keeping a good job really does require you to be a grown-up.