Cannon Thomas, Ph.D.

The Architecture of Inspired Lives

The Human Cost of Business as Usual

Our careers can change lives. How do we break away from the pull of our routine?

Posted Jan 21, 2019

Source: iQoncept/Shutterstock

Our careers sometimes have a life of their own. We get rolling without seeing the big picture, and then we are rolling quickly enough in one direction it is hard to steer. The choices we make along the way—because of the enthusiasm of others or because we see an obvious opportunity—often do not lead to the most rewarding paths. We find ourselves in careers where we are successful enough, but we see more that seems possible that we are not pursuing.

I know. I spent 15 years as a psychotherapist and was successful in a conventional way. I also knew that I was doing what I knew, not discovering what I could know and how I could make a difference. The whole job is about helping people break out of mental habits that constrain them, and yet I knew my own mental habits were limiting me. As I have written before, psychotherapy is a profession in which true expertise is elusive. The most respected, best trained, and most experienced therapists often are not the best at helping clients make real changes that reduce their suffering. Therapists fall into a habitual way of doing things that we believe are the best tools available, so we think we are helping clients as much as is possible. But research shows over and over this belief hides many cases where therapists are in fact failing their clients. I knew there was no reason to think I was different than other therapists. I could see ways that my comfort with my routines prevented me from challenging myself to question them and discover more effective ways of helping my clients. In addition, I was not sure psychotherapy was the best I had to offer anyway. Mental habits hold people back in so many different ways—making them less productive, less creative, and less inspired. I wanted to help people create better, an issue that falls well outside the realm of psychotherapy. 

These thoughts would come up from time to time, and they would always fade. I would get pulled into trying to help my next client with the familiar toolkit I had learned in school and teaching that toolkit to trainees. It was my expertise, and I could negotiate the space comfortably—feeling the sense of exhilaration and effortless flow you feel skiing once you become proficient. Discovering what I did not know how to do yet would mean experiencing myself feel like an amateur again. I would respond to the pressing challenges presented by clients, students, and colleagues and put the questions of how to go beyond that toolkit off for another day.

So, yes, I was secretly mediocre. I knew it, and I also knew I was not alone. Psychotherapy is not by any means the only profession where expertise is elusive. It is true of the vast majority of professions. Psychologists just do a lot of research, so we are more aware of our own mediocrity. You can be smart, well-respected, and not nearly as effective as possible almost anywhere. The world is full of this kind of mediocrity, but I could not get myself to tackle it in myself. How could I feel the importance of it vividly enough to stay motivated to pursue better?

I found my answer in a concrete failure that still pains me to write about. The case involved a brilliant, passionate client I worked with for five years. He was a standout success professionally, but he had had a horrific childhood and could not trust anyone personally—leaving him feeling, at the end of the day, utterly alone. He wanted to be able to learn how to let people in—to love. The walls were thick with him, and it was hard work. I knew how to work with trauma using evidence-based treatment, and I knew how to build a strong relationship even when someone did not trust. Most weeks, he would leave the session feeling better, like we were working on the right issues, and like there was hope. I felt his gratitude each time, and I loved feeling like I was helping him. I felt like I was using my toolkit masterfully.

And then, after 5 long years of weekly therapy, he read a journal he had written ten years before. The issues he wrote about were exactly the same ones he still struggled with now. He could have written that journal entry the week before he read it to me. All of that work had not translated into real change. He calmly fired me on the spot. Five years of his life. More than fifty thousand dollars. One more time he invested in someone who did not help him. I had told people how much I loved helping people learn how to love, thinking of my work with him. Instead, I was wasting his time.

“He was a tough client, and psychotherapy is sometimes a tough job. I have tried my hardest with skills as good as our profession has to offer, but I cannot expect to help everyone. And maybe I did help him. With some hard clients, you have to measure each step forward with a magnifying glass.” These thoughts could have comforted me, if I were not already thinking about the easy deceptions our minds use to keep us feeling good about our mediocrity. The truth was I had not seen this coming. For five years, I had substituted his and my good feelings about the therapy for an honest assessment of whether he was actually changing. I had not let myself come to terms with the fact that he was not improving in the areas of his life that mattered most to him. If I had let myself recognize it, I would have taken more risks to try to take our work in different directions. But that never happened.

The thought of the impact I had on his life sickened me. I could feel a visceral revolt against the mediocrity I lived with in my career, and I wanted to foster that revolt. Maybe at last this was the energy I needed to change course. I decided to ask myself the question:

How are real human beings impacted by the choice between the path I am on now and a more difficult path towards the most meaningful work I can do?

The exercise was powerful. I could think of many people in therapy making the best effort that they ever had, and perhaps ever would, to change some aspect of their life they cared deeply about. I forced myself to recognize that a number of them, in truth, I had not helped substantially. And yet I continued with them in the work without making real changes for years. I had had an unfounded faith that my expert toolkit was the right work and would get us there eventually. I had to consider the reality that the negative impact of them putting their energy and faith into an approach that did not result in change could have ripples in their lives for decades. I made myself imagine vividly the decades of loneliness and mistrust versus lives in which they could have discovered how transformative it is to relax and feel safe with intimates. Doing the exercise planted a conviction in me that I could not continue as I had. There were many people in my practice who were looking to me to do better than that—to do a little better than I knew how to do yet. In a way, being so comfortable with my toolkit meant that I was not taking seriously the reality of their needs.

And my thoughts about the impact of staying on the path I was on went beyond psychotherapy. I thought more about the fact that the habits and mediocrity I saw in myself are the habits of business as usual in any career. The best work people have to offer was being lost as their years passed doing what was familiar. What people do with their careers shapes our culture. It shapes our physical health, the buildings and public spaces we inhabit, our public dialog as we make decisions about what we buy and whom we elect, our entertainment, our expressions of community, and our educations. Our careers collectively create the building blocks we use to become who we are. And most of the time, we build in all of these areas shaped by habits and incentives that do not pull us to stretch past our routines and towards the most inspiring possibilities.

I wanted to work on the question of how to help people break out of mental habits that limited the creative possibilities available in their careers. But there was a lot more uncertainty about how successful I could be if I took on a challenge that is not yet well understood. This goal was so big I could not assume I could make much of a difference. What did feel clear, though, is that people do not ask the question enough. It felt like that was a big part of what holds the world in routines that are less than is possible—a lack of creative energy focused on exploring the gap between current reality and possibility. Cognitive psychologists have shown us this point over and over: What we know feels like all there is; what is possible remains in our blind spot. If I continued to do things the way I had, I was part of the problem. If I spent serious creative energy in my career trying to address the concerns I cared about, I was part of the solution—even if I was not individually able to discover the route to big change. Maybe someone who was inspired by what I was trying to do would be the one to make progress. I thought about the example I would want to be for my children.

That was enough. I did change directions in my career. I have made headway in the last few years, and we’ll see where my work ends up. But every day I have clarity about why I get up and pursue a path that is harder and less clear than the smooth one that followed so naturally from what I learned in school.

For a couple of years I did not think about this story and its impact on the course of my career. What brought it back to mind was when I was seeing one client after another having difficulty finding the motivation to face the fear and discomfort of a brave path with their careers into uncharted territory. I started assigning to clients the exercise of answering the same question I answered back then: “How are real human beings impacted by the choice between the path you are on now and a more difficult path towards the most meaningful work you can do?” And I added to it: “Even if you do not achieve what you hope you could, how would the world be affected by more people exploring the challenging questions you care about? In contrast, how would it be affected if everyone stayed on the established paths?”

I have seen a lot of people now take these questions in directions I never would have considered. I have seen academics learn to use social media and public speaking to reach past the rarefied professional sphere of academia. I have seen a half dozen business people move from a model driven by quarterly earnings or a lucrative sale of their startup to a model of building products that make people’s lives better. I have seen a successful film producer start to focus the majority of her time on helping children tell their stories—with some results even more raw and brilliant than her own films. There was an artist who took his work off of the walls and into the streets. Basically, I have seen people trying in a sustained way to do better than their fields and reputations demanded—to do what I could not get myself to do for so long.

I wrote a post about Elon Musk a while back that inspired me precisely because it was not about whether he won the game he was playing. It was that he had changed the game. The Economist wrote about him:

Asked about a new space race after the [SpaceX] Falcon Heavy launch, Mr Musk was enthusiastic: “Races are exciting.” They also let pacesetters guide the field. If you start a race in the direction you think people should be going, it may not, in the end, matter if you win.

If we think about the impact of our lives and careers in a vivid way, it may transform the lives of all of us in big and small ways. Every time one of us leaves the beaten path, it may inspire others. The path will develop more and more branches. We may not be the first person to a new destination, but more of us will be heading towards the possibilities we can see in the distance. There will be fewer places in the world where people like me say, “I didn’t even notice that possibility. If I had, I would have tried.”

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