Volume 31 Number 4
By Krishnan Rangachari | April 2016
Throughout my career, I’ve had a desire to be special. I’ve wanted to be the best, the youngest, the smartest or the hardest-working in everything I’ve ever done.
But I came to notice something odd. I would briefly enjoy the thrill of my achievements, and then brush them off casually—as if I didn’t really do them. It wasn’t humility. At some level, I felt like a ghost living someone else’s life. I couldn’t actually identify with this guy inside me who received all the accolades.
I grew to understand that I sought to be extraordinary because I felt broken. The only way I couldn’t feel worthless was to be significant.
I realized also that if I could somehow not feel broken, then I wouldn’t have to work so hard trying to be special. I came to wonder if I could embrace my own ordinariness; to that end, I’ve been trying a few experiments.
First: I take on projects that aren’t as exciting or high-profile at work. They’re projects I’m not immediately drawn to, but where my skills and expertise are needed. I focus simply on helping others in such projects.
When I do this, I tell my mind I can take joy in any job, that I’m not seeking glory. This begins to confuse my mind! It starts to wonder, “If I’m not seeking glory, does that mean I’m not broken?”
Second: I experiment with humility and silence in new ways. I let someone else present a project if they want to (and I love to present). When I feel the urge to destroy someone’s argument, I try hard to say nothing at all.
Third: I step off the hamster wheel of over-achievement. Instead of trying to live up to a mythical ideal of a high-achiever, I take care of my body and actively try to work less. It’s easy for me to get carried away with work. I can control work—if I get X amount of work done, I can see Y amount of results—so I seek refuge in it, because I can’t control life.
In stepping off the career gas pedal, I see that I’m so divorced from reality that I’m medicating all of my life’s pain—family issues, relationship problems, existential angst—with work. When someone praises me for my work, gives me a promotion or offers me a raise, they dull the pain of my life. No wonder I’m hooked on work!
When I no longer suffocate the pained parts of me that I’m trying to repress, it gives me an opportunity to heal the pain itself, straight at the source.
Fourth: I cultivate a set of spiritual practices—meditation, prayer, mindfulness—that accept my fundamental smallness and helplessness in the face of life’s challenges. They allow me to feel like an actor in a much larger play. I walk and work more slowly, read books by mystics and spend more time in nature.
I stop being obsessed with trying to be the next Steve Jobs, and ponder how I can take inspiration from Gandhi’s life instead. With this new perspective, I have more compassion for myself and others. Instead of judging myself harshly for not being special enough, I wonder how I can be even more loving, even more patient, even more ordinary.
Fifth: I disconnect from people and media that promote separateness. For me to feel special, I used to have to see others as broken. But what if life is not a zero sum game? What if I’m just like everyone else, no matter how amazing I am in business? So, I cut out news coverage, TV shows, books, and movies focused on hatred, narcissism, or self-centeredness. I stop being around complaining friends who feel the world is unfair to them.
I begin to cultivate deep, close relationships with a small handful of people, instead of superficial relationships with many. To be ordinary is to live with my own faults, and to accept others’ faults. To be exceptional is to imagine a world without faults, and to seek a fantasy where everyone behaves according to my expectations.
The closer I get to annoying family members, troublesome coworkers and quirky friends, the more I begin to see—in myself—all of their faults. I realize I could be loved not only in spite of my faults, but sometimes because of them.
My greatest weakness—my feeling of brokenness—becomes my greatest strength. It affirms my humanity and, ultimately, my true ordinariness.
Krishnan Rangachari is a career coach for software engineers. Visit radicalshifts.com to download his free career success kit.