06/08/2010 07:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Project You: Tuning and Transforming Your Life

Last year in the United States, a record 480,000 people ran a full marathon--all 26.2 miles of it.
Another 1.3 million quit smoking, while countless more took steps to improve their credit scores.
What do these people have in common? A desire to improve their lives, for one thing.

In the last quarter century, we've become a nation of fine-tuners. Think about it: Last year, we bought more than $13 billion worth of self-help books and spent more than $550 million at The Container Store, which sells nothing other than containers that organize our stuff. While we don't always shape up or organize the way we'd like, we're investing more than ever to make our lives better through optimization.

That goes for the office, too, where tens of millions of workers optimize through ongoing performance reviews, advanced training and new technology adoption. Thanks to these and other factors, employees are working more efficiently, according to most metrics.

Because fine-tuning provides so many benefits, people and organizations alike rely on it to a significant extent--maybe too much. At a certain point, gains from continued optimization begin to diminish without major reinvention. Despite this, most people devote their energies to fine-tuning almost exclusively. Consider: The U.S. Labor Department of Labor says the average worker in the United States makes three-to-five major job changes over a lifetime. Most changes, however, are crammed into the beginning or end of a career. In the middle, there are often long periods of relative stability. That can lead to stagnation, complacency and missed opportunities. If nothing else, it means counting on optimization to carry you for an awfully long time.

Now and again, "Project You" needs more than a tune up. Sometimes it needs a complete transformation.

Take Project Inder. Early in my career, I pursued engineering professionally. While designing solutions was interesting, I wanted to lead the companies that took them to market. But getting a job doing that required an advanced business degree. As a young man with a good job and a new mortgage, that seemed awfully daunting. Yet I knew no amount of optimization could do what a compete reinvention could. So I left my job in California and enrolled at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Reinventing my career wasn't easy, but it changed the trajectory of my life. And it wasn't the first or last time that it did. After I graduated with my MBA, I worked in management consulting at McKinsey & Co. before joining the Information Technology revolution at Cisco. Every few years I did something different. I ran Cisco's Worldwide Professional Services organization of a couple of thousand people. And when an exciting opportunity arose as an individual contributor, I grabbed it.

To an outsider, it might appear that I was transforming myself all the time. But what I was really doing was reinventing and optimizing simultaneously. Each time I accepted a new job or position, I worked hard to fine-tune my capabilities. And when an opportunity arose to put my skills to greater use, I gladly embraced a major transformation. Looking back, I never would have made it as far if I had not made a conscious effort to optimize when necessary, and re-invent when possible.

What about Project You? Chances are you are optimizing today. But are you consciously reinventing, too? Are you open to bold new ideas and never-before-considered changes?

Or are you overly consumed with fine-tuning the work before you now?

Many professionals are--some out of a sense of duty to an existing boss or employer, some because they are risk-averse, and others because they cannot find the time or energy to consider a major reinvention. Regardless of the reason, it is a costly mistake that can limit your growth and diminish your chance at long-term success.

Tuning is important. And now and then, a major transformation does a body good. But doing both--optimizing and reinventing--allows each to multiply the effects of the other, many times over.

Think about that the next time you tie on a pair of running shoes or spend an afternoon reorganizing your closet.

Inder Sidhu is the Senior Vice President of Strategy & Planning for Worldwide Operations at Cisco, and the author of Doing Both: How Cisco Captures Today's Profits and Drives Tomorrow's Growth. Follow Inder on Twitter at @indersidhu.