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The Art of Giving Up

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It is a simple but cruel irony of life that as soon as you think you have things figured out, the rules change.

We enter the world and are quickly presented with a simple rule of success -- More! Acquire more words. More food. More toys. Take more classes. Earn more degrees. Once we enter the working world, the room looks different, but the objective remains the same. Acquire knowledge. Gain experiences. Get better. Take on more. And More! This is how you were graded in school. This is how you are graded early in your career. Life, it would seem, is about the acquisition of more knowledge and more skill and more responsibility. And those most likely to be successful are the ones with the greatest capacity for more.

But then along the way a funny thing happens, a subtle but fundamental shift that far too few ever notice. The rules of success change. In fact, they make a u-turn. Succeeding in the second phase of life becomes about giving up. Doing less. It is about focusing on what you were meant to be doing, leveraging your greatest strengths and passions, and letting everything else fall to the side.

And it can be terrifying.

A friend of mine who runs a mid-sized company was telling me about a fabulously talented employee, one of the most creative he has ever worked with. He has been so impressed that he has promoted her twice in only the last few years. She is very motivated and has eagerly taken on the additional responsibility, but she has hit a wall, getting bogged down in execution. She wants to "own" every aspect of her work even though there are more than enough resources around her. In fact, she worries that giving away tasks to others will create the perception that she is less valuable (to others, and even to herself).

She is not alone in this struggle. We are proud of the skills and experiences that we have acquired over time. They are our assets, and we cling to them with a death grip. Even if we don't enjoy them. Even if we are not very good at them.

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What we fail to realize is that the most successful among us are not the ones who can do everything, they are the ones who can do something, and do it exceptionally well. It is their confidence in the few things they excel at and are passionate about that allows them to successfully let go.

I led a major research study several years ago to understand what factors separated those in middle management from others who were able to break from the pack and achieve something extraordinary in their careers. Not surprisingly, the "extraordinary" professionals were more likely to be working in jobs that leveraged both their strengths and their passions on a daily basis. But unlike their less successful peers, they had the confidence to let go of the things at which they did not excel, the things they were not nearly as passionate about. The talented but unsuccessful managers it turned out were holding on so tightly to more that they eventually became overwhelmed by it. When looking at success over the span of an entire career, it is our willingness to give things up that matters much more than our capacity to take things on.

At some point, you need to be true to you strengths and passions. The acquisition of knowledge and experience is an extraordinary gift, because only through this path can you find your calling. But once you find it, you must summon the confidence to let other things go. You must delegate to others more talented than you. You must focus on the challenges that most excite you. This is what authentic leadership is all about.

Success to a point requires gaining as much knowledge and experience as you can get your hands on. But ironically, breaking out to achieve the life you are capable of living eventually requires the strength to let it go.

What are the things at work that you should stop doing? What are the 20% of your tasks that can be delegated or eliminated all together? Do you clearly understand your strengths and your passions so that you can start steering your career toward them? If not, what will you do today to begin?