The Jeff Wise Blog

Career Limbo: Why Intelligent People Get Stuck

My friend Tucker is one of the funniest, most incisive people I’ve ever met. Ever since he graduated from a prestigious university 15 years ago, he’s thrived in the intellectual circles of New York City, where his easygoing charm has won him friends in every branch of the arts.

In almost every way his life was a success. But career-wise, he was in the deep freeze. Having quickly landed a low-level job with a prestigious publishing company soon after graduation, he languished in the same job. What he really wanted was to be a professional illustrator, but he’d had to get by doing clerical work as his creative-minded peers rose up through the ranks at magazines and advertising agencies.

What went wrong? In a word, fear. Tucker was such a star in his academic program at school that he had come to see himself as a person destined for extraordinary achievement. That self-conception made it impossible to move forward. If he tried to reach for the brass ring and failed, his self-conception would be punctured, a loss that he wouldn’t be able to bear.

Or so he thought. In reality, trying and failing would be painful, but not catastrophic. In fact, as Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness, people who suffer great misfortunes in life often walk away feeling happier and more appreciative in the long term.

Tucker was trapped in his little zone of safety. Life was okay, but never what he knew it could be. The, about two years ago, he started a film project in his spare time. At first it was purely a hobby, using a camcorder he’d gotten for Christmas to record interviews with colorful people in his neighborhood. But soon the project took on a momentum of its own. Friends who saw his raw footage told him it was really good. He brought in a collaborator, and eventually began working on a feature-length documentary. Maybe, he thought, this would be the ticket to fame and fortune that a person of his outstanding abilities deserved.

It wasn’t. Like most first-time filmmakers, his documentary didn’t reach the level professional polish required for commercial release. Tucker was disappointed, but he wasn’t devastated. In fact, he’d found a new confidence. He recognized in himself unexpected powers of resilience. If he had tried and failed, so what?

That mojo has carried over into his work life. Around the same time his film was getting rejection slips from film festivals, he started trying for freelance illustration projects. Before the year was out he had enough on his plate to quit his clerical job.

It’s not easy being a freelancer in this economy, and his livelihood is far from assured. But now that his career is gathering speed, Tucker sees all too clearly what he couldn’t perceive from the safety of his entry-level job: that failure is nothing to be afraid of.”In a sense, my film project was a failure,” he says. “But in another way, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

I don’t want to suggest that fear is the only hindrance that can prevent talented people from achieving a level of success commensurate with their gifts.  As R. Sternberg has pointed out, any number of failings can hobble an intelligent person. But fear is a particularly devious feeling, in that we find it so easy to rationally justify what is in fact a purely emotional block. In his years in career deep-freeze, Tucker told himself that trying for a design career would be a waste of time, that the art directors he needed to impress were only hacks who wouldn’t appreciate him, and that he’d be better off creating art on his own. (Though those projects never seemed to get underway.) Whether or not he really believed those ideas, they weren’t explanations for his his choices; they were excuses.

The outcomes that we fear are rarely as damaging or unpleasant as the fear that we carry around in anticipation. When failure looms on the horizon, recognize your dread of it, and embrace the fact that you might very well completely screw up. You’ll live. More importantly, you’ll realize how much you’ve learned along the way. And you will recognize within yourself one of life’s greatest powers:  the power to fail — and then move on.

Filed under: Work

2 Responses

  1. Amiteshwar says:

    Well said – “The outcomes that we fear are rarely as damaging or unpleasant as the fear that we carry around in anticipation”

  2. Rathna says:

    very interesting…including the article on Psych Today “Top 10 Secrets of Effective Liars” 🙂

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Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

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