I am what one might affectionately call a “keener”, or on a bad day a “frazzled and perfectionistic over-achiever”. I’m working on it. This tendency is fairly pervasive in all areas of my life, from personal to professional. However, high up in the Rocky Mountains, away from my day-to-day work, I was recently reminded of the value of pacing myself.
I was on a hiking trip, the first half with a women’s outdoor adventure travel company, the second half hiking on my own. The group hikes were a tough slog both physically and mentally as I struggled to keep up, on the edge of embarrassment for my inability to do so. Among a group of women who were both older and in better shape than me, I huffed and puffed, fuelled in part by fear of impending humiliation.
During my solo hikes, however, something different happened. I hit my stride. I was able to hike more on my own than I could in a group. Significantly more. Suddenly, I was able to hike double the distance I had done with the group. I would chalk it up partly to conditioning, but the change happened literally overnight. I’m convinced that the difference lay in the fact that I was going at my own pace. I wasn’t wearing myself out in a frantic scramble to keep up.
At work and in life, I have always done better when I do things at my own pace. Not that this comes naturally to me. Au contraire. Like so many others, I whip myself into a frenzy when playing the comparison game.
Tracking myself against the progress of others – their careers, achievements, milestones – typically does nothing but slow me down, as panic inevitably sets in when I realize I’m not at the very front of the pack.
In fact, there have been times in my life when I have found myself on a path I had no interest in being on, just for the sake of keeping up with the Joneses. I’d look up, take a good look around me, and realize I was on the brink of burnout for a career trajectory I didn’t even want.
When you’re frantically trying to get ahead of the pack, sometimes you forget to check in and see if the pack is actually headed in the right direction. Have you ever gone for a promotion just for the sake of competition? Purchased a bigger house, better car, more stuff because that’s what others are doing? If so, you know what I’m talking about.
Sometimes we get so caught up in getting ahead that we forget ourselves in the scramble. A firm believer in the pursuit of growth and development, I believe it’s important to push yourself. It is equally important to pace yourself. You can do both. Here’s how:
1. Join the right pack.
First, see if your ‘pack’ is headed in the right direction. There’s no sense in trying to keep up if they’re not going where you want to go. In fact, you may find that your pack is leading you astray; farther from the place you actually want to be. If you find that the people you associate with aren’t really your people at all, find a way to separate yourself from the pack so you can reassess.
Perhaps you’re at the wrong organization, or even in the wrong field, building networks with people you have no interest in associating with. Coming to this realization usually induces panic, but ultimately leads you down a better career path. Alternatively, if the people around you are your people (You love your industry! You love your colleagues! You love your work!), move on to step 2.
2. Don’t look up!
Congratulations, you’re headed in the right direction! This is half the battle. Now, resist the urge to look around you and see what everyone else is doing. Keep your head down and take stock of what you want, how you want to get there, and at what pace. Be willing to reassess if it’s not manageable.
Your goals should be intrinsically driven, and not motivated by a desire to keep up with or stay ahead of the pack. This is excruciatingly difficult for people (like me) who have a competitive spirit. Try your best. When you find yourself slipping back into the comparison game, as you undoubtedly will, gently remind yourself that your pace is the best pace for you.
3. Align with comrades.
Once you hit a comfortable stride, it’s time to look up. This time, look around you for comrades, not competitors. You may find some individuals around you who are going at your pace. These are your people! Collaborate. Brainstorm. Network. Support each other along the way.
If there isn’t anyone going at your pace, it’s okay. Wave a friendly hello to those you pass, and try not to wince as others whiz ahead of you. You may feel pressured to keep up with the keeners or to slow and help those lagging behind. Remember that you don’t have to speed up or slow down for anyone else. Your pace is your business. Their pace is theirs. You needn’t feel guilty for not keeping up, nor guilty for leaving others in your dust.
Keep these tips in mind not only for career goals, but also for aspirations related to higher education, business development, and your personal life. Happy trails to you.
Published at Forbes.