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Brilliant Failures

By Marty Nemko

Your spouse tells you, your friends tell you, dammit even your haircutter tells you, "But you have so much potential!"

Again and again, that lament stabs the underachiever: the struggling small business owner whose main obstacle is himself, the paralegal who should have been an attorney, the drunk who could have been most anything he wanted.

I am a career counselor who specializes in these brilliant failures. Here are true stories of three of them and lessons learned. I've changed names and details to protect anonymity.

Deferring adulthood

In 1979, Kevin Christensen was a Ph.D. student at Harvard. Today, 20 years later, Kevin, now 45, is still a Ph.D. student at Harvard. Instead of kicking his butt out, his advisor continues to give him "one last extension." Kevin runs a struggling desktop publishing business and is disgusted with himself.

Why is it taking Kevin 20 years to do what the average Ph.D. student does in eight? (It's unconscionable that colleges force students to take even eight years to earn a Ph.D. but that's another article.) After exploring many possibilities, Kevin and I came to understand the main cause of his glacial progress. Like some children of the '60s, Kevin had become a hedonist: addicted to a life of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. His idea of responsibility was to lift two fingers in the air to make the peace sign. Follow-through? Details? That was for the "grey-flannel-suited old farts."

Also contributing to his torpor, his parents were well-off financially and chose to keep supporting him through his 20s. That reduced his need to be responsible-much as a welfare check reduces the incentive for its recipients to look for work.

As time passed without Kevin having assumed any adult responsibility, his fear of being relied-on grew. Remaining a student gave him an honorable way to avoid growing up.

I reminded Kevin of the benefits of being responsible: money, freedom from guilt, and a sense of purpose, but Kevin fought me. "Marty, success isn't worth the effort. What? So I can drive a fancy car and live in a house that wastes natural resources? I'm wiser homesteading in New Mexico and growing organic vegetables. I want to be who I am, not what your world wants me to be."

I knew he'd resist a counterargument from me so I used a technique that would use his intelligence to counter his own rhetoric: "Kevin, how would you respond if your twin brother said that to you?" He smiled and said something like, "Kevin, you're full of shit. Success doesn't necessarily mean buckets of money, although money isn't all bad. Success means doing something of value. Can't you do something of more value than squatting in New Mexico, growing a few tomato plants in cow dung?"

With those recognitions, Kevin is now making progress. Before, to endlessly delay his entry into adulthood, he kept expanding his dissertation's scope until it reached porcine proportions. Now, with his enthusiastic support, we reduced his dissertation's scope and reframed it so it would help him to land a job after he graduated.

Kevin is now making good progress on his dissertation, expects to graduate this June, and plans to use his dissertation as the springboard for a consultancy to non-profit organizations.

Depressed from the womb

Scott Weisbrot learned to read when he was three, skipped two grades in school, got straight A's in high school and at Columbia without lifting a finger--all while being deeply depressed. His mother says that he came out of the womb phlegmatic.

In college, Scott self-medicated his depression with alcohol, which of course deepened the depression. He actually began to enjoy wallowing. The handsome Scott also distracted himself from his lack of achievement by "achieving" a prodigious number of women--a year's worth of one- and few-night stands.

Scott's parents were ever exhorting (nagging is more accurate) him to "Do something with your life. You're such a smart boy!" Because of his Columbia degree in engineering, his good looks, and his ability to hide his depression in an interview, Scott had no trouble landing jobs or starting businesses. He had trouble keeping them, having closed two businesses and lost two jobs in ten years.

When Scott called me, he externalized responsibility for his failures: The economy was bad at the time. They didn't give me the training they promised." "I didn't want to run that business anyway; I want to make the world a better place."

All those explanations bore grains of truth but the main reasons for his failure rested within him: his depression and resultant procrastination. Whenever he felt depressed he would rationalize, "I'll do the task when I feel better." Trouble is, he didn't feel better often enough. The symptom was procrastination but the cause was long-standing depression.

The following had some positive effect on Scott:

1. Whenever he caught himself wallowing, enjoying the depression, I encouraged him to use the seemingly simplistic but often surprising effective "Stop!" technique: "As soon as you catch yourself starting to wallow, say aloud, "Stop!'"

2. Although he had tried an anti-depressant to some benefit, he had stopped because of the side effects. I sent him to a psychopharmacologist (a subspecialty of psychiatry) who tried a few other drugs on him until they found one with benefits that outweighed its liabilities. It was not a cure-all but it made it easier for Scott to function.

3. Getting Scott to accept that he could not wait for his depression to lift before giving full effort. What convinced him was seeing a new study that found that mice, natural loners, can be transformed into gregarious creatures by receiving a gene from the prairie vole. Personality is at least partly hard-wired.

Scott had to accept that he probably would often feel some level of depression. I said, "Scott, assume you can't change your basic nature. What mental trick can you play on yourself to get yourself to produce even when you're feeling down?" We agreed that when tempted to space out or wallow, he'd give himself a one-minute task and say to himself: "After you do that little task, you can wallow if you want." What he found was that the more one-minute tasks he did, the less he wanted to wallow. Inaction exacerbates depression, action alleviates it.

Scott just got a new job at a computer network company that has just gone public. He got 10,000 shares of stock as a signing bonus. We'll see if he lasts long enough for his shares to vest.

Moving a therapy paralytic

Gina Musante's father was a Nobel-caliber scientist. So, when she turned out to be a top math and science student in high school, everyone thought she'd follow in her father's footsteps. Yet in college, she chose to major in sociology and after graduating college, started a house painting business.

Everyone kept telling her, "You're too smart for that." She went into therapy where she decided that she was avoiding science to avoid competing with her Nobel-caliber father. But the insight didn't bring about behavior change. Four years and thousands of dollars later, Gina was still painting houses whereupon she called me: "I'm really stuck. I need someone to light a fire under me."

This question helped her. I said, "What would you do if you had reasonable self-confidence? She said, "I'd go to medical school and the run a business as a rescue doctor: a physician who helicopters into disaster or isolated areas to provide emergency care."

But like many brilliant people, especially those who had undergone extensive psychotherapy, Gina was ever introspecting: obsessing about whether she was good enough to make it into medical school let alone make it through medical school let alone be a good doctor, worrying whether career success would make her stay-at-home mom jealous, fearing failure in her father's eyes if her attempted a science career, lamenting why she can't have a good relationship with a man, etc., etc., etc.

Focusing on the risk of failure engenders inaction-the one thing guaranteed to ensure failure. Once Gina had assessed that she had a reasonable chance of getting into medical school and of becoming a good doctor, I urged her to have the discipline to focus (That phrase is one of my mantras) to be in the moment, to think no wider nor deeper than to identify her next tiny task toward achieving her goal of getting into medical school.

Status report: Gina has completed the missing prerequisite courses, taken the MCAT (She did well!), has applied to twenty medical schools, and is waiting to hear.

Lessons learned

These are drawn from the above clients and from others.

1. The commonly offered solutions rarely work with brilliant people: a change of job, practical advice like: "schedule a block of time", or pep talks designed to raise self-esteem, for example, "You're a worthwhile person apart from your productivity." Self-esteem comes mainly from achievement, not from pep talks.

2. If you've been depressed or anxious for much of your life, at least part of the cause is likely physiological. Unfortunately, psychopharmacology is still in its infancy, so even if medication helps, the benefit is usually moderate rather than miraculous. Most doctors aren't expert in this nascent field so it's worth seeing a specialist--a psychopharmacologist--to see if a trial run on a drug makes sense.

Perhaps even more promising, an electronic device called a vagus nerve stimulator has, in early trials, been found to greatly reduce depression. This spring, a large-scale test of the vagus nerve stimulator will be conducted at 10-15 medical centers around the country.

The next two suggestions work as well with average people as with the brilliant, and are old hat, but they're important.

3. Many but not all people benefit from frequent check-ins with a support person or group. This often needn't be a professional. A friend who can play loving taskmaster or a peer support group can sometimes do wonders.

4. Eat well and exercise. That advice is boringly familiar but still valid.

5. Ironically, brilliant underachievers are often impeded by their gift: their ability to think prolifically.

A. Rather than trying out options, many brilliant people, especially if they've been in therapy, try to think their way out of their stuckness--analysis paralysis. Most problem-solving, in addition to thought, requires action. Action provides feedback and often decreases anxiety.

Brilliant failures are often hypervigilant about their fears. For example, they may worry incessantly about failing. They must redirect their hypervigilance from their fear to their work task.

B. Brilliant people especially enjoy learning new things because they can learn so quickly. So, when working on a project, they may get distracted by interesting but ultimately not useful-enough side tracks. The "Stop!" technique often helps. Constantly ask yourself, "Is this side path likely to improve the project significantly?" If not, say "Stop!" and return to the central path.

C. Follow-through and detail work usually doesn't require a brilliant mind. So the bright person, especially if hedonistically oriented, tends to skimp on the follow-through in favor of a fresh area to dabble in. Of course, even high-level scientists and scholars can't delegate all detail work to underlings. Maturity requires the discipline to stay focused on the details.

When tempted to procrastinate on a boring or difficult task, the following strategies often help:

  • Give yourself a one-minute or even one-second task to get you rolling.
  • When you reach a stumbling block, struggle for no more than one-minute. If you can't overcome it within a minute, chances are that additional time won't help. Get help, come back to that stumbling block later, or decide you can get the task done without addressing that block.
  • Promise yourself a reward after a half-hour's effort.
  • Picture the benefits of having completed the project.
  • Remember that you're probably deluding yourself if you think you'll feel more like doing the task tomorrow. You'll have today's and tomorrow's tasks to do, which risks a lousy product or overwhelming you into inaction.
  • Give yourself the Tough Love Lecture:

People who always find excuses for not doing what they should are losers. Yes, losers. They fail at work and usually in their relationships. And you're well on the path toward becoming a permanent loser. The good news is that there's still time to change--if you're willing to face the fact that right now you are a loser, and that all the introspection, self-pity, and therapy won't take the place of just doing it-work before play, no excuses, no working on peripheral, easier tasks when there are central ones waiting. Every time you reach the moment of truth-when you're deciding whether to work or goof off, you're taking a step toward being a winner or a loser. It's your call.

The key

In the end, much of the solution for brilliant failures comes down to one not-sexy truth: to succeed, you must discipline yourself to stay focused. Brilliant people must be especially vigilant to resist being seduced by the novelty of an interesting sidetrack. Success requires the discipline to stay focused on the central.

How to get the discipline? Yes, if your problem is long-standing, try medication or even the new vagus nerve stimulator. But perhaps more important, find tasks that are moderately challenging-it's difficult to stay focused on tasks that are too hard or too easy. Most important, decide that, at least while working, you will value productivity over pleasure.

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