After 20 years working counterintelligence cases, I was asked to become the spokesperson for the FBI in Northern California. My first reaction was “No”—I was very comfortable in my position as a case agent. By this time, I knew every step in the manual and had my network of informants in place so I could launch an investigation against a foreign intelligence officer with very little effort on my part.
I felt the quiet pleasure of a smug satisfaction with my existing situation. But in the back of my mind, I knew I wasn’t continuing to hone my skills; I wasn’t striving to do my best. In truth, I had become complacent; I had reached a plateau.
When I said “NO,” I was refusing to take my career to the next level. I was successful as a case agent, but my complacency was not nurturing my ambition.
“The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.”—Benjamin E. Mays
Stanford researcher Carol Dweck observed, “There is no relation between students’ abilities or intelligence and the development of mastery-oriented qualities. Some of the very brightest students avoid challenges, dislike effort, and wilt in the face of difficulty. And some of the less bright students are real go-getters, thriving on challenge, persisting intensely when things get difficult, and accomplishing more than you expected.”
I had always been a go-getter, but somewhere in those 20 years I had settled into a comfort zone that produced mediocrity.
“Complacent strength is our greatest weakness.“—LaRae Quy
I eventually did say “Yes” and represented the FBI for 4 years in Northern California. I’m going to share 5 effective ways that I took it to the next level, and so can you:
1. ADMIT YOU HAVE HIT A PLATEAU
You can’t take it to the next level until you admit you’re looking at a long stretch in the way of where you want to go.
As hard as you look, it appears to go on forever. If you ever do find the end, you may be greeted with a sharp precipice plunging downward—or a steep incline reaching upward.
2. INSPECT YOUR FOUNDATION
You can’t take it to the next level until you take a closer look at why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Often, we get into something only because a teacher or parent told us we should. Finding ourselves stuck on an endless plateau may be a pinprick to our heart that we’ve taken the wrong road.
A plateau can be the way your body and mind gets your attention if you are pursuing a career or goal that does not hold value and meaning for you. Flat terrain may provide you an opportunity to reassess the direction your life is going to decide whether this is where you really want to be.
3. DISTINGUISH BETWEEN PLATEAU AND BURNOUT
You can’t take it to the next level until you know whether you’re experiencing a plateau—or a burnout.
In a plateau, you can find ways to become empowered and recharged. Burnout is trying to do the same old things, or do things in the same old ways, without recognizing your need for reassessment.
- The cure for a plateau is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm will propel you to learn new skills and information to keep moving forward.
- The cure for burnout is excavating the resentment you feel for what you’ve had to sacrifice in order to get where you are.
4. RECOGNIZE SURVIVAL MODE FOR WHAT IT IS—MEDIOCRITY
You can’t take it to the next level until you can sift out the junk that’s taking up so much of your time and energy.
When you’re so tired and frustrated that you feel you’re just in survival mode, change is one more item on your list to deal with! So why not stay in the plateau? Better the devil you know than the one you don’t—right?
Mediocrity is settling for less than you know you can be, whether in business or life. It’s giving up on finding a path that will bring greater happiness and joy.
5. DEVELOP A GROWTH MINDSET
You can’t take it to the next level until you make learning new skills and qualities a priority in your life.
Carol Dweck discovered through her research that our mindset affects our ability to fulfill our potential—to grow and learn, take risks, bounce back from adversity, to build healthy relationships.
If we have a “fixed mindset,” we believe our qualities, including our intelligence, are something we were born with and cannot be changed. If we have a “growth mindset,” we believe that we can cultivate and grow our basic qualities, including our intelligence.
Pay attention to the conversations you have with yourself; self-talk is a powerful tool when it comes to developing mental toughness. If you assume you are capable of change and growth in all ways possible, it’s the starting point for moving beyond your plateau.
In other words, it’s not always the people who start out the smartest who end up being the smartest.
What tips would you add for taking your career to the next level when you’ve hit a plateau?
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