The Counterintuitive Paths to Success

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We live in an instant society where we want—what we want—now. We have a decreasing amount of patience to build our expertise or work towards our objectives. Modern American culture gives us the impression that unless we come out of the womb as savants, we are not superstars. The idea of having to work hard for something is not idealized. We see the overnight success stories and think that unless we are naturals, we shouldn’t even try.

But real life is different. Here are the counterintuitive paths to success. It’s not the map that you expect, but when you arrive at your destiny, you will be blown away by the fruit of your labor, dreams, hard work, and faith.

Do it the hard way.  This is completely counterintuitive to human beings who are hard-wired to avoid pain and suffering and find the path of least resistance.

Our preference is to find the most efficient means to achieve our objectives. But the truth is, the harder it is to acquire something or achieve a goal, the more you learn in the process and the more satisfying it is. The process of self-discovery and self-actualization can’t be short-circuited; it requires that you push yourself to the very edge. I have found no other substitute for figuring out what you’re really made of and what you are supposed to be doing in this world.

Instead of studying a more digestible major, I chose a topic that was completely outside of anything I knew: the Middle East. Although I could have remained in my cushy dorm room in West Palm Beach to obtain my degree, I traveled abroad to spend a semester of my junior year in crazy Cairo. I jumped at every opportunity to get abroad: Egypt, Israel, Russia, Ukraine, Kuwait. After graduation, I didn’t stay in my hometown in Florida; I wandered into the wilds of Washington, D.C., completely intimidated and over my head.  It was all part of the process I needed to become wise about the world and knowledgeable about politics and foreign affairs. These decisions were what eventually got me into a masters program and a job at the CIA.

Be more than a picture of success. In today’s fast paced, social media-driven world, success is judged by your self-marketing skills, your ability to post the most glossy and enviable pictures, tweets, and posts. Real success isn’t necessary—You just need to look the part. I call that the Kim Kardashian Effect. Too many people subconsciously reason that as long as you have the appearance of success, you don’t have to be substantive or knowledgeable beyond knowing how to take really good selfies. While this strategy has worked for some, by and large it is not the stepping stone to the life you desire. Imagine how much of a stand-out you can be if you become an expert in your field, learn to do something really well and then marry that with solid self-promotion skills which are required by employers today.

It took me a long time to find an agent and a publisher that believed in me—that saw more value in the fact that I had been undercover in the CIA than having a huge social media following. When many in the world were promoting themselves online, CIA officers would often Google themselves to be sure nothing came up. While it has taken me longer to prove my substantive expertise, I believe that my unconventional career will take me further than just being able to smile pretty for the camera. Whether we like it or not, self-promotion is important in today’s world, but we’ve got to have something of substance behind the image for us to have meaningful impact. 

Work your way up from the bottom. This principal used to be a given, but there is a growing expectation that one should be able to graduate from college and slip right into that dream job. While it is possible, and I have seen it happen for some people, it has never worked that way for me. I have always had to start at the beginning work my way up. The really good thing about starting out on the ground floor is that you learn the ropes, the insides and the outsides of the career path. You learn things that “privileged” people don’t have a clue about. And later on, that knowledge will enable you to excel. When you start out at the bottom, you get the goods on what works and what doesn’t. And that is valuable intelligence!

My first job was working as an administrative assistant at a humanitarian organization. I was paid a pittance—barely enough to live on in. But boy did I learn. And I had no idea that all of this would prepare me for a project 20 years later which would require me to have substantive knowledge of humanitarian and refugee work. The knowledge I had gained in that organization was priceless: I was part of a team that helped find a new home for 149 Iraqi Christians, persecuted and displaced by ISIS. For fascinating insights on the evacuation of this group on December 18, 2015, please see my homepage for ABC’s 20/20 video special on this amazing event.

I would love to hear about your counterintuitive paths to a full, successful and truly meaningful life. Post a comment here or send me a message via my website.

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