Suit Yourself

PuzzleIt is not easy to find happiness in ourselves, and it is not possible to find it elsewhere.
--Agnes Repplier

We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people.
--Arthur Schopenhauer
This is the first in my series of Suit Yourself essays.
I have long suspected that my copy of the standard rulebook is missing several critical pages. In some cases, I think whole chapters must have been removed before the thing was issued to me. Perhaps surprisingly given the glaring gaps in my rulebook, I learned to win the business career game without playing it. I learned to play my game, and I was successful because I rarely forgot it was their field. Since I kept my eye on the ball, I learned how and when to use my differences effectively, and they became advantages rather than disadvantages.

As I paid attention and reflected on what worked and what didn’t, I also learned that I’m not crazy after all. Seen clearly and with perspective, many work experiences and "truths" really are upside-down and backwards. I’m positive that recognizing this and then following my instincts – playing my game – was what created my success, personally and organizationally.

I can’t imagine defining success in terms of a position or a company or a salary. Those things are certainly fine, but as a definition of success, they seem impersonal and unnecessarily restrictive. A career is not a project or a fixed road to a fixed destination. It’s not about any particular destination (as in job), but rather about the journey – how you feel and build skills and contribute along the way.

Career satisfaction has to be measured in personal terms. So does success. Cleaving to some external definition of success, rather than to your own definition, is a sucker bet. It’s not success if it doesn’t make you happy – no matter what other people think.

Why not suit yourself instead?

What does "suit yourself" mean? It’s a matter of properly lining up what’s internal and what’s external, and then making decisions accordingly.

Lance Secretan, the author of Inspirational Leadership, draws a distinction in his work between being motivated, on the one hand, and being inspired, on the other. You can certainly be motivated by achieving a positive outcome (making money, getting promoted) or by avoiding a negative outcome (getting fired, stagnating). These are external things. For you or me or anyone else to be inspired, an internal thing must be at work. We’re inspired by things we believe in and find valuable – making a difference, curing cancer, building a better mousetrap, feeling comfortable and at-home in our lives and so on.

The great thing about internal inspirations is that you get to define and select them for yourself. By their very nature, they’re the things that matter to you, the things that will have you jumping enthusiastically out of bed in the mornings. They are the ingredients, the rudiments of personal satisfaction.

External motivations are all ultimately out of your control. Your only job security is you: the contribution you can make, the value you can add, your skills and experience and know-how, what you make of the opportunities that come your way, what you salvage from the disasters that befall you. These things cannot be taken away from you. You can fail to identify and recognize them, you can fail to use them, but you cannot lose them. You also can’t escape them. Your personal satisfaction depends on them.

Identifying and articulating your internal inspirations for yourself is Step One to suiting yourself.

I think it’s absolutely critical to define career success for yourself, figure out your own path, and then follow it unconditionally. This has nothing to do with rigidity (times will change and so will you) and everything to do with knowing who you are and what you want. You don’t get to define what organizations perceive as valuable, but you do get to define what satisfies you. Whenever you have a career choice or decision to make, ask yourself which route will better address your internal inspirations and let you do more of what you love to do. Then choose that route, even if it’s not the traditional or expected move. Remember, you’re suiting yourself.

People will tell you this approach closes doors. I’m not convinced the doors they’re talking about are always worth the price of keeping open, but in any event these people are wrong. As a young lawyer, I left a law firm in the city for an in-house legal position in the suburbs to the accompaniment of a veritable chorus of "Doors are closing." At the time, I figured I was willing to pay the price of a few closed doors (the principal one being law firm partnership) for the prize of a job I could enjoy and do well in fewer than 16 hours a day. As it turned out, some years later I became a partner at a law firm and then the general counsel of a $20 billion company. The doors in question did not close (at least not permanently) as a result of my non-traditional decision. Even better, other, arguably superior, doors opened. That early decision ended up giving me luxury boutique benefits at a bargain basement price!

Here’s the lesson: make your decisions today with the best intelligence you can gather and in the framework of your well-articulated internal inspirations, and tomorrow will take care of itself.

To build a successful career while following the Suit Yourself approach, you have to get yourself in positions where you believe that what you want to be doing is possible, that it will add value, and that it will be perceived as valuable by the organization. What organizations perceive as valuable is not always crystal clear, and it’s rarely what they tell you in the interview process or print in the employee handbook. It’s also, in my experience, not always what you think it should be.

I once listened to a young lawyer complain that she wasn’t moving up fast enough, wasn’t becoming a real player in her firm. She was bewildered because she worked hard, did excellent work, and partners always wanted her staffed on their deals, but she wasn’t getting the same next-level opportunities, compensation or recognition as some of the "guys who don’t work hard at all; all they do is play golf with clients." Duh. Good work is not enough in any organization to get you recognized and ahead.

A great clue to what organizations perceive as valuable can be found by looking up. Who’s in senior positions in your area? Who gets promoted? Who’s got the jobs you want? How did they get those jobs? What skills, personality traits and activities got them there? If you’re suiting yourself, you can get over needing to make value judgments about these realities. Just gather intelligence and make decisions accordingly.

The Suit Yourself approach to career is defined in intensely personal terms, but the day-to-day approach to work must be defined in organizational terms. This means that the big picture items, the non-negotiables, are yours to define and control – your definition of success, your lists of what you love to do and what you deplore doing, your priorities, your career satisfaction. The organizational realities, in contrast, are what they are. They’re only yours to identify, understand and assess as appropriate (or not) for realizing your career goals. They are not yours to define or control. At best, they’re yours to flourish within and influence positively; at worst, they’ll make it plain every day that you’re in the wrong place.

Like to be left alone to do what you do well? A rigid hierarchical organization and a micromanager for a boss aren’t for you. A freewheeling company with open-plan cubicles and a consensus-based decision-making protocol may also not be for you. Here’s the sartorial equivalent of this suitability point: you wouldn’t wear a bikini to the opera or a tuxedo to the beach. No matter how great you look in a bikini, the opera’s not the place for it. Not if you’re trying to succeed. If wearing the bikini is more important to you than doing what it takes to be taken seriously and appreciated in the opera context (not to mention becoming able to influence that context positively), then put on your bikini and go to the beach. It’s up to you.

To suit yourself and get ahead, you have to fine-tune your perspective so you can identify and focus on what matters most – to you and in your work surroundings – and then recognize and choose the best paths for achieving personal satisfaction. It’s remarkable to me how often we don’t bother to do this or delude ourselves into thinking we’re doing it when quite obviously we are not.

Let me paint a word picture to illustrate this point. Imagine a large room, sunny, walls painted white, with one good-sized open window. Now put a bird in that room – a bird who knows for a certainty that what he wants to do is get outside. The bird can set about achieving his goal in a variety of ways, including:

  • One: He can second-guess his desire to get outside and stand still, huddled, thinking maybe the room isn’t so confining after all, maybe what’s outside is even worse, and hoping for a sign or a development of some sort that will move him off square one.
  • Two: He can fly without design, hoping for the best. He may end up flying in the direction of, and then through, the open window, but given the laws of probability, he’s far more likely to smash repeatedly into solid wall at least for a while.
  • Three: He can choose a direction and fly in it, again hoping for the best (maybe even expecting the best, if the last time he chose this direction in a different room, it worked for him). This time, when he smashes into solid wall, he refuses to reconsider and try a different direction, so sure is he that he’s right. He repeatedly makes the same choice and smashes into the same section of solid wall.
  • Four: He can sit still and look around him for a while, considering his goal, his surroundings and how best to succeed, given those surroundings and his capabilities. If he does this, he will see the open window, recognize that its light differs in quality from the light in the rest of the sunny room, and realize that the window may well offer the best avenue to the outside world he desires to reach. Seeing this, and knowing he has the skill to fly in a direction of his choosing, he will choose to fly to and through the open window.

Over the years, I have worked with hundreds, maybe thousands, of people. Very, very few of them have operated reliably and consistently like our last bird. Without exception, though, those who have chosen the fourth approach have been more successful, made a better, more meaningful contribution (even in the eyes of their detractors), and achieved far superior personal satisfaction.

It’s not hard to spin out the illustration into the styles we’ve all seen in our co-workers over the years. The first bird grows ever more timid, stuck, unsure and bitter.

From all the smashing into walls, the second bird has a terrible headache most of the time, and he gets angry, bellicose, sure the world is out to get him. Sometimes, he’ll end up flying out the open window, but even so he’s paid a big price, achieved very little personal satisfaction, and is likely to end up back in the same mess when he reaches the next room.

The third bird knows he’s right. He has never met or heard of an approach he’s willing to try in place of his pet approach, despite its manifest shortcomings. He can’t listen at all, and his headache is so constant that he’s very difficult to work with or be around. (Why does one’s boss so often seem to be this third bird? See Strategic Thinking and the Maze for some suggested reasons.)

There are several key characteristics of the fourth bird’s approach. He knows exactly what he wants, and it’s his goal, not an externally-defined or -imposed goal. He recognizes that there is more than one route to achieving his goal, and that the best route (the one that will most likely and most efficiently get him there) is dependent on his surroundings and his skills. The best route is not an externally-defined given, not solely a matter of what worked in the past, and not the same for everyone.

Our fourth bird is not stuck on what worked for him before or on what other birds might be thinking. He does not feel obliged to rush immediately into activity. He is willing and confident enough to spend a few minutes understanding the game and planning his approach. And what happens? He winds up achieving his goal – more reliably, painlessly and efficiently. He wins!

To be fair, I have to acknowledge that even our fourth bird might fly outside directly into the mouth of a predator or the tail rotor of a low-flying helicopter. Avoiding that, three days later he might find himself thinking that being outside isn’t making him as happy as he thought it would. So what?

The Suit Yourself approach is a process, a protocol for focusing on what matters most, for making good decisions, and for taking effective actions. It is not a guarantee of 20-20 foresight or a promise that everything will turn out to be just what you expected, although it does improve your odds in these respects.

The fourth bird’s goal was to escape the confined room and get outside, and he did that successfully and efficiently. Unexpected conclusions don’t negate previous achievements nor do disappointing finales cancel out or invalidate previous positives. The likelihood of disaster is small for our fourth bird, and the likelihood of achieving personal satisfaction is great. In contrast, for the other birds the likelihood of achieving personal satisfaction is small, and the likelihood of disaster (or at least unhappiness and frustration) is almost certain. I like the odds for the fourth bird much better.

The rules and ideas in these essays are designed to help you shift your perspective, see more clearly, and operate more reliably and consistently like our fourth bird. These rules and ideas led me to and through a long, successful and personally satisfying business career. They also inspired lots of people around me over the years and were, in turn, inspired and shaped by those people.

I’m confident that these rules have universal aspects, but they’re still my rules. The goal here is to help you identify what matters most to you – and then to focus your behavior and activities so as to achieve personal satisfaction. That’s a worthy goal, and good personal and organizational outcomes will result from pursuing it.

Try on my rules. Use what fits. Discard what you know doesn’t fit and never will. With the rest, put them (metaphorically speaking) in your closet and try them on again every now and then. Sometimes, ideas that don’t fit today come to fit over time. Just remember – you’re suiting yourself.

This is the first of a series of essays on how to suit yourself and become a star at work. Click here for more information on the series.

Back to top