I took one lesson from dozens of self-help books I read to become successful and make my first wife happy:[1] “You can correct course at any time.”

Reflection and introspection are far better diagnostic tools than embracing tools of self-modification. However, to often we continue to approach the problem as unary (i.e., there is only one possible result—I bear all responsibility and I alone can change my situation).

For instance, I also discovered that colleagues would divert me from my responsibilities with tasks they felt I was better suited to handle. This happened in two different jobs. I quickly learned, in both situations, that saying “no,” was not an option. My supervisors and co-workers assumed I could handle their requests immediately (even requests were well outside my job description) because I was “the guy for this.”

I would receive requests that ranged from “can you set up all the computers in this lab?” (I wasn’t IT) to “can you find a copy of this journal that we published ten years before and hand deliver it to the other campus (a twenty minute drive in good traffic) today because inter-office mail is too slow.”

I tried to be polite and put their project in the context of other pending deadlines. Especially with requests that sounded interesting and challenging. With supervisors I would review my assignments and ask which one should be postponed to finish this “today.” With colleagues I would let them know the major projects I had been assigned, and suggest resources they could pursue that might expedite their requests. (And I always agreed to help when I could find a way to accomodate).

Nonetheless, “no” was never acceptable and I soon gained a reputation as negative and uncooperative. Often a colleague’s supervisor would call one of mine (usually the director) and stress the need for me to accept the assignment. Perhaps they believed that my computer did the magic and I just entered the instructions: create an annual report, develop the curricula for a multimedia class and match it to the required rubrics and finish both before lunch.

What I discovered through reflection was that I did enjoy new challenges and enjoyed a variety tasks, which meant I needed to decline requests whether I wanted to do them or not (out of fairness). However, I also discovered that the work environment wasn’t conducive to saying “no.” Management stressed that we worked as a team and that meant supporting each other’s requests for assistance.

I once spoke with the COO of a non-profit whose employees consistently rated their work conditions as terrible. He said he offered them employee assistance and a number of resources for reducing job stress. I asked him if he ever considered changing the conditions that led to their complaints. He said, “They’re just employees. It’s their responsibility to cope if they want their jobs.”

We live in a country that promotes a myth: Poverty is your fault and everyone can get into Harvard if you only apply yourselves. If you can’t get good health care, it’s because you didn’t manage your finances.

When we take that time to look inward for the root cause, we shouldn’t ignore our environment either. If you discover a dozen barrels of toxic waste in your backyard, they didn’t get there because you failed to build the right kind of fence.

Some of us are most happy when we’re productive. But we have to be productive at work we enjoy. If only we lived in a society that valued matching personality and skills to jobs. The truth is our economy depends on filling positions regardless of the colors of our parachutes.

As a result, we may not address our personal needs at work. No matter how much we wish to. When we assume the source of our well-being depends only on our behavior, we lay the groundwork for disappointment.

[1]:I am not “successful,” that marriage lasted two years, and I am happy now.

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Living metaphor. Follow me @stephens_pt.

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