It’s hard not to feel like a massive screw up sometimes.
We’re constantly being reminded of other people’s greatness — stories about scrappy young bootstrappers who grew up to become Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk are basically part of our national identity.
If you’re a bit lost in your own career, or haven't quite figured out your "calling," these aspirational models of success can feel more like nasty little digs at how little you’ve done by comparison.
No one knows this feeling better than Rich Karlgaard. In 1980, the year Steve Jobs took Apple public, Karlgaard was working as a night watchman in San Jose Calif, where his only coworker was a lumberyard dog. Both men were 25 years old.
Things eventually turned around for Karlgaard. At 26, he landed a job as a technical writer at a research institute. Eighteen years later, at 44, he became the publisher of Forbes — a title he still holds today.
That’s how it works for some people, Karlgaard says. J.K. Rowling worked dead end jobs before becoming the world’s first billionaire author at 40. Julia Child was pushing 50 before anybody knew who she was.
In his new book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, Karlgaard lays out some practical advice for those of us who—like Rowling, Child, and himself—didn't figure everything out in our 20s.
If you’re treading water at your 9 to 5, here are three tips for finally getting the pieces into place.
Embrace self doubt
The personality traits we tend to associate with success—"ambition," "grit," "drive"—can make it seem like great careers stem only from unwavering self-confidence. It's no wonder why periods of uncertainty feel so derailing.
Late bloomers should learn how to use self-doubt to their advantage, Karlgaard says. Maybe you're unsure about whether you're qualified for a job opening. Instead of scrapping the application, spend some extra time zhuzhing up your cover letter, and take a crash course on a new technical skill the role requires.
The trick is to recognize self doubt for what it is—a feeling, not a fact—before it stagnates you completely.
“You can be unsure of yourself,” Karlgaard says. “But if you’re sure about one or two things, it grows.”
Reframe your inner monologue
Learning how to speak publicly, cold call people, or do any those other nerve-wracking things that take lots and lots of practice? Karlgaard says you should think of yourself as a good friend who needs a pep talk. And then psych yourself up.
It’s a tip he got from Alison Woods Brooks at Harvard Business School, who’s research on “positive self talk” found that students who practice changing negative first-person thoughts (“I’m nervous”) into positive third-person ones (“get excited") lessened their performance anxiety before karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance.
It’s not a magic wand, Karlgaard says, but if you're an introvert, it can make stepping up your professional game a lot easier.
Look for new spaces to thrive
There are many ways to achieve your professional goals — and most of them don’t materialize straight out of college.
If you’re stuck in a job, field, or speciality that doesn’t suit you, Karlgaard recommends thinking about the areas you can pivot to without having to upend your life. He calls this “repotting,” and says it’s helped loads of people transition from fields like journalism to public relations, social work to guidance counseling, and so on.
Figuring out where you’re meant to be might take a lot of little baby steps. But you'll know you're close when "you're feeling pulled rather than pushed," he says. "And eventually, you'll get pulled through your self doubt and into courage you didn’t think you had.”