“Whenever you see a successful person, you only see the public glories, never the private sacrifices to reach them.” — Vaibhav Shah

Have you ever sat around wondering what the difference is between those who achieve a great deal of success in their lives versus those who just never seem to find their way?

When I’m talking about success I’m not necessarily talking about making a bunch of money or being on TV or having a million Twitter followers—although success could include any of those things. What I’m talking about is a general feeling like you’re giving the best of yourself and getting the best life has to offer.

I’m talking about happiness, laughter, fulfillment and just a general sense of peace.

I’m talking about the kind of person you would want to be your parent, your employee, your coworker or your spouse.

Anyway, I have sat around wondering what it is that makes some people happy with their lives and other people not so happy. In fact, I’ve tried to pay attention to the difference between people I meet who I would put in those different categories—mostly so I can be one of them. And here’s the thing I’ve noticed as I’ve watched.

Successful people see themselves honestly.

They’re not perfect. Not by a long shot. But they don’t try to hide or mask their imperfections or idiosyncrasies from others. In fact, they’ll be the first to admit them to you. And strangely, this seems to free them up to make even their most quirky qualities work in their favor.

Let me give you an example of this.

When I graduated from college I immediately began looking for a job. I didn’t know what I was looking for, honestly. My degree was in English and I really wanted to be a writer but was convinced I couldn’t make a living doing that. So I started tapping my networks and found out about an “Office Manager” job.

Now, I’m the last person you ever want to hire to be an office manager. First of all, I can’t even keep my own schedule straight—let alone anyone else’s. I’m famous for missing meetings or forgetting about appointments or locking my keys in my car.

Still, I swore in the interview I could do it. I had to do it, I figured.

What other options did I have?

Long story short, about six months into the job my boss and I were both realizing I wasn’t good at it. In fact, I was less than good at it. I was awful. They would have been better off with no office manager and I’m not exaggerating.

But I felt stuck. What was I supposed to do? If I lost this job, I would not only be a failure, I would also be in a real financial bind.

So I kept promising I would get better.

I worked harder and longer hours. I stayed late. I came early. And when things would go wrong in the office, I would try to think of reasons for the mistake that didn’t have to do with me. I don’t even think I realized I was doing it but I was so terrified to get fired, you guys. I was willing to do whatever it took to make sure that didn’t happen.

It didn’t happen. I didn’t get fired. But my boss did become more and more infuriated with me. As a result, I became less and less engaged with the work, more and more self-conscious about my strengths and gifts, less and less motivated and more and more enraged with my work environment. It all felt so toxic.

Finally, about 12 months in, I threw in the towel.

I sat down with my boss and was brutally honest. “I just don’t think I’m built for this job,” I told him. “I’m not doing a good job. I”m making everyone’s life harder—including mine—and I’m sorry.” As I said it, I could tell something shifted for him.

A guy who had been really frustrated with me moments earlier suddenly became my biggest ally. He asked me what I was going to do next and offered to help in any way he could. He told me he would give me a reference.

“How could you possibly offer to give me a reference when I’ve been so terrible at this?” I asked.

“Hey—at least you were honest.”

It was a moment of terrible failure for me and also shining glory, in a way—that moment I finally decided to be honest about myself and with him. There would be other jobs for me, better jobs, more fulfilling and less taxing jobs in my future, as soon as I could finally admit the truth about myself and to others.

This is all easier said than done—so how do you actually do this?

These days in my life I do everything I can to be as honest with myself, and with the people around me, as possible, if only because I’ve seen what a difference it can make. But the honestly certainly doesn’t come easily.

It can be hard to see ourselves in a truthful light. It can be even harder to admit what we see to other people.

That said, there are three tools I use to help me accomplish this objective:

Friendships: There are things we can’t see about ourselves that our friends can see about us. I’ve found my friends are happy to fill in the blank spots in my own self-perceptions if I ask them to. If you’re curious how you come across to other people, ask your friends: what are my greatest strengths? What areas can I work on?

Humility: It can feel painful to hear the truth about ourselves, especially when that truth is unpleasant. Your tendency might be to push the responsibility off of yourself, like I did when I was an office manager, or to reject it altogether. But if you can humbly receive the feedback you’re given from those you trust, I promise you the results will be worth it.

Coaching: There are some things even our friends can’t see about us but that we need to know if we’re going to achieve our best life possible. For those things, I’ve tried to be intentional about inviting coaches into my life. Coaching takes many different forms: teachers, professors, counselors, professional coaches, life coaches, etc. Whatever form it takes, make sure you take advantage of those who can see you most clearly.

[photo: grinapple, Creative Commons]

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