About two decades ago, Laura Gassner Otting was a successful, turbocharged executive recruiter for nonprofits. But, she writes in her new book Limitless, she felt “bored, unsatisfied and empty.” And, she told me in an interview, “I was stuck by the definition of success that had been placed on me.”
Then Gassner Otting had what she calls her “Jerry Maguire moment,” realizing she couldn’t go on living and working that way. So, she started her own firm, with her own rules, and figured out how to be “limitless.” Or, as her book’s subtitle calls this: “How to ignore everybody, carve your own path and live your best life.”
That means, as you’ll see in my interview with her below, achieving “consonance” (aligning your work with your personal self). To do that, Gassner Otting says, you’ll want to focus on what she calls “the 4 C’s.”
Here are highlights from our conversation:
Laura Gassner Otting on Becoming ‘Limitless’
Richard Eisenberg: How did ‘Limitless’ come about?
Laura Gassner Otting: The book comes out of 20 years of my interviewing people at the top of their game for the biggest organizations in the country. Time and again, they went to the right schools, had the right jobs, found the right house and the right spouse and they still felt something was missing.
We don’t have a framework for how to take our careers and make them become additive to our lives. I feel we need to give people a framework.
And that’s about becoming ‘limitless.’ What do you mean by that?
It’s when what you do matches who you are. We all spend time being limited by others’ definitions of success and in those limits we lose ourselves. Have a conversation with yourself on ‘What do I care about and how do I want to spend my time in this one juicy life I have on earth?’
You write about carving your own path and living your best life. That sounds like something for people in their 20s or 30s. How can people in their 50s and 60s do it?
At every different life stage, we fall into a trap of comparing ourselves to other people. Am I making enough money? Did I retire early enough? Is it bad that I still want to be working? Was my life meaningful?
I just turned 48 and I realized I’m more than halfway through and have precious time left. So what will I do with that time?
For some people at this time of life, it will be doing something that matters at a nonprofit. For others, it’s about making money so their children and grandchildren won’t have to worry [about things like college tuition]. The main message of the book is success is success for you wherever you spend your productive time.
You believe that consonance is important to become limitless. What exactly is consonance and why does having it matter so much?
Consonance is alignment, flow, a sense of believing that the work you love shows the best version of who you are. It’s a feeling that what you do matches who you are.
It’s not what makes us busy that exhausts is; it’s trying to be one person to some people and another to others.
Consonance means bringing everything you’ve learned through your career and the things you’ve done outside your career so that all the lessons make you the best version of who you are everywhere you are.
What percent of adults do you think have consonance?
Gallup did a study that said less than one-third of workers are engaged in their work. So I think we can assume about two thirds don’t feel they have consonance.
When I was researching my book, I found the people with consonance tended to have had mid-career shifts or they are entrepreneurs. They’re people who made very specific decisions in their life and said ‘I can’t do that any more. I have to do something different.’
More and more people in their 50s and 60s are becoming entrepreneurs. How does being an entrepreneur help someone become limitless?
I’ve seen studies that show the most successful entrepreneurs are middle-aged. Some of that is they can self-finance better than younger people. And, for the most part, they know who they are and what they do best. Then, you’ll get so much further past the starting line; you’re more likely to be successful.
Let’s talk about what you call the four elements to consonance, the four C’s. They are Calling, Connection, Contribution and Control. Does Calling mean you need to find a higher calling?
No. The reason we get Calling wrong is we think it has to be a higher calling. It’s really a gravitational pull to something bigger than you. It might be a societal ill you want to solve. Or it could be a bottom line you want to grow. Or a Maserati you want to buy. Or a family you want to grow. Or perfecting your golf game. Everyone’s calling is singular and individual to them.
Connection is how your work on a daily basis helps you get closer to reach your goal of that calling. If you called in sick tomorrow, would anyone notice? If not, it may be your work isn’t connected to your calling.
Contribution is about how your work allows you to manifest your values to earn money so you can have the lifestyle you want to have and the career trajectory you’re looking for. It’s how the work contributes to your life.
It’s about whether you are in control over the work you do and the way you contribute to your team.
Do we all need all four C’s and in equal amounts?
People need different amounts of each of the C’s at different times. When I was 24 [working in the Clinton White House where she helped shape AmeriCorps] and I was ‘gophering’ coffee, I didn’t have connection or control. But I didn’t’ care, I had so much calling. Now that I’m in the middle of my life, it’s different.
You also write about what you call ‘insidious, unreachable ideals.” And one of those, you say, is the advice to ‘follow your passion.’ Why do you call that ‘the world’s worst advice?’
I think it’s the spoken-live version of ‘live, love, laugh.’ I don’t like the advice to follow your passion because it’s not a roadmap or a destination. I want people to invest in their passion.
You also think work/life balance is an insidious, unreachable ideal. Why?
Work and life are never exactly in balance. I just think people should strive for work/life alignment.
So, if someone says, ‘OK, this all makes sense,’ how should that person go about getting consonance and becoming limitless?
The first thing I would say is take my online Limitless Assessment quiz. It walks you through all of the 4 C’s and you can find out how much of each C you have in life and how much of each you want, with tips on how to get there.
The second thing is to think about the ways you define success and where do those definitions come from. Your parent? Your boss? A friend? A spouse? A neighbor? Then those are the definitions you want to start questioning to see they are actually meaningful to you.
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