Good at what you do and still unhappy? This may be the reason why
Sometimes clients reach out to me for career coaching because there is a total mismatch between what they do and who they are. They feel like their work isn’t aligned with their values, priorities and the way they want to live their life. And sometimes, clients reach out to me feeling quite puzzled. They don’t hate their job, in fact their job is a good match, at least on paper. They’re good at what they do, they’re well paid, they’re appreciated, but they don’t feel satisfied, fulfilled, accomplished. It breaks my heart because these individuals often think that there’s something wrong with them: “maybe that’s just me, maybe I’m just never satisfied”. They ignore the red flags these feelings provide because they think the problem is with them when in fact there may very well be a reason behind their experience and something they can do about it. Gay Hendricks, a psychologist, writer and teacher, has a theory that explains this phenomenon of being ‘successful’ but not feeling successful, not feeling lit up, not feeling fully alive. It’s called the Zone of Genius. But before I jump in… I know this term can be intimidating or may sound unattainable (something we’d use to describe people like Albert Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci) but the premise of this theory is that every single person on this planet has his own unique zone of genius. The word genius here doesn't refer to one's IQ levels, but to one’s special gifts. On an interview with Gay Hendricks, he shares a quote by Abraham Maslow “there is no difference between a genius soup and a genius symphony” and further explains that we’re all born equal, in the sense that we’re all born with a gift, a brilliance, that if we tap into it and express it we will bring forth our genius. It’s also important to mention that finding your zone of genius is a journey. It’s not a box to tick or a mission to accomplish. It’s a zone, an area, not a destination. It’s also not a job title or an occupation. It’s something that’s way deeper than that – it’s your innate wiring that helps you discover and understand who you are and why you are here.
In his book, The Big Leap, Gay Hendricks identifies four different zones of function:
1. The zone of incompetence: In this zone, we’re doing things we inherently don’t understand or are’nt skilled at. Other people do it way better than us, we don’t enjoy it and it’s very likely that we try to spend minimal time on these activities (for example: maybe you struggle with computers/technology or DIY, it takes you way too long to figure out and you'd rather ask for help)
2. The zone of competence: In this zone, we’re doing things that we’re good at, but recognise that someone else could do it as well or even better. We don’t particularly enjoy these activities but we manage (for example: maybe you don't particularly enjoy cooking but you can make decent meals for your family. You might consider outsourcing it)
3. The zone of excellence: In this zone, we’re doing something we’re tremendously skilled at. We're appreciated and praised for it and get well compensated for our time and effort. Often, the zone of excellence is cultivated, it's practiced and established over time.
4. The zone of genius: In this zone, we’re doing what we most love doing while making the biggest possible contribution to others / the world. In this zone we capitalise on our natural abilities which are innate (and sharpened), rather than learned. This is the state in which we get into "flow” (a concept coined by the Czech psychologist Mihai Chiksent Mihai), an experience of time flying and of oneness with the task. We find endless inspiration, and come up with work that is often distinguished and unique. Mary Kondo is a good example for a person living in her genius. She found her genius in organisation and tidying up and made a successful business based on her unique method helping people all around the world declutter and get organised. Most people build their lives and careers in their zone of excellence, the area of life in which our skills are proficient. The problem with the zone of excellence (and the reason why some people in it are unsatisfied) is that while it can be a great place to start, it can also be a trap. It’s where many people get stuck... Perhaps they go study something that will guarantee success, perhaps they find a job at a company with great conditions and a desired title, perhaps they get promoted... and yet they don’t experience ‘success’. They feel ‘off’, down, depleted and bored. They feel like they’re “just” living. The tricky bit is that we, humans, are junkies of approval and validation. We feel safe when we feel loved. We want to make sure others see us. And often, in the name of safety and recognition, we pay the price of lack of spark/passion/joy. It’s part of our survival instinct to stay part of the pact. And that’s what makes the area of excellence our golden cage. When we’re in the zone of excellence we’re so successful on paper that we may think that we’ve reached our top, which can be really frustrating because we don’t feel at the top. There’s something missing. A spark. Passion. A lot of people in this zone often feel like “I have it all, so how come I’m not feeling anything?” “I have everything I need, why can’t I just be thankful” – they shut off these feelings and tell themselves they are wrong, but these feelings of stuckness, dolefulness, boredom, may very well be a calling from within asking them to explore more. Our zone of genius is what's most 'effortless' for us. If we’re truly able to relax and begin the work, we recognise that we’re able to create almost instantaneously, and without too much thought. It’s where we shine and when we find it we recognise that we simply cannot not do it. Gary Hendricks says “unless you end your day feeling better physically/energetically than when you started, you’re not living/working in your genius enough.” While our zone of genius comes naturally to us, it still requires dedication and commitment. It still brings up challenges and requires effort and work, but it’s a different kind of effort to the one we’re used to talking about in our hustle culture. It’s the kind of effort that nourishes us and gives us energy, that fills us up as opposed to drains us out. Just like when you feel even more energetic after a good workout. Our zone of genius is where our soul soars. Alan Carr, for example, was a wealthy and successful accountant, until he found his genius when he quit smoking – and turned his success into a method. Nas Daily is another good example. After getting accepted to Harvard and working for two years as a programmer, he decided to pursue his dream – to travel the world. On the Facebook page he set up, he committed to post a one-minute video every day for a thousand days. These are inspirational videos that give young people growing up in less privileged areas of the world a glimpse into and hope for the life they can live. If this resonates, it doesn't necessarily mean that you need to quit your job ASAP. It could be that you can re-design your current job. Or maybe you can pursue your zone of genius outside of work. Or maybe, you just know that it's time to follow this deep yearning that's been with you for a while now – to change direction. The idea is to discover and explore the areas where you shine, where your spark is turned on, and to continuously ask yourself – How can I bring more of this into my life? if you listen and take action towards it, over time the percentage of the activities you do in your zone of genius will increase. Our area of genius is not a job title or an occupation. It is a precision, distillation and formulation of what brings us meaning, our personal "why" and can be manifested in different areas of our lives and in different ways throughout our lives. It’s the intersection between the magic trifecta: our abilities, our spark (passion/joy) and our contribution. We live in a real world that is heavy sometimes with real-life responsibilities, we have bills to pay, we have mouths to feed, but we also have souls that deserve care and attention. We can pay attention to our worldly needs without neglecting our inner landscape.