3 Ways Smart Entrepreneurs Sabotage Their Success

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3 Ways Smart Entrepreneurs Sabotage Their Success
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Entrepreneur; Founder and CEO, JotForm
7 min read
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“Smarts won’t get you everywhere.”

I looked up at my college professor who wrote these words across the board in front of our entire class. It wasn’t the first time in my young life that I’d heard this phrase, but it was the first time someone I deeply admired said it with such conviction.

“Success isn’t determined by how smart we are,” he continued. “Being curious, building strong relationships, approaching problems with humility — these are all equally important.”

From a young age, we’re often told how smart we are. At home and at school, we’re told that this is the secret to achieving ambitious goals.

As a twenty-year-old college student, I too bought into this belief system. I arduously overworked as if I had something to prove (to myself and others), and I took this same mindset into my first job as a junior developer at a large, -based media firm.

Yet, after long months of putting in extra hours trying to show off my abilities and getting nowhere, I realized smarts alone weren’t cutting it. I didn’t know it at the time, but holding onto these misplaced beliefs about proving myself at all costs was sabotaging my growth.

As former clinical psychologist and author Alice Boyes highlights in a Harvard Business Review article:

“Raw is undoubtedly a huge asset, but it isn’t everything. And sometimes, when intellectually gifted people don’t achieve as much as they’d like to, it’s because they’re subtly undermining themselves.”

Many of us fall into this trap. In other words, we focus on what we deem as our greatest strength and fail to invest in other equally valuable skills. Navigating unpredictable times can make us go into overdrive and rely on our intellect alone to make business decisions.

But genuinely trying to overcome our weaknesses is essential for any kind of success. In her book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, Boyes helps identify the kind of thinking and behavioral habits that hold us back. “Understanding the roots of self-sabotaging behavior,” she explains, “can help us to find fixes that will make our lives more successful and less conflicted.”

This is good news because it means we can change these patterns by learning how to recognize when we’re getting in our own way. Here are three strategies I’ve learned from research and experience that have helped me beat self-sabotage.

1. Shake off limiting beliefs

You know that feeling of sitting among a group of highly intelligent colleagues and feeling like a fraud?  Imposter syndrome in the tech world is very real, even for successful entrepreneurs with decades of experience. Maybe we’re afraid of appearing incompetent by asking the wrong question, so we sabotage possible opportunities to connect by not speaking up. 

In an industry where we strive to create the most efficient product we can, feeling like our code or design isn’t the best can be threatening. But according to Boyes, measuring our self-worth by how smart we’d like others to perceive us ultimately holds us back. 

So, what’s the solution? “Take an objective view of the benefits of working with people who are, in some respects, smarter than you,” she says. “If you’re surrounding yourself with smart people, you’re doing something right. Remember, iron sharpens iron.”

The next time you find yourself among successful peers and start to have that feeling of “I’m a fraud” creep up, change your inner dialogue to “I’m about to meet people who challenge me to become a better version of myself.” This prevents you from self-sabotaging and increases your likelihood of building stronger relationships.

Related: How I Overcame Perfectionism: The Fastest Path to Nowhere

2. Let go of perfectionism

I can speak to this. As a recovered perfectionist, it’s normal for me to try and control the smaller details of a project when under stress. And keeping an eye on this internal tendency has been challenging during this pandemic, to say the least. I’m wearing multiple hats at home and trying to ensure my team has everything they need to work remotely.

But here’s the thing, perfectionism is an impossible standard that keeps us from growing and moving forward. We might let a deadline pass us by because we’re caught up in getting a report “just right,” and thereby undermine weeks of hard work.

In a story for The New York Times, Kristin Wong explains that self-compassion not only encourages us to acknowledge our own flaws and limitations, it ultimately allows us to look at ourselves from a more objective and realistic point of view. “Without the pressure to be superhuman, it’s easier to accept feedback and criticism. It’s much harder to learn and improve when you believe you already know everything.”

Boyes agrees. Practicing self-compassion and acceptance, she notes in an article for Greater Good Magazine, can help us shift this perfectionistic behavioral pattern. But first we have to identify the root causes. “When you can let go of anger, anxiety, and frustration about this stuff, you’ll have more focus and energy available for productively addressing your self-sabotage,” she says.

Related: Strategies to Stop Overthinking and Start Goal-Setting

3. Quit overthinking things to death

When I first launched my company, I would over-research every decision and endlessly ruminate over every mistake I made. It was a habit I carried with me since college, believing this approach would give fruitful results. But all it led to was burnout and a deflated sense of morale.

Here’s what I’ve learned since then: Smarts won’t get you everywhere. My professor turned out to be right all those years ago. We also need moderation — to not let our ambitious thinking lead to unhealthy obsessions. “When you reduce your mental clutter,” says Boyes, “you’ll have more time and cognitive energy for correcting your thinking and behavioral biases.”

Being a leader requires quick-thinking, confidence, and decisiveness, and this couldn’t be more true than now, when our teams are WFH and relying on us for guidance. Overthinking keeps us stuck in a worry cycle and sabotages our ability to make smart choices. While it may seem like rehashing all possible scenarios is a way of problem-solving, all you’re doing is spinning your wheels and wasting valuable time and energy.

Overcoming chronic ruminating means getting out of our head and doing rather than thinking.

If you’re stalled out with a project you’re working on, train yourself to take breaks and do tasks that require action. As Boyes wisely puts it: “To stop sabotaging yourself, you need to figure out your patterns of behavior and then find creative ways to counteract them and form new habits.”

Related: Perfection Is a Trap, and It's Keeping You From Being Successful

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