The term “raise the bar” often has a negative connotation. It can mean someone in your company has decided to add on additional expectations and make life miserable for everyone. This person, probably a manager or an executive, has decided to “raise the bar” on hitting a sales quota or completing paperwork on time. Collective groan, right? It always seems to create ill will because this bar raising is all about someone else deciding you need to work harder and achieve more. You have no say in where the bar ends up.
But what if you turn the concept on its ear? What if you flip a term with a negative connotation into something that is extremely positive and useful?
The idea of “raising your own bar” can be a game changer in terms of your own success in the workplace and even wind up “raising” your paycheck or boosting your career. It’s a mix of setting higher expectations for yourself, choosing to challenge what you do on the job in unexpected ways, and working even harder than you thought was possible to get things done and move forward in your career. It’s about kicking yourself into a higher gear, rather than relying on someone else to do the kicking.
I remember when I wrote about career choices earlier this year and received a flood of emails from people who felt I was speaking directly to them. It was amazing to hear just how many people were totally unsatisfied at work. They were confused about the choices they had made in college and early in their careers. Many felt trapped.
It was an eye-opener for me and helped me understand what is really going on with the modern workplace. There are so many choices available, so many micro-jobs and even micro-careers, so many splintered job descriptions. You can be the assistant to the chief data scientist these days, which takes a while to explain to people at parties. You can be the person who handles all of the Instagram posts for the company, a role that doesn’t even have a job title. I heard from people who were so confused about why they were in a certain role that they tended to just mindlessly surf all day instead of doing anything useful because they didn’t feel like they were making a difference.
I want to be clear here. I know what it’s like to be in a dead-end job. I lived it . But there is a solution to the problem, and it’s to challenge yourself. This is the best kind of challenge. Your boss doesn’t quite know how to challenge you. He or she can’t always perceive your deficiencies. You can. You may have heard the idea that the things that bother you the most in other people are likely the things you need to work on yourself. My advice is to skip that step of being bothered by others. Take a mirror and start analyzing yourself. How do you need to change? What is making you feel stuck? What is holding you back from finding success at work?
Here are a few examples of how this could work. Let’s say you are the person who handles those Instagram posts. I know that’s an important job in many ways, because Instagram is the rising star of social media. If you work at a large creative agency, you have an important role. You are sharing the creative work of those in the agency with the outside world. When you feel under-challenged, raise your own bar. Decide to target the influencers on Instagram more. Approach your boss and ask if you can attend a social media conference in your area. Set some big goals for how many people start following the posts. This self-challenging process will help you excel in your job and feel more confident about your work. It will give you a reason for even doing the job.
Or take that example of being the assistant to the data scientist. OK, it’s a little granular. No one quite gets it. But raising your own bar might involve making the decision to be the chief data scientist someday. That feeling of being stuck in your job or even as the founder of a company comes from many external forces (the investors, the market, the guy in the next cubicle over) but only one internal force. When you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, check your own feet. You might be the problem.
As always, feel free to disagree or challenge this idea of raising your own bar . Explain your own predicament, and why you feel like your career has stalled. I’ll do my best to offer some specific guidance for your situation and some ideas for getting unstuck.
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