Last month I was talking to a friend who teaches an undergraduate course at Harvard. He shared an interesting phenomenon: When someone is accepted into Harvard, they’re typically at the top of their class. Compared to their high school peers, they had better grades, more extra circulars, and higher scores on the SAT.
Then. . .
They arrive at Harvard. Suddenly, they’re not the smartest student in class anymore. Everyone has the exact same (or better) achievements as they do. Overnight, they go from being a standout to being one of the indistinguishable masses, blending in just like every other member of the Freshman class.
It’s a disruption that can be absolutely jarring to high performers. The same thing happens at work. When you make it to the top of your field- whether that’s getting a job at the top firm, being awarded a certain distinction, or making it to the C-Suite, you go from a star player to just another member of the team.
The praise, recognition, and achievement you got used to as a top performer are in short supply at the top because everyone you’re with did the same thing as you. That’s why they’re there. But nevertheless, you must forge your path, and it starts with trying to stand out in an increasingly noteworthy pool of talent.
Here are three tips to help:
Recognize, sheer work output probably won’t cut it. There will always be someone who is getting more done. If you’ve risen to the top by working through weekends, taking late-night meetings, and producing an exceptional volume of work, your pace is likely not sustainable. You’ll need to find a new differentiator (if you ever want to sleep again).
Focus on maximizing your strengths. You’re better off working to further improve your strengths, rather than trying to “fix” your weaknesses. Strengths-based leadership scholars, Robert Kaiser and Darren Overfield say, “The deficiency model is inefficient and ineffective because fixing weaknesses might get a manager to improve from “poor” to “average” but will never make that manager outstanding” because the only way to achieve greatness is to maximize one’s innate gifts.” For example, if you’re a raging extrovert (like me), you’re better off improving your already strong ability to connect with people. If you’re an introvert like my husband, work on your ability to think strategically and listen to several points of view. An overwhelming inability to manage your time or resistance to feedback will hinder anyone, but if you’ve already risen to the top, any weaknesses you have are likely not diabolical.
Resist the urge to make everything a competition. In this environment, it’s tempting to become hyper-competitive with your peers. It’s a mistake many ambitious people, myself included, are guilty of. Last year, I wrote about why your peers are your allies, not your competition. Sure, maybe only one of you will get promoted at the end of this year, but each of you will build impactful, fulfilling careers, and next year the roles may be reversed. Stay in touch, cheer for each other, and know that the world is smaller than you think.
Rising to the top of your field is an incredible feeling. Staying there (or going higher) will require a different level of intentionality, strategic thinking, and relationships. As my long-time mentor Marshall Goldsmith says- what got you here won’t get you there.
When you feel a sting of competitiveness or imposter syndrome, take it as a cue to reevaluate how you can bring the best version of yourself to the next level.