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3 traps to avoid for success in all career stages

Don't let unnecessary comparison, competition and conflict create career pitfalls


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March 28, 2022

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the spring 2022 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

Written by May Busch, executive coach, speaker, adviser, author and executive-in-residence in ASU’s Office of the President.

When I was about to leave home for college, my mother gave me this pearl of wisdom: “Remember to avoid the three C’s.”

She explained that I must avoid unnecessary comparison, competition and conflict and that this would help me to be happier and more successful in my college experience.

What I didn’t realize then is that this advice would continue to serve me throughout my 24-year corporate career as well as my personal life. Whatever your career stage, avoiding the potential pitfalls of the three C’s will serve you well. 

Avoiding comparison: The thief of joy

Comparing yourself to others is such a common trap, especially these days with social media offering everyone’s highlight reel.  

It’s all too easy to compare yourself to the best in each category of your work and life. Like being the best mother and the best candidate for the job and having the cleanest house and being the fittest person in the gym and …  the list goes on.

This sets an impossibly high standard because you’re comparing yourself to the best qualities in others.

Instead, practice gratitude and appreciate yourself. Compare your work against itself. As long as you’re learning and growing, that’s what matters. 

Which brings us to the second C …

Competition: breeding a scarcity mindset

Healthy competition can be good, but unnecessary competition can be damaging to your career. Especially when it breeds a “zero-sum” mentality where either you win or they win. Like having to win an argument, even if it’s with your boss or your client.

Competing with others makes it harder to see people as potential partners. And instead of teaming up to rise higher together, you might waste mental energy trying to outdo your colleagues. You might even make enemies without needing to. 

Instead, adopt an abundance mindset. Rather than fight over how many slices of pie you can have, or how much of a portfolio you own, look at how to grow the pie and portfolio so everyone has more. 

And this leads to the third C …

Conflict: the kind that doesn’t make you stronger

Unnecessary conflict often stems from the need to be right. You’ve done all the research and thought things through. You’re an expert in the area and you expect to be right. So any challenge to your views can feel personal. Like someone’s challenging your identity.

So you get into a debate and sound defensive. You might even say things you regret later. This is the crux of unnecessary conflict. It wasn’t useful, it didn’t resolve anything. In fact it created more problems.

The more senior you become, the more your success comes from working with people. Which means ongoing conflicts will be a distraction to building the kind of trusted relationships you need to achieve greater results than you can alone. Instead of engaging in unnecessary conflict, learn to disagree without becoming disagreeable.

But how do you tell when the three C’s are unnecessary?

The litmus test is whether it contributes to your sense of well-being or detracts from it. 

If saying, “Why can’t I be more like Susan?” is creating a comparison that makes you feel bad, that’s unnecessary. On the other hand, if comparing your situation to the worst-case scenario which thankfully didn’t happen brings up gratitude, that’s a good thing.

Similarly, competing with a peer to see who gets to the corner office first could fuel your motivation, or it could lead to desperate behavior that derails your career. 

Allowing tensions to build up inside you in the form of internal conflict will eat away at you and serve no good purpose. Whereas working through a conflict to find a resolution could strengthen your relationship and build trust. 

Everything in moderation. Live consciously and remember to check in with yourself about the three C’s. 

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