Perspective: Want to reach your full potential? Don’t believe these common myths

Written by
Professor Marion Debruyne, Dean, Vlerick Business School

22 Jan 2021

22 Jan 2021 • by Professor Marion Debruyne, Dean, Vlerick Business School

The world of work has changed exponentially, so don't always believe those outdated professional maxims, writes Professor Marion Debruyne.

“The only way is up”, “you create your own success” and “leaders are born, not made” are common phrases we’ve probably all heard in our working lives, aren’t they? No matter what industry you work in, it’s likely you’ve heard one of these clichés used either in a meeting, during a learning and development activity or simply in a passing comment from managers and colleagues.

Although they are clichés, many believe them to be true, and that they are effectively a set of guidelines that must be followed for a successful career path.

But, what is the definition of a successful career path? Traditionally, the idea of a successful trajectory would be leaving compulsory education, going on to study a degree, joining a large company, and then for the rest of your career moving up the corporate ladder to a top management role. Traditionally that may be true, yes, but today this career path is now almost certainly outdated.

Different work, same expectations

A successful career path is not a rigid timeline that only travels in an upwards trajectory anymore. The world of work, and our social lives and norms too, have completely changed over the last 20-30 years. However our expectations of a career path have not changed with it. The road to success and happiness in life and work is now a wobbly one, with ups and downs along the way, not the flat, ever-increasing line like these clichés suggest.

The career path of now CEO of ‘Too Good to Go’, the app that fights food wastage, Mette Lykke illustrates the zigzag path that is rather more common than the traditional ‘climbing of the career ladder’. After a few years at McKinsey, she and several of her colleagues founded Endomondo, a sports tracking app. Some time after they had sold it to Under Armour, she was sitting on the bus in Copenhagen next to a woman who was using the app ‘Too Good to Go’. They got talking, one thing led to another and today Mette is the CEO of company.

These obstacles are something my co-author and I have learned ourselves in our own career paths too – me as a business school dean and my co-author, Katleen De Stobbeleir, as a leadership expert and personal coach. It’s not all been plain sailing for either of us to get to where we are now, and  there have been many difficulties in our working lives so far.

To overcome them, you really need to have a lightbulb moment where you realise exactly what is stopping you from progressing further, and how to overcome this obstacle.

I had my lightbulb moment when I was a new professor. I had always felt that I was just pretending to be a professor and that one day I would be exposed, whereas my colleagues actually knew what they were doing. I then read about imposter syndrome and recognized my problem. I needed to move forward from it, but how?  Well, did you know that you actually seem more competent when you ask others for advice? Counter-intuitive, isn't it? Yet it is precisely people who suffer from imposter syndrome who tend not to ask for advice, so they can keep up appearances.

The 'wobbly' road to success

Often, people have amazing potential but can get boxed in by these outdated career clichés that are simply not true, and risk restricting their potential by being too conservative and traditional in their view of a successful career path as a result. We would have no entrepreneurs, no new business ventures, no freelancers and no career switchers if everyone were to believe the common clichés and myths about how to be successful in a career. Not only this, but the majority of people would not be happy in their careers either, and many would not reach their full potential. Ultimately we must take learn to take risks, and rethink their career path to find success and fulfilment.

So remember, the only way isn’t always up, you don’t have to sacrifice everything else to be successful. Lastly, it is never too late to shake things up professionally. After all, learning doesn’t stop at graduation. 

It’s important that these myths are debunked so that everyone can have that lightbulb moment which removes all barriers and obstacles that are restricting them from becoming successful and happy in life. The road to success is certainly a wobbly one, but one worth travelling on if you want to reach your full potential.

Professor Marion Debruyne is the Dean of Vlerick Business School, Belgium. She previously held positions at the Wharton School, Kellogg Graduate School of Management and Goizueta Business School. She recently released a book with fellow Vlerick colleague Professor Katleen De Stobbeleir called ‘Making your way, the (wobbly) road to success and happiness in life and work’.

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