Don’t Kid Yourself

J.T. O’Donnell is a friend of mine.  She is the founder of and CEO of, a web-based career development company.  The other day she sent this great piece of career success advice to her email subscribers.  She was gracious enough to allow me to repost it here…

When it comes to your career, do you lie to yourself?  The answer is most likely “yes.” In an article I read by Sam Sommers, a professor of psychology at Tufts University, he explains how and why we like to kid ourselves. He explains:

“People do this all the time. We bend the facts to fit our self-image, perpetuating a view of ourselves that is often more positive than accurate.”

In fact, Sommers outlines the six main ways we use self-deception to make ourselves feel better. As I read each one, various people came to mind and I realized many professionals use these forms of self-deception in their careers. And, while Sommers argues that some self-deception is effective as a coping mechanism to keep us from falling prey to feelings of helplessness or depression.

Here are the tools we use to kid ourselves cause problems.  Let’s take a look at each one…


Often accompanied by denial, rationalization is used to justify things we do that we know are wrong. For example, the employee who submits fake receipts on his expense report to get a few extra bucks every month and says to himself, “Everyone does it. And besides, the company doesn’t pay me enough.” Or, the job seeker who lies on their resume to get the interview and validates it with, “Their candidate criteria is unrealistic… it’s the only way I’ll get the chance to prove I’m the right person for the job.”  To sum it up, rationalization is the way we allow ourselves to take short cuts, avoid extra work and exploit resources.

Question: What have you rationalized recently to make yourself feel better about a choice or decision at work that, deep down, you knew was questionable?

The Better-than-Average Effect

Sommers shares an amazing example of this. He regularly asks his classes how strong their social skills are. Based on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being totally socially inept and 10 being the best. Here’s what he experiences:

“When I ask my students this in class, the average response is an eight or a nine. Even when I tell them to limit their comparison group to Tufts students, far more that have tell me their social skills are better than average. Impressive, no? Either I’m the luckiest professor at the university or a large percentage of those students are kidding themselves.”

Sommers explains the “I’m better-than-average” mentality is quite popular. He cites one study showed 86% of managers believe they are more ethical than their peers. Let’s be honest, how many times have you thought to yourself, “I’m better than my co-workers.” Better still, when’s the last time you contemplated how much better you are than your boss?

Question: When it comes to your job, are you really as good as you think you are?

Illusion of Control

This is when we think, even in spite of the odds, we can manage the outcome of a situation. For example, many workers think that if they do their job well and stay “under-the-radar” at work, then they should be able to keep their job as long as they want it. I’m pretty sure a lot of people were using this self deception tool this past year and learned the hard way it doesn’t work.  Roughly 19.5M people are unemployed as of February 4, 2012 and learning first-hand there is no such thing as controllable job security.

Question: Do you think your hard-working efforts on-the-job ensure a job is yours for as long as you want it?

Basking in Reflected Glory

This is my favorite self-deception tool because it explains why we are drawn to those with great amounts of professional success. Sommers explains, “People are social animals. We spend much of our lives seeking out and managing bonds with others. It should come as no surprise, then, that when we’re trying to feel good about ourselves, we frequently call to mind our more illustrious associations, basking in their reflected glory.”  In common language, we like to brag about our association with winners.  So true!

Why is it people love to share their conversations with higher-ups as a way to up their own worth? Better still, why do we gladly take credit for our associations with successful projects at work, but tend to downplay our involvement in those that failed?

Question: Who or what do you like to brag about as a way to improve your professional credibility?

Downward Social Comparison

So, what happens when a person we view as our equal suddenly becomes more successful than us?  How do we react when we are faced with the reality that we really aren’t better-than-average?  Simple.

We start to compare ourselves to the least successful people we know. Sommers gives some interesting evidence to support the fact that, sometimes, there’s nothing like other people’s struggles to make us feel better about our own plight (i.e. our own financial challenges never seem as bad when we see people in foreclosure).

Question: When someone you view as a peer (i.e. co-worker) is doing better than you professionally, do you react by spending time with folks who you feel certain will always be one step behind you?


Last, but by no means least, self-handicapping is when we chose to actually sabotage our own performance to ensure our ego stays intact. The most common example of this is the student who stays out all night before the test. If they fail, they have an excuse, and if they pass, they get to brag about the accomplishment in spite of no studying. In the work world, people do this all the time too! Anyone who has put off a tough work assignment until the eleventh hour is guilty of this. In fact, I think self-handicapping is the most common way people hold themselves back from advancing in their career. It’s easy to validate a lack of career progression when we undermine our own efforts.

Question: Have you ever justified an inability to move forward in your career based on outside distractions (i.e. significant other, personal commitments, etc.)

So, now that you know the ways in which we use self-deception, the question remains, “What should we do about our avoidance of the truth?” As I mentioned earlier, Sommers suggests while we should recognize how it holds us back, we should also understand it can be helpful too:

“Our real task, psychologically, may not be to banish self-deception but to make it work for us – to enlist it when we feel threatened and let go of it when we’re ready to face facts. Should we always evaluate ourselves in relation to those of inferior aptitude? No – we’ll grow complacent and develop an exaggerated sense of competence. But sometimes a dash of downward social comparison is just what we need to bounce back from failure. Or maybe the better-than-average effect will do the trick. Or a little rationalization.”

So, be honest.  Which of the six do you use? Or, are you better than the rest of us and don’t use self-deception?

I really like what JT has to say here.  Many years ago, I fell victim to the third problem — illusion of control.  I honestly believed that my work would speak for itself and that my good performance would lead to the promotions and career success I wanted.  Once I realized that good performance was not enough and that I really needed to take charge of my career, I discovered the seven keys to success that I discuss in my forthcoming book, Climbing the Corporate Ladder:

  1. Clarify the purpose and direction for your life and career.
  2. Commit to taking personal responsibility for your life and career success.
  3. Build unshakeable self-confidence.
  4. Become an outstanding performer.
  5. Create positive personal impact.
  6. Become a dynamic communicator.
  7. Build strong, lasting, mutually beneficial relationships.

Once I began applying these keys, I really was in control of my life and career success – not just laboring under the illusion that I was.

The career success coach point here is simple common sense.  You can’t kid yourself if you want to create the life and career success you want and deserve.  JT O’Donnell lists six ways in which we kid ourselves about our career success: 1) Rationalization; 2) The Better Than Average Affect; 3) Illusions of Control; 4) Basking in Reflected Glory; 5) Downward Social Comparison; and 6) Self-Handicapping.  Read this post.  Then determine how you are kidding yourself about your life and career success.  Once you figure out where you are kidding yourself, take action.  Do what you need to do to stop kidding yourself.

That’s my career advice prompted by JT O’Donnell’s article on how we kid ourselves into thinking everything is just fine with our lives and careers.  What do you think?  Which one of these six do you fall prey to?  Please take a minute and share your thoughts – and confessions – with us in a comment.  As always, I really appreciate you taking the time to read my daily thoughts on life and career success.  Thanks.


PS: If you haven’t already done so, please download a free copy of my popular career advice book Success Tweets and its companion piece Success Tweets Explained.  The first gives you 140 bits of career success advice tweet style — in 140 characters or less.  The second is a whopping 390 + pages of career advice explaining each of the common sense tweets in Success Tweets in detail.  Go to to claim your free copy.  You’ll also start receiving my daily life and career success quotes.

PPS: I opened a membership site last September.  It’s called My Corporate Climb and is devoted to helping people create career success inside large corporations.  You can find out about the membership site by going to http://www.mycorporateclimb.


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