Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Peter Pan Syndrome: Why Smart People Fail

Updated: 3/6/14.

Many clients come to me thinking they'd be successful if only they had an idea for a more exciting career/self-employment.

In fact, there usually are other factors at play, most of which boil down to what I call the Peter Pan Syndrome: They won't grow up.

In better economic times, more people had reasonable careers even if they suffered from the Peter Pan Syndrome but, alas, today that's less and less possible.

Here are the Peter Pan Syndrome's most common manifestations:
  • An unwillingness to get working or stay working when you're not motivated. If you're only willing to work hard when you feel like it, you won't feel like it often enough. Working hard must be something you do; it's not a decision to make. It's foundational.
  • Dabbling: unwillingness to stay focused on becoming sufficiently expert at anything. Brilliant people can achieve excellence in many areas but most people can't.
  • Networking aversion (I suffer from this:) not having taken the time to develop the deep connections with the right people that, alas, too often are needed to land a good job.
  • Betting on longshot dreams: becoming a self-supporting actor, artist, documentary filmmaker, etc. Yes, obviously, some people have achieved such goals but unless you are unusually talented and driven (ideally with great connections,) your chances are so very small. Yet some people cling to their longshot dream, sometimes as an excuse for not doing the work required to have a successful non-longshot career.
  • Doing too much alcohol or drugs.
  • Blaming your failure on something your parents, spouse, or former employer did to you. Many people who were terribly abused--including, for example, Holocaust survivors like my dad--did just fine. You've probably suffered a lot less. You too can triumph over your past.
  • Doing an insufficiently thorough job search. Here's what a thorough one looks like: identifying 100 people not advertising an on-target job but with the power to hire you for your target job or create one for you, and you not only pitch yourself to them but make the effort to build a relationship with them over months. You must also regularly contact your extended personal network to get leads and build the relationship, have a good LinkedIn profile, craft many top-of-the-heap job applications, including collateral material such as a white paper, a portfolio, and substantive follow-ups after job interviews, for example, a mini business plan describing what you'd do if hired.
Might any of those Peter Pan Syndrome behaviors apply to you? If so, is it a wake-up call? Or do you want to accept that you just don't care enough about career success to make the now usually-required effort ? Alas, today, more than ever in my 28 years as a career counselor, I'm finding that unless you're lucky, brilliant or both, landing and keeping a good job really requires you to be a grown-up.


Daniel said...

I like this post. However, contacting 100 people who would hire you for your target job is challenging, especially if you aren't sure what your target job is anymore.

My target job used to be Product Specialist for a major technology company. There are a few in my area (NJ). These days, major technology companies are inundated with people like me trying to get in the door, and, even though I was able to get a referral for an open position with a major technology company and got a phone interview, I never got a call back, despite being told I was a good fit for the 2 open positions.

In this case, I learned that companies really have their choice when it comes to hiring, and will choose internal staff over external.

Marty Nemko said...

Daniel, I didn't say it was easy, I said it is likely necessary. Identify the job title or the skills(s), industry, locale, etc you want and then do the hard work of find the 100 people with the power to hire you for that work. Then start the relationship-building process. I know you wish it would be as easy as answering a few ads, but those days, alas, unless you're a superstar, are over.

Matt said...

An interesting post. As a smart-ish person, who had/has dreams of becoming a software engineer, would you advise against it? The ideas for small business don't really inspire me, I feel like I have to use my intelligence for something I'm interested in.

Marty Nemko said...

If it's your dream and you've gotten signs you have at least reasonable talent for it, then persistent focus gives you a solid shot at achieving your dream--software engineering, while subject to ever more offshoring, is not a moribund field.

ST said...

Very timely. I had to laugh at this article I just saw from "The Onion":
From The Onion: nation down to last hundred grow-ups

It's also sad the number of people at my place of employment who get a full salary for at best, an OK job. As they say about goverment work, "It's good work if you can get it". Especially when there are, I'm sure, plenty of people who would love to have these jobs and do much better than OK.

I know we're not robots, but I think a lot of the people who remain gainfully employed, yet don't contribute much, survive because of their network, people may like them, like their personalities (their looks?), or would feel bad firing them (not to mention almost impossible unless they steal or blatantly use vulgar profanity or provoke sexual harassment in some way). So, people are people, not robots, but it does seem somewhat inefficient that the "best" people aren't in these jobs. Also, as they say, the average American employee is, well, average (regardless of employers saying they only hire world-class employees).

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you'd make this blog against smart people. Are you suggesting that people should be ignorant and go through life like that? For your information, ignorance doesn't help people with life. Instead, it harms them and could lead them to an early grave.

To get through, you have to be intelligent and mature. In other words, you have to grow up and refrain from remaining a child for the rest of your life.

If you're always brainless and a kid, you could make lots of enemies in life.

In case you neither know nor remember, being an adult has more advantages than being a child.

Think about what I'm telling you.

Marty Nemko said...

The post doesn't say people should be dumb or ignorant. It says that intelligence alone doesn't ensure success and that many smart people fail because they won't grow up.

sara said...

Interesting post. I think I'm guilty of this. I'm 35, have a biology degree and a visual communications degree. I have been employed by desirable companies like Roche Diagnostics and, but role "sticks" and holds my interest. I haven't really loved any work that I've done. I now own a dog walking and pet sitting business but I don't even really love doing this. Is it a bad idea to keep moving until you **love** what you do, or is this is a childish fantasy that I need to give up? I'm anxious to contribute the best I have to offer, and to do something I love, but I haven't figured out what either of these things are (I'm good at having fun with my coworkers LOL). Perhaps, I need to just give up on the fantasy?

Marty Nemko said...

Dear Sara,

Yes, after a reasonable effort, it's wiser to give up the low-probability goal of "doing what you love." Most people, even in supposedly cool careers end up realizing it's still work. And worse, because it's a cool career, they can pay you poorly and treat you badly, knowing how many wannabes would love your job. That's why, for example, media outlets, nonprofits, etc. use so many volunteers and "interns." They thus evade even the minimum wage. In less "cool" but still contributory work, for example, working for a company that makes a product that provides excellent value for the money, you have a better chance of making a decent income and being treated fairly. So many people wait for their "dream career" and in the meantime, use up the best years of their lives, literally or metaphorically walking dogs.

Sara said...

Thanks for your reply. Interesting insights! I appreciate it and will check out the rest of your website.