“Limitless” by Laura Gassner Otting: A great read to get your life back on track

You know that nagging feeling you have, that you ought to be doing something different, or doing things differently? Laura Gassner Otting’s Limitless tells you what that’s about and what to do about it. It’s short, pointed, helpful, and well worth reading.

The full title of this book is Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life. And I have to start by admitting I hate the subtitle. It sounds like every self-serving self-help book already published. But get past that — this is the real deal.

What Laura (who is a friend, hence the first name) has done here is to tap into a fundamental misalignment in most of our work and lives. We pursue goals that other people set up for us. We achieve them. Then we feel empty because they were not really our goals. If you want your actual life goals and your work to line up, this book can help you do that.

There are five reasons it works.

First, the central idea is strong. That idea is “consonance.” To figure out if you have consonance, ask: Is what you do in perfect alignment with what matters to you, what makes you feel fulfilled, what gives you joy?

Of course not. But some of us are close, and others are way off. And the ones that are way off are often working their asses off and coming home each night feeling exhausted and wondering why they feel that emptiness in the pit of their souls. If you have even a little of that (and you do, admit it), this book is a good way to figure out what to do.

Second, it doesn’t just hit you over the head with that idea again and again — the structure of what follows is clear and actionable. Laura lays out four elements to pursue to gain consonance. These are “calling” — the thing that motivates you; “connection” — how your daily work connects you with the calling and the people who matter; “contribution” — how your work makes it possible for you to live well; and “control” — how much of your daily work you influence, and how much you don’t. Pursuing improvements in these four areas will help you attain the consonance you deserve.

Third, it’s full of great stories of people who succeeded (or failed and reset themselves) — diverse people of all types. There’s a bit of Laura’s story, too, but it’s not all about her. (Disclosure: the story of my career at Forrester is in here: p. 118). These stories don’t prove that this method works, but they help you to identify with people going through the same struggles you are.

Fourth, it’s well written. Laura is a sparkling writer — her personality comes across, and it’s completely engaging.

And finally, it actually includes a plan on what to do. The calling, connection, contribution, and control chapters include some ideas on what to do, the the last three chapters suggest ways to change your career, how you work, and how you define success. If you buy into the plan here, that’s just what you need to make things better.

A few nice tidbits from Limitless

When I read a book like this, I like to mark the best passages. There were a lot of dogears in my copy.

Here are a few:

This book begins with the premise that the only definition of success that counts is yours and yours alone — and that the only way to be truly limitless is to journey along your very own life’s path.

Books like Lean In . . . encourage us to follow one particular path: claw our way to the spotlight, wrangle the fast track, demand the big shot. . . . Well, leaning in may be a good path for many, but it isn’t the right path for all. [I like the way that Laura isn’t afraid to call out the false prophets that came before her.]

What gets in our way and stops us from living our best lives? It comes down to four insidious unreachable ideas — impossible goals set against the background of sunset-gazing, flower-crowned young women with perfectly beach-waved hair, lounging in a viral social media meme: passion, purpose, happiness, and balance. [After which, Laura describes exactly why those false goals have led so many of us astray.]

Those people who choose work based on a question focusing on the short-term action — how can I help — solve only short-term problems. . . . Obviously, the short-term problems still need to be solved . . . yet most of us are stuck, frustrated, and limited until we also eventually connect that work to the long-term solution. [Those] who feel more consonance (and less burnout) over time are asking a different question: What needs to happen?

Every day, I hear from up-and-coming superstars with big-ass goals. . . . I always listen for something else — that thing they keep buried deep inside, the whisper of the unspoken dream, that person whey would want to be if what they did contributed to who they secretly imagined they could become.

Autonomy matters. In fact, it matters so much that the degree to which you have control — over the work you do, the team with which you do it, and the projects on which you are engaged — has a direct impact on your performance at work.

“Fake it ’til ya make it” sucks.

Why this book resonated with me

I recognize that self-help books are not for everybody. This one is for a lot of people — it’s both sufficiently general to help a diverse set of people at different points in their careers, and sufficiently grounded and specific to give you a plan of action.

But to be honest, I liked it because looking back on my long career and life, the best decisions I made were due to consonance and resets just like the ones Laura describes.

I left the math Ph.D. program at MIT to become a technical writer. That was a great example of tossing off a goals I’d thought was perfectly suited to my abilities for something more rewarding (and scary).

I left my first wife for many of the same reasons.

I picked myself up after getting laid off and took a job as an analyst — very different from my burgeoning “management” career — because learning, writing, and working with smart people was attractive to me.

I nearly quit to write a book, because I needed to. Luckily my CEO allowed me to do that and keep my job.

I stopped being an analyst and became an idea coach at my company — even though I was at the top of my game as an analyst — because I wanted to share what I knew with others.

I quit a job after 20 years to go off on my own and work with authors, because that fit the lifestyle I wanted. And after four years, I have not ever regretted that.

Finally, I learned to be a better parent by accepting my children for who they were, rather than for who I imagined them to be.

All of these decisions made sense. I regret none of them. And they would have been a lot easier if I’d had this book to help me figure things out.

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