How being too self-less can hinder your success

Someone asked me this question recently and in responding to them I thoight it was something others might benefit from:


“I am told my hindrance to success is that I am selfless and care too much about others such that I sacrifice too much for others. So the proposal is that I learn to put myself first, and I don’t know how or if I know, it doesn’t sit well with the way do things. How does one get over this?”


Interesting question and one that does not have a simple answer. But perhaps I can share what has worked for me in this regard. I too was like that. I used to take on projects whenever I was asked because I did not want to disappoint anyone. As a result I would find myself overwhelmed with work and deadlines and being stressed over work that I neither enjoyed nor was getting much benefit from either in terms of finances nor experience. I realised this at some point and knew I needed to do something about it.

The first step for me was learning to say NO. Sounds easy, but when you are used to pleasing people and especially when you have built that reputation as the go-to guy that can be difficult. But with practice it can be done. In doing so I ask myself several questions:

  • Will I be able to commit enough time to this without being stressed?
  • Will this require me to learn something new that I do not have enough time to do?
  • Why is the person asking me to do this – are they incapable of doing t or simply want to slide it on to me?
  • Does this add to my own objectives in the short term or the long term?
  • Is this part of my core duties or outside of that? Will I be judged performance-wise based on this work or not?

Obviously the answer to these questions will vary but in answering them you should get a sense of whether to take something on or not. If it is likely to stress you a lot and require a lot of time that you do not have looking at your other commitments then best not to take it on. If the other person can do it well enough without your help then leave it to them. If it will not add to your bottom line financially or experience wise then perhaps best not to. You get the idea I am sure though the logic may vary depending on the task at hand.

It is best to be unemotional about such decisions because when we are emotional about them saying no or being objective can be hard. One way to do this is simply to decide to evaluate everyone who approaches you the same. Apply the same criteria to everyone. That way you will detach from the emotional side of the decision.

I had to reach a point where I decided to say no to everyone that comes along, explaining that I could not take the project on as I had no time in my current schedule. That way saying no became easier and it means that only those special cases that needed further consideration would get my attention and time. So in short, decide to say no to everyone, and let your yes be the exception. I am sure currently for you yes is the norm and no is the exception. Switch those two around and it will get easier.

Another thing I had to get over was the idea of being liked. Somehow I felt that if I refused to do something the other person would like me less, and then I would feel bad about myself if that happened. So I had to be confident in myself and not worry about what the other person thought of me. If they were genuine they would understand and it would not affect our relationship anyway. Often that is the case, most people will understand if the explanation is genuine and sincere.

Being in your situation partly comes about due to the fact that you are diligent and hardworking and thus able to deliver on tasks. Therefore people often call on you due to your dependable nature. But realise that the more work you take on and the more fatigued and stressed you become the less the quality of the work you will be producing, which in turn can harm that reputation that made you so sought after in the first place. Thus you need to take on just enough of what you can handle and no more in order to avoid burning out and being over-worked.

The final part about whether it add to your short term and long term objectives is critical. That is why having purpose on a personal level is important. I address this in the book I will be sharing with you (Destiny On Purpose) in great detail. The basic idea is that you should be clear on your purpose (and thus goals, objectives, etc.). In evaluating whether to do something judge it from that respective. How is it adding to your overall progress towards your personal objectives?

With this lens in your decision making it becomes easier to assess opportunities and to know which ones to grab and which ones to let go of. This has been by far my most valuable learning – that I need to be focused in order to be making progress. I might be busy but going nowhere – which happens when you take on too much.


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