Do you find your goals and interests in self-improvement result in people disliking you? A friend and reader of this blog recently wrote to me that he felt personal development had made him a “square”. Although he had made tremendous improvements with his habits and personal life, he felt that his new beliefs and habits made him less fun and easygoing with his friends.
I think, especially for people that are already somewhat introverted, setting ambitious goals can make them less social. People around them start to see them as being too serious, hardcore and less fun. Somehow early rising and following GTD productivity hacks doesn’t make them the life of the party.
Why Typical Advice on this Problem is Wrong
I suffered from this problem too, when I first got into personal development. My social skills weren’t polished, and that was compounded by my overly serious self-improvement efforts. I think I actually got the label “most serious” in one high school year book. Not exactly a crowning achievement, but looking back it was probably accurate.
Unfortunately, most the advice I heard from this problem made it worse. The advice was that you needed to express your personality fully in your social life. So if you were setting ambitious goals, you needed to express that. If you were working on changing your habits, you needed that to be reflected in your personality. And, if people didn’t support you, then ignore them.
While this advice is technically accurate, in application it results in a disaster. If you don’t have great social skills, following this advice blindly makes you appear unbearably serious and humorless. People can’t relate to your goals and your actions, so they appear extreme.
Don’t Be a One-Dimensional Person
The problem isn’t that you shouldn’t tell people about your goals. Or even that you should hide away whenever doing anything eccentric or unique. I’ve found this often makes the problem worse, because you’ve wiped away your true personality and become boring. Let people hate you for being interesting, not for being forgettably generic.
The problem is that, often in pursuing new, ambitious goals, you let those goals overwhelm your personality. Now instead of having them be just one aspect of a multifaceted person, you’re one dimensional. Instead of allowing yourself to be fun, relaxed and ambitious, you’ve let one adjective define you.
To Be At Once Serious and Self-Mocking
Ben Casnocha has a great entry  that inspired this post. He talks about how many ambitious people are unbearable in conversations because they are too serious. This is a bad strategy, both for your life and your ambitions. Because you need other people to succeed, being too serious and one-dimensional hurts your chances of success. He suggests that you need to combine ambition with taking yourself lightly.
You need to be the kind of person who can work extremely hard for personal goals, but still have a sense of humor in private conversations.
How to be Ambitious and Fun, Simultaneously
Today, I feel I’ve learned to manage a balance between being highly ambitious and also fun and unserious in conversations. Although I tend to emphasize the first part of my personality on this website, I would say most of my friends know me for the latter.
The key to being both ambitious and fun was in two realizations for myself:
First, that just because you are light and self-mocking in person doesn’t mean you are any less committed to your goals. I think some people put on an extra serious front, as if having fun were somehow a sin that would prevent them from reaching their goals.
Being relaxed in casual conversation complements deeper ambitions. Being able to joke about yourself and be unserious shows people you’re a multidimensional person. It doesn’t mean you’re hiding your true ambitions.
Second, work to relate your ambitions and goals to other people. Part of the problem for me was that I didn’t have enough practice relating my motivations for pursuing these goals to other people. This takes practice because, if someone hasn’t had the same experiences as you, they may find it strange that you’re investing so much time into changing your habits, giving up drinking or learning to speak in public.
Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
Being highly motivated is just one state of mind. There are times when it has power, like in dragging yourself to the gym or getting you to work on a new project. But there are also times when it has costs. If you only have one state of mind to approach all situations you’ll either be unbearable in conversations or unproductive at work.