Let’s Talk about Success, Baby
We need to talk about success.
People tend to think of it as the end result of a competition — a race with a finish line, and at the end of the finish line are wealth, power, and influence. In this view of success, there are winners and losers: not everyone will cross that finish line and some people will cross it sooner or faster than others. In other words, this success isn’t something that everyone can have, and some people must be more successful than others.
I see this definition of success as a dangerous trap for both businesses and individuals. Let me explain.
More and more, you hear stories of people who achieve what they think of as markers of success, only to find themselves thinking, “Is that all there is? This is what I busted my butt for?” or “Now what?” We all know people who have high-power jobs or great salaries but they’re miserable, overly stressed and unfulfilled. So why don’t they feel successful?
● Because if success is just defined a reaching a specific milestone, then you’re left with nothing to do after you get there.
● Because if success is just defined as just earning lots of money, then you’ll get trapped by the need to keep earning more.
● Because if success is just defined by artificial, external indicators that have been your primary focus, then there’s a good chance you’ve been neglecting your personal life and relationships.
People say success brings freedom, but that’s only true if you know what you want freedom from and what you’ll do once you have that freedom.
I say we need better language to talk about and define success, and explore this idea in the discussion below.
I learned the hard way that success is a very personal concept.
Two years ago, I was the person having the “Is this all there is?” moment.
I was working in a small but quickly growing company, and since I was one of the few who joined before the growing began, I was able to find a niche where I could grow and move up in the company. Initially I was motivated by my belief in the mission of the company and the feeling I got from seeing my direct contributions to the company’s success. As a naturally ambitious, people-pleasing go-getter, I saw my chance to become indispensable. Along the way, I received my share of incremental promotions, and frequent (but vague) promises of more to come. There was talk of me being on the COO track and of becoming a member of the inner leadership team, and that recognition of my increasing importance within the company was alluring.
But each time my status and salary increased, the workload and stress levels followed suit, year after year, promotion after promotion. I was working later and later evenings, and more and more weekends, and the downtime I had was often spent stressing or complaining about work. By all external measures, I was very successful: my bosses loved and trusted me, my team thrived under my supervision, and my colleagues saw me as a capable leader who got things done. But internally, I was miserable — miserable to the point of barely functioning, with clinical depression levels of burnout.
So what happened?
I realized that while I still believed in the company’s mission and felt I was making meaningful and significant contributions, I’d become most fixated on the pursuit of obtaining salary and status compensation to match the amount of stress and pressure I experienced. I’d lost agency to control my level of engagement with my work and control over my workload, so I had to rely on external factors as indicators of my success. And it made me miserable.
So I quit the job and took a few months to get my life and mental health back on track, and did some very serious introspection.
Of the many insights I had, none was more powerful than the realization that professional status, power, and authority were not important to me: attaining those things didn’t make me feel successful, even though it made others see me that way. I was miserable because I was failing in the aspects of life most important to me: being there for my family and friends, making time for my hobbies, taking care of my physical self (it turns out that sleep, exercise, and balanced meals really ARE important). I was miserable because I could no longer find satisfaction and fulfillment in my hard work.
I knew I had to redefine my own concept of success, and my new definition couldn’t just be based on the professional indicators. To truly feel successful, I needed to experience joy and achievement in all aspects of my life, and set some clear priorities and goals. And I set out to do just that.
If success isn’t only defined by status, power, and money, then what does it mean to be successful, and how do you know when you’re there?
It all comes down to having a clear picture of what success looks like for you. Think about the times in your life you have felt like your best, true self. Ask yourself:
● What do you value most in life?
● What makes you happy?
● How do you like to spend your time?
This is going to be different for everyone, and it is likely going to change over time. But once you have that picture, once you define your success indicators, you will be less susceptible to falling into the status, power, and money trap.
Now, I’m not naïve: I acknowledge that money is an important factor in success. We all need a base level of income to remain healthy and safe in order to thrive, and most of us likely need disposable income to afford the things that make us happiest. But there’s a caveat: money is important as a means to an end, and not the end itself. Our culture is full of stories of people who were laser focused on amassing as much money as possible, only to find themselves with no time, no hobbies, and no loved ones to enjoy it with.
When it comes to money, I strongly believe in the concept of enough: what is the minimum you need to earn in order to meet your definition of success. I work to make sure I achieve that minimum, and anything beyond that is gravy.
My personal definition of success includes:
- Spending quality with the people I love most.
- Being creative in my work.
- Helping others to accomplish their visions.
- Having control over my schedule, workload, and stress level.
- Being able to take exciting vacations all over the world.
These specific indicators have been critical for me as I’ve built my business. They are my guideposts and centering principles. Whenever I feel too stressed or like I’m being pulled toward the status, power, and money trap, I remind myself of my success definition, and refocus my efforts.
The refocusing part is important, because chances are you’ll have to remind yourself of your success indicators often. Every time you talk to someone or read about others’ goals and vision for success, it’s human nature to compare yourself to their standards and feel like you aren’t measuring up. But if you have a clear picture of what success looks like to you, you can recognize and turn off that line of thinking, and get back to your own journey.
I help people who do good work be able to work even better! This means working with small businesses and nonprofits to develop thoughtful, personalized, and practical solutions to pressing workplace challenge.
After nearly two decades of project and operations management for government contractors, academia, associations, and advocacy organizations, I realized I had cultivated a unique skill set that could help small and growing organizations build reliable and sustainable operations infrastructures. Better operations make workplaces happier, more productive, less stressful, and more financially sound!