Lately I’ve found myself thinking about my career. About goals, trajectory, progression. About talking to the right people, asking the right questions, developing the right relationships. About bosses, mentors, and friends. Most importantly: about success.
A while back I overheard a conversation at work. The focus of the conversation was success and how to present something as being successful even though it wasn’t lucrative. The challenge was to portray whatever it was that my colleagues were discussing as a success even though it didn’t turn a profit at the end of the day. At the time I thought nothing of it. In the world that we live in, the first S in $uccess has a line drawn through it. However in retrospect this fascinates me. Of course something can be successful even if it didn’t make any money, right? This question lead to further introspection about what I think of as success and brought me back to the beginning of this post where I shared thoughts I’d been having about my career. You’ll remember that they regard upward mobility and ignore any mention of enjoying what I do. This will become relevant later.
Throughout my upbringing I’d learned through anecdotes from family, friends, and teachers to define success (or a successful person) as someone who is exceptional at their career and as such has wealth and power. To be honest, you can probably scratch “exceptional at their career” from the definition. “Power” is also optional. All truths told, it had been ingrained in my mind that being successful means having money. Plain and simple if you drive a Mercedes, tote designer labels, and summer anywhere other than where you live, you’re a success. What is missing from that last description is any inkling of a job description or any insinuation of work at all. All that I’ve demonstrated are the fruits of your labor and although they might cost most people an arm and a leg, they alone aren’t necessarily an indication of success.
At least not as success as I would define it.
Yes, financial stability is great. And yes, being more than financially stable and as such having the ability to enjoy the finer things in life is wonderful. But what about the first part of my original definition, “someone who is exceptional at their career,”? I personally think this is the greatest indicator of success, yet to the outside world all that we seem to care about is the car they drive or the price tag on their home. The perpetuation of the idea that money alone indicates success is dangerous and if it continues I argue that it will become fatal to our society.
I’m going to take a step back now. Imagine you’re sitting at your college orientation and getting ready to make your schedule for your first semester of classes. You hope to one day land a career that lends itself to success and so you think that means business. You look into the requirements to get into the undergraduate business program at your college or university and you sign up for the necessary math and economics courses. Taking another step back, you remember that you hate math. You struggled with it through all of high school and it made your life a living hell. But if math is what it takes to become successful, maybe college will be different. Maybe you’ll come to embrace the barely legible paper that you decorated with crossed out equations and maybe a few tears. Maybe your TI-83 Scientific Calculator will be the best and lifelong friend you always hoped to make during your freshman year.
In my case neither was true. And as a lefty, smudge marks only added insult to injury.
Nevertheless I trudged on in the hopes of acceptance into the prestigious business program at my university because that’s what I thought it took to be successful. Alas, I failed the calculus course required for acceptance into the program and had to reevaluate what I wanted to select as my major. At this point I found this to be, and was dramatic enough to believe, that this was the equivalent of reevaluating my entire life and future. “Why even bother? I don’t stand a shot of leading any kind of successful life anymore. I might as well drop out.” I should have majored in making mountains out of molehills. Looking back now, this reevaluation may have been one of the biggest blessings I’ve ever received.
The most important part of this story is that I only wanted acceptance into the business program because I thought that it would make me successful. I hated one of it’s main components and had a neutral opinion towards the rest. There is no way that had I continued down that road I would have been happy in any career that it lead me to. Further, I would never have been able to be truly exceptional in a career that I at at best was not excited about and at worst completely and utterly loathed.
The danger of my original definition of success is that so many others within my generation share it. However unlike me they may not have received a wakeup call to pursue a passion instead of looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If we continue to spell success staring and ending in dollar signs we are dooming ourselves to be exceptionally average. And so I give you a new definition, a definition that I hope inspires a new attitude around what it means to succeed.
(1) A person is a success if he or she is passionate about their work and in turn generates exceptional results. (2) A person is a success if they love what they do and find happiness through doing it.
It is people who pursue dreams instead of dollars that are groundbreaking thinkers and inspiring entrepreneurs. I aspire to reach the top level of my industry and have a career that is a true force to be reckoned with. I want to make an impact and leave a lasting impression. To achieve these goals, first and foremost, I have to love and find a sense of fulfillment in what I do.
I’m happy to report that I’m on my way.