My client, Marc, and I had been working together for almost a year as he grew his business from an idea into a thriving consulting practice. At the start of every coaching conversation, I’d ask him for the agenda. This week’s was a surprise. “I don’t think I want to be a success.”
I didn’t overreact and bonk him on the head with everything he told me he wanted to create and how far he’d come. Instead, I invited him to unpack the agenda a bit. Clearly I was missing something.
“Tell me more.”
It turned out that he was at a conference the week before where everyone and their grandmother was asking him about his growth plans. When would he contract out some of the work, hire other employees, expand his offering? The pressure was enormous, but it’s pressure that turns a stone into a diamond.
Marc was clearer than ever.
“I left my corporate position because I was traveling non-stop and wanted to be there for my girls and my wife. I don’t want to create the next generation of the Firm I just left; I want to do work I love and create a robust life that’s well funded. That’s it.”
Aha! Marc’s definition of success was not the same as the other conference-goers who were primarily focused on expansion. Marc, on the other hand, was in it for the satisfaction.
Climbing the Ladder of Success
Most people want to get ahead and climb higher as if somehow, once they reach the right level, everything will fall into place.
I once had a client who told me that he was willing to sacrifice his family time now and make work his top priority so when his little kids are older, he’d already be a success, at the top of the org chart, and be able to have the time for them. It doesn’t work that way.
When I was promoted to VP, I didn’t have more time than when I was a manager. Title doesn’t equate to flexibility to live your life. Yes, I could work from home more easily but beyond that, work was go-go-go 24/7. If anything, I saw my family less and was on the road more.
There Is No Ladder of Satisfaction to Climb
For some, success is something that’s only recognized from the outside looking in at your title and accomplishments. Satisfaction is an inner game.
Marc realized that for him, bigger wasn’t better. He valued saying no to work that was out of his sweet spot, working with clients he loved and feeling stretched. He didn’t need CEO, SVP or Director of Awesomeness on his business card to do that.
Small business isn’t right for everyone, but the Success v. Satisfaction concept still applies even if you’re working within an organization.
Which statements resonate with you?
You feel great about your day-to-day work.
You are paid well but hate your day-to-day work.
You love your colleagues.
You hate your colleagues but just got a promotion, so it doesn’t matter.
Your boss hints that if you kick up your hours, good things are ahead.
You coach your child’s baseball team.
You go on amazing long vacations.
You go on luxury long weekends because you would never take off for a week.
You don’t long for something more.
You’re invited to the senior leadership team meeting.
You end every day with two Advil and a beer (or wine)
You sleep well.
You get to represent your boss on important conference calls.
You are trusted with a client relationship.
You lead a large team.
You make a difference to others daily.
You are viewed by others as a leader by virtue of your title.
You are a leader with your influence, confidence, and creativity.
Satisfaction is subjective and so is success. Yes, if you ask ten people for the definition of career success, a similar picture may emerge, but satisfaction is deeply personal. Only you know what makes you feel truly satisfied. Forget success in isolation, it’s time to reframe the conversation giving full weight to satisfaction.
It’s scary to think about making a change when you’ve been on the climb for years. It’s what you know. It makes sense, and everyone you know is doing it. It’s also easy to let other’s view of success become your own and not notice when your individual thinking becomes group-think.
Let’s drop the idea that the top of a ladder is the ultimate achievement in life. Imagine that when you get to the top you notice the ocean of possibilities that would bring you great personal satisfaction. You don’t have to wait – you can dive in now and have career success.
Much like the work-life balance conversation, it’s time openly have the satisfaction-success conversation with yourself and with others. Be brave enough to discover and own your answers to create a life of meaning and let go of achievement that’s measured exclusively on someone else’s scale.
What are you willing to tolerate? What are you willing to choose? What tradeoffs are you willing to make?
How do you define success?