My senior year of college, a professor asked us to write our goals of what we’d like to be doing in five and ten years. I came across the printout of my assignment a few years ago – complete with the holes still attached on the side from the dot-matrix printer. I had completely forgotten about it and was surprised to discover I had fulfilled most of those goals.
In fact, I was in a higher position with a higher salary than I had predicted 10 years before. But something happened to me about a decade out of school that changed my definition of success. I got to the top as I’d defined it years before and I realized I didn’t like it there. I was unhappy, depressed at times and unhealthy – and everybody around me seemed the same way.
A layoff at age 31 forced me to reevaluate my chosen career and when I looked around in my field, I couldn’t find anybody who I wanted to be like. There wasn’t a single person who was extraordinarily successful doing what I was doing whose life I wanted. It was time to create my own definition of success.
At July’s TED Global conference, Gen Xer Alain de Bolton highlighted how the modern definition of success is in need of a kinder, gentler approach. As de Bolton observes, self-help sections of bookstores are filled with books on how we can do anything if we just put our minds to it and, paradoxically, are also filled with what we can all do with the low self-esteem we have. De Bolton makes the claim that one follows the other in a society where “It’s easier than ever before to make a good living. It’s perhaps harder than ever before to stay calm, to be free of career anxiety.”
As a Gen Xer, I find people my age are less tolerant of this anxiety and more in demand of relief than our parents are. Our parents’ careers seemed to have a promise of success at the end if they could just “endure” the long days, time away from families and devotion to careers.
We Xers don’t trust that our companies will provide us any pot of gold at the end of our term of servitude and we’re more likely to bolt than endure. More gen Xers are deciding on their own idea of success and fulfillment tops the list for many, becoming more important than money or status.
Take my friend Matt, for instance. Matt was a successful attorney practicing at a large D.C. law firm and is defining success on his own terms. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 2001, Matt followed what he says was the “convenient & easy” path, working for a big D.C. law firm specializing in telecommunications. Firm life was never quite right for Matt and, like most of his coworkers, he was always looking at his next step.
Matt found his escape thanks to the economy making big law firms not such safe havens anymore. After Labor Day, he starts his new job at the Media Access Project, a DC-based non-profit where he’ll work on the same kind of communication policy issues. Matt felt successful for graduating from law school, yet he never quite signed onto the definition of success put forward by a lot of people at law firms. Eight years later, success looked different to him and he finally took a different path.
How do you define success for yourself? Does anybody else have a different expectation of success for you? If you were not born to whom you were born or didn’t have the friends you have or didn’t marry your spouse, how might that definition of success change? And how might it be different in the future?
Success is best achieved when you can define it and the best definition will be in pencil. Allowing your definition of success to shift as your priorities in life shift will help your success to grow as an extension of your true desires and an outlet for your passions.
Sounds like a pretty good way to pass the workday, doesn’t it?
Cheers to a successful week.
Jeanne Schad is a coach and founder of Internal Relations, an LA-based coaching firm that helps companies be successful by coaching their employees. She defines success as doing her life’s work, helping others do the same and having time to ride her bike to the beach with her husband. She can be reached at (310) 823-8607, @jeanneschad or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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