Career Success: What does it really mean and how to design your own version of success

Jun 13, 2023
Picture of Sinead Brady signing her first book called Total Reset.

Career Success: Find out what it means to you...

Success is a loaded, layered, and complex term; that most of us are ambitious to achieve, of that, there is no doubt.

How do you define success?

But what if I asked you to define success? What would you say? What would your definition be? Has that definition changed over time? Is your definition different from that of your friends, partner, family, or colleagues? If you cast a wider net and asked people older and younger than you, or those living in a different part of the world, about their definition of success, what differences, if any, would there be within, between, and across those definitions?

These are not easy questions to answer. But they are thought-provoking and require a challenging level of self-reflection. In any case, success is not something we contemplate on a day-to-day basis. In fact, when was the last time you specifically thought about your own version of success?

Yet, I am guessing that if you are reading this blog post, success matters to you. It is important to feel and be successful. At the end of your life, you would like to look back and admire your success.

But what exactly does success and being successful mean to you? Is it personal or professional or both? Does it refer to a job title, increasing wealth, and promotions. Is it more about work life balance and having time to spend with people who make you smile? Or does success sit at the messy intersection of both?

My Personal Story 

The picture accompanying this post shows me signing a copy of Total Reset, at the launch party for my family and closest friends. When I was a little girl reading books by the light of the moon, success looked like becoming an author. I have always loved words, and sat in awe of their power. Now almost 30 years later, with my first book in hand, I don't necessarily feel successful because I am an author. Yes, I am proud. Yes, it is a momentous moment. Yes, I get a thrill out of seeing Total Reset on book shelves and in the hands of people. But does it make me feel successful? I am not sure, if on it's own becoming an author means success. It is part of the reason I feel successful but not all of the reason. Which brings me to a deeper dive about success.

More questions than answers

If you are struggling to find answers, you are not alone. Based on my work with thousands of individuals, hundreds of organizations, and through academic research, I can tell you that success is not easy to understand, let alone define.

Success is one of those words, like culture, leadership, wellness, and career, that we often think about individually. However, when it comes to truly understanding and defining them, these terms become more obscure and multifaceted the more we try to answer them.

For that reason, researchers from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, politics, and sociology coined a term to refer to commonly used terms like ‘success’, ‘wellness’, ‘leadership’, ‘professional growth’, ‘work-life balance’, ‘company culture’, and ‘job satisfaction’, to help us grasp their meanings. The term they use is "empty signifiers."

What is an empty signifier?

An 'empty signifier', in layperson's terms, is a word without a universal, clear definition. While we each use these terms, we don’t really understand what they mean to us, or indeed to others. We can hazard a guess and come up with some sort of high level explanation, but at the more granular level, what does success actually mean?

In the absence of time to sit and think, we (tend to) fill these terms with our unique interpretations, each one influenced by our context, beliefs, societal norms, and wider political ideologies.

The fluidity of these terms often leads to ambiguity, misunderstanding, and undue pressure, as many of us feel compelled to follow a more conventional or externally sourced version of what we think success is.

Knowledge is power.

Part of navigating this complex situation, in which many of us feel stuck, is to gain knowledge that leads to understanding. Success, like any other empty signifier, is an umbrella term that encompasses your actions, behaviours, and thoughts. If you consider your life as the container, then you notice that the template for success is not one-size-fits-all; rather, it offers multiple signposts for you to refine and personalise it for yourself, as you travel through the different seasons of life.  

The Two Faces of Career Success.

Empty signifiers have two faces: objective and subjective. When it comes to success, they are referred to as Objective Career Success (OCS) and Subjective Career Success (SCS).

OCS relates to the more observable and traditional measures of career success, such as promotions, salary increases, bonuses, job titles, hierarchical position, job stability, career advancement, and industry awards. These are the parameters of success that people usually agree upon.

On the other hand, Subjective Career Success (SCS) is a more nuanced and personal conversation. For some, it is a sense of career fulfilment experienced when working in a role that aligns with personal values and interests. Job satisfaction, contentment, and work-life balance are central to overall success for many individuals. Others value the opportunity for personal and professional growth, while some prioritize wealth accumulation.

Both lists are virtually endless and vary depending on the person. However, what remains unchanged is the fact that people worldwide define success using different terms, depending on their industry, organization, role, title, individual preferences, and the stage of life they are in.

What is of particular note, in terms of success, is a piece of meta-analytical research by Spurk et al (2019) that shows an almost zero correlation (measure of the relationship between two items) between measures OCS and SCS. This means that OCS does not predict SCS and the relationship between the two is not casual. In short, experiencing OCS without simultaneously experiencing SCS is not enough. We, as humans, need to experience OCS and SCS, not one or the other.

What does that mean for you and your version of success?

This means there is no right or wrong way to achieve or perform success; there is only your way. While there may be a broader socio-cultural narrative suggesting to you, and others, what success should be, unless meaningful to you, they blend into mishmash of things that leave you feeling a lack of engagement!

In short, empty signifiers are terms that we all use, but as we delve deeper into what we mean by those terms, it becomes apparent that the concept is more complex and complicated than initially thought.

The answer to your definition of success during this stage of life lies entirely with you. Only you have the answers regarding what success means to you now, and only you can engage in the self-reflection required to consider how you've defined success thus far and how you will design it in your future. This is the part that is not yet done, still to come.

As you contemplate this, remember history is a great teacher but not always a great leader. So, as you make the decision to design your own version of success by delving into the world of empty signifiers, activate your permission mindset. Grant yourself permission to design your own version of success for the future version of you, using the past as information to inform that choice. Remember, if you don't, design your own version of success, someone else will, and you may not like their version.

Academic Texts Referenced:

McDonald (2008) The Next Generation of Career Success: Implications for HRD

Spurk et al. Objective Versus Subjective Career Success

Hirschi, A., Zacher, H., & Shockley, K. M. (2019). Whole-life career self-management: A conceptual framework. Journal of Career Development.


Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.