Design your own success: Why knowing what success means to you is vital for your career

Jun 02, 2023

Why understanding what success means to you is vital for your career

Success, is a term that permeates almost every aspect of our lives, and our personal and professional quests to be and do more. A term, and a state, that theoretically should bring joy to our lives, paradoxically it’s elusive and poorly defined nature often leads to the opposite. So what does success really mean? How does it feel to be successful? How do you know if you are successful? Why is success linked to our career wellbeing? And finally, what  can we do to define our own version of success?

What does success really mean?

Do you know? I know I don’t, nor do the academic community. Success is what we call an empty signifier – a word or a phrase, that means something generally but when you take a deep dive into what it is, coming up with a universal definition applicable to all is next to impossible. Putting that empty signifier into practice is even harder!!

So in the absence of knowing what success actually is, and given that most of us were offered no career guidance of note, we each go about, to the best of our ability, busily pursue it, often forgetting to ask ourselves the most fundamental of questions.

  1. How do we subjectively define success during this season of life?
  2. By what, and perhaps more importantly, whose standards, do we measure it by?
  3. And are we truly satisfied with the version of success we have carved (so far) in our personal and professional lives?

Admittedly, these are not easy questions and I hope that you bear with this article as your thoughts are challenged so that you, like so many of us (including me) can find a way to live life, while making a living.

Equally, you have done anything ‘wrong’ if you have not defined your own version of success. For many of us, we lead a life of busyness, of doing, going, coming and surviving. We are busy, overwhelmed, over scheduled, and we have never been thought the skills necessary to manage our careers, and personal life – and certainly never in such a way that success is crafted to become meaningful at the individual level.

The Influence of External Benchmarks

Our sources of inspiration, and the parameters of that success, are most often measured according to external benchmarks and societal expectations –guided by silent rules that operate to suggest that real success follows a pattern.

That pattern dictates that by a certain age, we should each have completed our journey through education, landed a prestigious job, climbed the corporate ladder, and amassed material possessions, found our life partner, and settle down.

This version so success is predicated upon the notion that everyone is neurotypical, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis gender, with children and works in a professional career, the aim of which is to pay a mortgage, buy a car and go on holidays. This type of success is often associated with a ruthless dedication to work, and to achieving more and more until you scale the highest heights of the ladder of life and your career.  

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this definition of success, but we must acknowledge the facts, that narrative is restricted in it’s focus on the outer indicators of success, the ones that are visible to others.  

It follows an age and stage model of success and career development is not alone restrictive, it fails to recognise, almost entirely, that success is a deeply personal and individual state that incorporates our aspirations, values, and wellbeing. Nor does it acknowledge that success is a dynamic, fluid and multifaceted concept, that changes across each season of life.  Success is not a fixed destination, that neatly maps onto our live ages and stage, but it is a deeply personal and ongoing experience – one that constantly evolves as we each travel through the various seasons of our lives. These rigid definitions of success are restrictive often holding us back rather than propelling us forward.

Success as a Personal and Evolving Experience

Understanding what success means to you, rather than relying on external validation, is not along crucial to your wellbeing but to your career wellbeing.

Coming to understand your personal definition of success is not a one and done event, it requires ongoing self-reflection.

  • It involves examine our values, passions, and aspirations.
  • Considering what truly matters to us and why?
  • What brings us a sense of fulfilment, meaning, and purpose?

In attempting to answer these questions, it becomes essential to peel back the layers of external influence and listen to our inner voices. As we do it becomes clear that while promotions, titles, or financial gains are important, they are not the only important markers of success.

It involves finding balance between our personal and professional lives, nurturing our physical and mental well-being, fostering meaningful connections, and pursuing a sense of purpose. More traditional notions of success are a product of societal expectations and result in comparisons to others – neither of which contribute to our overall wellbeing, or career wellbeing in a meaningful way.

Success, Wellbeing & Career Wellbeing

In fact, success, wellbeing, and career wellbeing are intrinsically linked. Sadly, the pressure to conform to societal ideals and achieve perfection in the pursuit of success erodes our overall sense of wellbeing.

The outcome the relentless pursuit of traditional versions of success often comes at the expense of our mental and physical health, leaving us stressed, burntout, and disconnected from ourselves and others. The accompanying belief that success must fit a predetermined mould only perpetuates a culture of perfection, that undermines our overall wellbeing and ultimately our career wellbeing.

To navigate this paradox, a more balanced and compassionate narrative in our workplaces, when we think about our careers, and when we determine success means to personally essential.

There is zero doubt that the task is hard, but core to starting to unravel the matrix, is a more realistic approach to what we each expectant of ourselves and others, it requires a tolerance for imperfections and failure, and must extend to a sense of entitlement to prioritise self-care and self-preservation during the different seasons of life. The greatest shift perhaps is to disconnect the notion of success and its synonymous connection with sacrifice and burnout. Imagine if success instead spoke to the idea of joy, fulfillment, and a sense of purpose – as well as the other types of success.

As this opinion article closes, challenge yourself and ask –

  1. What does success mean to me during this season of my life?
  2. If I am a leader do I know what success means to my team members during this season of their life?
  3. What’s the smallest thing I can do to take a deeper dive into success and it’s meaning to me and/or others on my team?

By designing your own version of success, embracing a more balanced perspective, and prioritising our wellbeing, it is possible to live life while making a living, and experience career wellbeing.   

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