“What is your definition of success?” I asked Trevor, a college graduate sitting on the other side of my desk, dressed sharply and demonstrating professionalism that any hiring manager would be deliberately observing in an interview. He looked at me while thinking hard for a good answer and finally said, “Huh …hmmmm…I never thought about what my definition of success is.” Trevor then looked at the floor, still trying to come up with a good answer, but his facial expression reflected how stumped he was.
I redirected the discussion and asked, “Where do you see yourself in three years?” Again, he drew a blank and again responded with, “Hmmmm…I’ve never thought about what I wanted to do in the future.” Then he added, “But whatever I do, I hope I will be successful!”
This young man was sitting across from me at the start of his career, and although he could not define success, he wanted to be successful.
I have always been fascinated by how others define success, and I ask this question all the time out of curiosity. As you can imagine, I get many answers. They range from “When I own a big black GM truck, I will feel successful!” to “Feeling excited to go to work on an early Monday morning.”
The Challenge of Success
The challenge, I find, is not only people feeling confused or not taking the time early in life to reflect and define success, but the tendency to directly link it to their sense of identity while also being trapped by what their community and the world define for them as successful. They get stuck in that definition and end up harshly judging themselves if they do not meet those high internal and external expectations for success. The worst limitation of all is when they resist changing direction later in life because they worry that it will be interpreted as failure.
Sandy, a mid-level manager in her late thirties, burst into tears in our first coaching session. “I did everything I believed would make me successful and also everything that I was told would make me successful,” her tears running down her face. “I graduated from college, got my master’s degree, worked for prestigious companies, got married, and gave birth to two beautiful healthy girls. My husband and I have a nice home, beautiful cars, and good-paying jobs. I’ve reached the goals I’ve set for myself, but for some reason, I do not feel satisfied or successful. I do not know what to do, I feel lost, and I keep wondering what is wrong with me?”
What Sandy and many others like her feel is a totally normal experience. However, they do not realize that in their mid-career years and beyond, after achieving so much, they may find themselves lost, with a need to evolve their definition of success as they are evolving personally and professionally. They feel trapped in their deep desire for success. They view success as a fixed target, but in reality, it is definitely not fixed. Instead, it is a reflection of each of our souls, and is constantly growing and changing with us. We are different today than we were ten, five, or even one year ago. Just as we change, so do our desires and aspirations. In Sandy’s situation, she was looking for meaning in her life, which is beyond the boundaries of success that she had set for herself early in life.
The Solution to Finding Success
The solution is to give ourselves permission to evolve and to be okay with feeling lost at times. Whether we are early in our career like Trevor, mid-career like Sandy, or beyond, what matters is creating a mindset shift from a state of constant self-judgment to a state of self-discovery and a search for meaning in life.
Be curious, take the time to learn about your passions, and then develop the skills needed to eventually shift direction. Delve into this beautiful chaos with an open mind, and be open to finding new opportunities and contacts that will expand your mind to exciting possibilities.
Over the years, I have stopped asking others about their definition of success; it is too fixed, limiting, and influenced by external factors and expectations. It is a trap. Instead, I am now more curious about their definition of a meaningful life, and what journey of transformation they desire to experience.
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