Redefining Success in Our Post-Careerist Culture

Nearly every week a new survey appears showing how stressed out workers are today. The damage is visible in its negative impact upon mental health, increased risk of disease and death, lower worker productivity and a range of other harmful consequences. One recent survey found that 83 percent of all workers report stress. That includes people of all ages, baby boomers to Millennials. The sources cited include too much work, insufficient pay, not enough time for rest or sleep, too little leisure time, co-worker conflicts and general work-life imbalance.

But most of those sources have a deeper origin that the surveys and research don't tap into. Major changes in our society and world have created a "new normal" of continuous turmoil and disruption. This new environment is pushing both organizations and workers to redefine success beyond the long-prevailing rewards of money, power and position; and towards criteria less focused on self-interest but more adaptive to living and working within what is now a "post-careerist" culture. Much current stress reflects the strain of this growing transition. It's inevitable and necessary.

That is, many men and women, along with the leadership of companies they work for, are already redefining success. The emerging criteria include having meaningful, visible impact through one's work; a company that supports people's continuous learning, expanding their capacities and creative contributions. Redefining success for organizations is reflected in a management culture promoting innovation, collaboration, and transparency; that attracts and retains people who look for that environment. It's also reflected in sustaining success within a fluid technological and economic environment, through serving the many stakeholders on whom success depends.

In short, this evolving redefinition of personal success meshes with organizational practices that promote long-term business success. In those companies, the norms are collaborative engagement, support for innovation and commitment to having impact on something larger than just your own advancement. You can find good examples of this mesh in many of the interviews Adam Bryant conducts for the New York Times with CEOs of innovative companies.

What Drives The Need To Redefine Success?

Most people realize that we now live and work in an era of rapid transformation in technology, networking and globalized communications. It's the "FTY era" -- of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It's coincided with the rise of the Gen-X, Gen-Y and the Millennium generations within the workplace. The younger generations look for immediate feedback loops in both their social and work lives. They expect that transparent, honest feedback will filter out the best ideas and people, as entrepreneur Michael Fertik has written. They expect to work harder and to be paid less at first; and they're hungry to develop marketable skills and a trajectory for their careers.

Doing all that effectively is success to them. But it requires workplaces that support their orientation and mentality. Consequently, many of the visible forms of stress reported by the surveys are a reaction against the absence of such a work culture or worse: those serving only the older, narrow pursuit of self-interest and material success. That old view is increasingly disconnected from the realities of what works in our post-careerist culture. It's disconnected from the motives and orientation of younger generations but also from the baby boomers and older Gen X workers as well.

That is, the management and leadership cultures of many organizations remain stuck in a 20th century mentality of top-down, "command and control," position-based authority. Lack of communication and openness; inadequate support for learning, collaboration or teamwork are typical. And management behavior that includes abuse, hostility or arrogance exacerbate the above. For example, the older mindset creates significant boredom from lack of mesh between people's capacities and organizational limitations upon utilizing. Moreover, some suffer under non-responsive, unsupportive managers; or those who are outright abusive, arrogant or narcissistic.

A survey of 2000 workers found 47 percent of those surveyed said their managers made them feel threatened, rather than rewarded; and 24 percent thought their bosses were poor communicators and lacked empathy. That's counterproductive and destructive for performance. Other research confirms that demoralization rises when work isn't very engaging; or when opportunities for continued growth and expanding competencies are limited or blocked. Such environments don't provide the flexibility, skill-based recognition and transparency that companies need to sustain success in today's world.

Men and women who are creating a new definition of success embody what I've called the 4.0 career orientation. Interestingly, it's an evolution beyond seeking personal meaning and self-development through work, the focus of many in the last couple of decades. The 4.0 view of success includes those, but extends beyond them to have impact on something larger than oneself; and seeing a connection between one's work and its contribution to a product or service that's socially useful and adds value to the human community.

Their perspective about success includes ability to keep up with rapid change, an innovative mindset, thriving on flux and unpredictability, and embracing -- even enjoying -- instability. They look for companies that are in sync with their values and perspectives. This view is reflected in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's statement that "We don't build services to make money; we make money to build better services." And, that some don't grasp "...the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.''

Redefining success includes being both highly competitive and collaborative at the same time; comfortable with rapid change and unpredictability but impatient with old-style, position-based authority vs. authority from actual contribution and creative output. As Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen has pointed out, successful people in the above sense believe that an idea "...either works or doesn't work." They're not impressed by appearance or attempts to dazzle without substance.

The redefinition of success is also visible in movements to create successful businesses that also contribute to the solution of social problems, as Richard Branson and other business leaders have described. For example, Oxford University's Colin Mayer has called for redefining the purpose of the corporation, so that public companies can better serve the needs of society, including their stakeholders, rather than just their shareholders.

These shifts towards redefining success are consistent with studies that show, for example, that humble leaders are more highly effective than those who are egocentric. The latter are more associated with a self-focused view: their own success and importance. Similarly, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, reported in Slate, finds that productivity rises in the presence of good bosses who support learning and growth. And, new research finds that happy workers have nearly 40 percent higher productivity and creativity than less happy workers, according to new research.

Overall, a company in tune with this emerging redefinition of success will ensure that its products, services and brands support maximum flourishing for customers, workers and society. As Dov Seidman points out, it's marked by high degrees of transparency, interconnection and interdependency. Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, illustrates this environment as well, saying, "We always try to ask whether a particular policy exists because it's a default piece of corporate stupidity that everyone expects you to have, or does it actually help you accomplish something? And very often you realize that you don't really know why you're doing it this way, so we just stop doing it."

To summarize, some of the new criteria include success at:

  • Building, contributing, and innovating so as to benefit people and institutions for the long run, not only oneself or one's allies.
  • Serving the common good, something larger than just your own needs and desires.
  • Personal growth of your capacity for empathy, compassion, self-awareness; and harnessing the self-centeredness that's part of being human.
  • Strengthening your mental capacities for flexibility, openness, nimbleness, and making productive connections with others.
  • Being collaborative, non-defensive, informal, and engaged as a team member who's focused on the objectives or mission, rather than self-promoting at others' expense.

Redefining success in today's workplace, then, is less characterized by self-interest alone, and more by expanding one's capacities and impact through support and contribution to the larger effort or mission. It's marked by moving beyond extracting value just for yourself, to contributing value.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at To learn more about him, click here.