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Making the case for sustainable success
What does lasting, fulfilling success look like for you?
How do we measure professional success? And is the opposite of success failing? I believe the answer is: It depends.
It depends on you. On me. On mindset. Following someone else’s definition of success, or creating our own, is the make-or-break to actually being successful.
Today’s standard definition is achieving a set goal set by a group’s common understanding of success – and reaping the rewards. Those often include money, status, accolades, awards, or influence, all of which are impossible without existing within our professional community, with others judging and measuring our actions and achievements.
We grow up with the belief that success is as much about external validation as it is about achieving something (for yourself? for others? who knows anymore).
But hanging onto that belief prevents us from achieving sustainable* success – and makes us miserable in the process.
[*sustainable as in lasting, healthy, balanced with internal and external needs.]
If our success is measured in comparison to everyone else’s, and needs others’ recognition and validation to become real, we’re screwed.
Beyond that, social media has turned success into a primary life goal. It’s no longer enough to make money to sustain your lifestyle. You need to be seen achieving something big in order to be viewed as successful. It’s interdependent with status.
The catch is that there will always be someone who has better skills, better connections, more seed money, better ideas, or more follow-through.
So what is sustainable success – and why should we want it?
A look at my Linkedin feed tells me that Tom published another article with a gazillion likes and half as many comments. Lea just got promoted and is featured in Business Insider. My former team member Katherine just went freelance and is booked solid for the next months.
It’s 9:17 am and I’m already feeling lacking.
“I’m also freelance, but the year has been super slow, like many freelance peers this year.”
“I’m a senior full-time employee, an expert in my field, but no one outside my team likes my posts.”
“Am I not successful…?”
I’ve spoken with many talented professionals over the past years, some embarking on their freelance journeys, others working their way to a team lead or management position. And all of them shared some version of this scenario.
The common theme that connects them all is how to feel confident and successful in a world in which external validation, competition, and personal PR are the key measures of success. And it’s precisely what a more sustainable, lasting, and healthy relationship with success looks like.
When I think of sustainable success, I want to explore my own version of it. I am drawn to the idea that we can design our own careers and lives. I welcome the increasing openness toward non-linear career paths (which, depending on your industry, is more or less accepted within the system you work in).
As my own concept of success continues to take shape, I’ve learned some things I’d like to share with you, in the hopes that they might help you, too.
Define success in states of being, not positions
When I stopped measuring myself in terms of “that full-time role” or being an “expert in my field”, I stepped out of the success-failure either-or mindset. I began seeking answers to the question “What does success feel like for me?”.
Everyone seeks some form of flexibility, financial freedom, stability or respect (from others). But it opens a completely new perspective when you go deeper and look at what you want your days to look like, what people you want to surround yourself with, where you pull energy and inspiration from, or what spaces you want to contribute to.
Success is a book of short stories
One trap is thinking in a single linear career trajectory. We miss out on surprising opportunities that, at first glance, may seem not part of the plan if we stick to a single path.
“Everyone knows me as the xyz expert, I can’t stop doing that without loosing credibility?!”
Contrary to the advice of creating a cohesive story for your career, with a clear motivation and purpose, we should remember that our careers are not novels. Our experiences shape us – and may completely alter our career paths if we allow ourselves to think outside the box. I strongly believe that the narratives we tell ourselves can turn into obstacles if we let them become who we are, instead of just being a tool.
Find your tribes
Connect with people you share a mindset with. Collaborators and peers are like journey mates. They can inspire, understand, and support you when things feel fuzzy. But we need to accept that everyone is on their own career adventure, and sometimes paths move in different directions. If that happens, don’t judge or be resentful. Everyone follows their own success stories and evolves at to their own pace. And, who knows, your paths might cross again.
I’ve had many more insights along the way, and I’m sure I’ll have many more aha-moments in the future, but I find myself circling back to these three on a regular basis – mainly as a reminder to myself.
So, as you ponder your own success and embark on living that story, know that it sometimes means realizing it’s not a fit when you’ve already put in the hard work to achieve it. On my own career path, I worked toward and was fortunate to achieve different versions of success. Each time I had climbed my mountain and reached my goal, I realized that success was not my idea of success, but just the generally accepted version of it I had blindly adopted. And that’s ok. I reflected, tried to understand, and went off looking for my next mountain (or hill or lake).
The case for creating your own sustainable success lies in building a professional space that supports your individual development. It’s about despairing less often when you see others realize their own versions of success. Ultimately, creating your own version of success builds your confidence. And opportunities are like bees: They swarm to the sweet nectar of a confident person.
The Brain Itch is a thoughtful exploration into the ideas, strategies, and practices that help us build successful businesses and careers.