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Is Your Definition of Success Killing You?

Please stay on the path sign

Photo by Mark Duffel on Unsplash

A couple weeks ago, I sat across from a smart, talented, accomplished woman who said, “I thought I wanted to climb the corporate ladder so I could make money. And then I did. Turns out, money doesn’t buy you happiness.” She was on "the path to success." She followed all the rules about working hard and getting a good job, and where it got her was on medical disability due to stress.

This week, I sat across from a smart, talented, accomplished woman who hates her job and is staying only because the loans she took out to pay for school won’t be paid off for at least another three years. The way she sees it, she can’t afford to do anything different. But her body might not be able to take it as she’s already suffering physical effects from stress.

In the past year, probably 90 percent of the people I’ve worked with have suffered significant adverse effects on their life and health due to workplace stress. And in some cases, the stress and health consequences were so severe that they were life threatening.

What in the hell are we doing to ourselves?

The vast majority of employees don’t like their jobs, according to a Gallup poll, yet they stay, either because they don’t know what else to do or are banking on their retirement to make it all worth it.

News alert. It’s not worth it.

According to Jeffrey Pfeffer in his book, Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do About It, 120,000 deaths a year (in the U.S.) could be attributed to work environments, not to mention the healthcare costs, estimated at $180 billion.

Here’s the question I have: Why would any company helping to pay for your health insurance benefits ask you to sacrifice your health for the bottom line? It seems … backasswards.

I’m calling BS on any definition of “success” that requires you to sacrifice your long-term health.

Why do we accept that work is a place that causes stress to the detriment of our health as “just the way it is”?

It’s time to redefine what success means and what it looks like. And by “we,” I mean that I get to define it for myself and you get to define it for yourself.

As a country, raised on the Protestant work ethic and the ideal that if you work hard enough you can become anything you want, we have trouble shucking our cultural story. We might nod in agreement about how workplace stress is out of hand, but ask us if we’re willing to move to a smaller house or turn down a promotion … most people aren’t willing to do that.

I’m not suggesting that we sacrifice financial security; I am suggesting we take an honest look at what makes us happy and what rules we live by that might not be serving us.

4 Questions to Course Correct

Right now, answer these questions, and see where they take you. Don’t just think about them in your head — grab a piece of scrap paper or text yourself answers. It doesn’t matter what you use as long as you get the words out of your head and into a format you can look at.

  1. What is your definition of success and how do you measure it?

  2. Why is this important to you?

  3. What does achieving success give you or how does it make you feel?

  4. How well do your current strategies for achieving success work? Are you getting you what you want, and does it make you feel the way you want?

I am going to make a huge assumption right now that most of us want to be happy, and that we believe that achieving success will get us there.

Let me say that again: We believe success will make us happy.

But is it?

If you look at any statistics regarding suicide, stress-related diseases, medication rates or healthcare costs, I’d say we, as a society, have got it wrong. Or just go back to the first statistic I shared that 70% of people are not happy at work. If we accept that success will make us happy, we are very unsuccessful at pursuing success.

Turning the Tables on How We Define Success

Consider a different perspective from Todd Rose, the author of Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment:

“Fulfillment is the satisfaction that comes from accomplishing the things that matter to you.”

Let’s break this down.

  • First, is fulfillment what you want? (If it isn’t, don’t bother reading because you’ll be bored.)

  • Second, what are the things that really, truly matter to you? Why?

  • Third, are you able to accomplish the things that matter to you? Why or why not?

But here’s the kicker. We must be willing to do it without approval from others.

Rose tells story after story about how people zeroed in on what motivated them and then tried path after path to figure out what worked for them. They didn’t get it on the first, second or third try. They got really curious about what gave them fulfillment, and then they allowed themselves to experiment to find the path that provided the most satisfaction, success and happiness. Eventually, they got there, but they had to ignore what everyone else said because what they were doing didn't "make any sense" — according to the accepted cultural norms.

Wanting approval from others and accepting our cultural conditioning is why we get stuck. We stop trusting ourselves and then forget how.

It took me a long time to figure out what really mattered to me, and more importantly, what motivates me. I kept thinking that I should be what motivated by the same stuff that motivated the people around me — doing great creative work, figuring out how to sell some corporate behemoth’s widget, solving some tricky marketing problem of how to reach the customer.

I tried to summon that motivation, but couldn't find it and couldn't fake it. Even though I still didn't know what I wanted, I knew that I desperately needed something different.

But the happy ending doesn't come from finally figuring out what I want to be when I grow up. I have not yet attained the level of success that I want, and I know some people in my family think my chosen profession is a little cuckoo. What is this thing called “coaching”? What are you actually an expert in? Can anyone really make any money doing this? Will you ever make any money doing it? Going against familial norms and cultural conditioning is really, really hard, especially when things aren’t going the way you want them to.

I’ve learned something from the Dark Horse. We find fulfillment not by following conventional wisdom, but by ignoring it. That is at the heart of what I help people do: find their path.

Many people I work with can’t answer the question: What do you want to do? Somewhere along the way, they lost themselves. I’d wager that most of us lose ourselves, and some of us never make it back to the core of who we are and what gives our lives meaning.

So, if this sounds like you (or someone you know) — you’re having a hard time answering the question: What do you want? What gives you meaning? For the love of Pete, sign up for a complimentary coaching session with me. Even just one session could give you the clarity you need to move forward.

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