What does success at work really mean?
What defines a successful career? Why is it that, by conventional definitions, only the few people at the top of the ladder have successful careers?
The usual understanding of success revolves around two basic assumptions. The first: the hero of the workplace is the person who climbs all the way to the top. The second: getting to the top - winning promotion after promotion – is therefore the only thing that matters. This mindset leads us to endlessly climb the corporate ladder, adhering to the cult of physical and mental endurance to finally attain the status of corporate hero.
Does this really make sense? Let’s challenge the first assumption. Who is the hero? In my opinion, the hero is the middle-aged man who loses his job and then his identity, but has the strength to bounce back and start from scratch. The hero is the single mother who does not give up, as she wants to offer a better future for her children. Heroes are the doctors, the teachers, the judges, the nurses and the police officers that help people in their communities.
I think it’s time to change our out-dated ideas of corporate heroism. To become a hero is not a magic process reserved for the few, but something that is open to all of us. Now let’s challenge the second assumption, that only climbing the corporate ladder matters. We should replace the question "How can I get to the top?" with "What really matters?" How do you measure personal and professional success, and who does the measuring?
It is time to move from the idea of success as defined by an organisation or even society, to significance defined by us.
Relentlessly pursuing the next rung of the ladder doesn’t work, for the following three reasons:
If we only value those who have reached the top of the hierarchy, then by definition we’re writing off the other 99%. We create a cruel assembly line that produces myriad people who are frustrated and unhappy
By seeing our careers as a race, we enter a state of constant struggle: "us" against everyone else. An organisational climate of “dog eats dog” downgrades our relationships, so they become only transactional, utilitarian, losing any trace of connection between people.
Ultimately, we all end up taking part in a rat race. We became so self-absorbed and busy trying to win this race that we forget that even by winning it, we will still remain rats.
So how do we redefine what it means to succeed at work? For me it’s nice and simple:
Are you doing something your enjoying doing?
Are you doing something that allows you to live your values rather than someone else’s or your organisation’s?
Are you delivering ‘integrity’; is what you’re doing, who you are?
Given my professional role I’ve observed and followed hundreds of people and their careers and helped many redefine and redirect theirs. I’m convinced that we’re all too often missing what really matters: not the destination of some far-off career pinnacle, but the journey.
Albert Einstein once said ‘try not to become a person of success, but rather try to become a person of value’. He knew a few things about the world didn’t he. . .