I’ve had the privilege to work with a lot of senior executives who have found themselves in transition.
Amazing men and women who have been in workforce 20 to 30 years, and for a multitude of reasons have found themselves, often for the first time in their careers, looking for “what’s next”.
Most have accomplished a great deal. Most have made an impressive salary. Most have impressive “stuff” that they purchased with their impressive salaries. Most had title-related-power in their jobs. Most people on the outside looking in would say these people were very “successful”.
Yet interestingly, many of them did not think of themselves that way. As they didn’t feel successful.
Many of them were road warriors, with an impressive collection of airline miles. Many of them had struggled with relationships. Many of them had missed dance recitals, birthdays, prom nights, boy scout outings, helping out with homework, parent-teacher-conferences, etc. Many of them, 20 to 30 years later, in transition found themselves asking “why”? What was it all for? They had climbed the ladders, did what they were supposed to do, achieved impressive heights, had a nice home, sent their kids to good schools, had built a life that exuded “success”. So why didn’t they feel successful?
I’m not arguing against working long hours – to do great things often takes great sacrifice. I’m not arguing against being ambitious, against moving up, against making a nice living or having nice things. But I’ve found that when our definition of success is anchored in all the externals, (the title, the salary, the stuff – or even those less obvious ones that I struggle with – approval and recognition) when we look to something outside ourselves to make ourselves okay, we ultimately lose. We can never earn enough, have enough, be enough to feel successful. If who we are is anchored in externals, it’s like building a foundation on quick sand.
What a conundrum! We want all the stuff, the recognition, to have the world’s seal of approval (Yes! You are a success! – and you’ve got 10,000 “Likes” to prove it!). Yet we don’t want our identity to be dependent on those things – we want to feel we have value, with or without the title.
Because we do.
So what’s the alternative? In a world that throbs with images of what it means to be successful, how do we chart a different path?
It really all comes down to focus. When we focus our attention on the externals, we often lose ourselves in the fray. We may get results, but often at a cost to ourselves, to the people around us, and to our organizations. What is achieved then is often a fraction of what is possible.
When we focus our attention instead on the impact we want to have outside ourselves, we put ourselves on an active path that is inherently connected to what matters to us the most. When we’re focusing on impact we’re always paying attention to how our actions are effecting others and our organizations, and adjusting our tactics along the way. Because we’re paying attention to impact our results are exponentially better.
But not better because we focused on the results.
Curious, isn’t it?
If we want to feel successful, we need to stay connected to what matters to us most for real and take consistent, constructive action toward that end. You don’t need a new job to do that. You don’t need a new title. You simply need to ask yourself, “I do what I do for the sake of what?” What is the impact you want to have outside yourself?
On your direct reports? On your colleagues? On your clients? On your organization?
Focus on that. Make an impact. And with or without the title, the “stuff”, or anyone’s approval you’ll feel successful.
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