I learned the hard way that success is a very personal concept.
Two years ago, I was the person having the “Is this all there is?” moment.
I was working in a small but quickly growing company, and since I was one of the few who joined before the growing began, I was able to find a niche where I could grow and move up in the company. Initially I was motivated by my belief in the mission of the company and the feeling I got from seeing my direct contributions to the company’s success. As a naturally ambitious, people-pleasing go-getter, I saw my chance to become indispensable. Along the way, I received my share of incremental promotions, and frequent (but vague) promises of more to come. There was talk of me being on the COO track and of becoming a member of the inner leadership team, and that recognition of my increasing importance within the company was alluring.
But each time my status and salary increased, the workload and stress levels followed suit, year after year, promotion after promotion. I was working later and later evenings, and more and more weekends, and the downtime I had was often spent stressing or complaining about work.
By all external measures, I was very successful:
- my bosses loved and trusted me,
- my team thrived under my supervision, and
- my colleagues saw me as a capable leader who got things done.
But internally, I was miserable -- miserable to the point of barely functioning, with clinical depression levels of burnout.
So what happened?
I realized that while I still believed in the company’s mission and felt I was making meaningful and significant contributions, I’d become most fixated on the pursuit of obtaining salary and status compensation to match the amount of stress and pressure I experienced. I’d lost agency to control my level of engagement with my work and control over my workload, so I had to rely on external factors as indicators of my success. And it made me miserable.
So I quit the job and took a few months to get my life and mental health back on track, and did some very serious introspection.
Of the many insights I had, none was more powerful than the realization that professional status, power, and authority were not important to me: attaining those things didn’t make me feel successful, even though it made others see me that way.
I was miserable because I was failing in the aspects of life most important to me: being there for my family and friends, making time for my hobbies, taking care of my physical self (it turns out that sleep, exercise, and balanced meals really ARE important). I was miserable because I could no longer find satisfaction and fulfillment in my hard work.
I knew I had to redefine my own concept of success, and my new definition couldn’t just be based on the professional indicators.
To truly feel successful, I needed to experience joy and achievement in all aspects of my life, and set some clear priorities and goals. And I set out to do just that.
In the next post, I’ll talk about how I set those goals and what priorities I identified -- in other words, how I redefined success and unstuck myself from the misery of chasing what I had previously considered the finish line. Stay tuned!