Defining Success on Your Own Terms

If the eighties taught us anything (think working women in blazers with NFL-sanctioned shoulder pads and materialism with its own pop chart anthem), it is that your definition of success should be exactly that — yours. That might mean the fast track to the C-Suite, overseas assignments or a series of lateral moves that flesh out your diverse interests. Whether you are always on the lookout for what’s next, or prefer digging in with a team you want to grow with long term, the choice can, and should be, yours. The trick is to set goals without limits constrained by anyone else’s vision of success.
 
There is something about wrapping up the year that can turn our thinking to the philosophical. Global pandemic notwithstanding, this is often when we often ask ourselves big, personal questions about the past twelve months. Did I do enough? Did I wear myself out? When and where did I really shine? What aspects of my career and personal life do I want to change?
 
Removing barriers to advancement is critical to accelerating women’s success at work and to the health of the organizations they serve. But success has many definitions and figuring out yours will lead to a more fulfilling professional and personal life.
 
It’s not just about money
Although most empirical research on success has focused on external measures such as job title or salary, there is a strong trend today for research to delve into more subjective measures of success. These efforts focus on how individuals feel about their accomplishments and how they measure their success based on personal criteria.

A common trap is defining success only in relation to a paycheck. “A big part of settling comes down to accepting the platinum handcuffs,” says James Rosseau, Sr., author of Success on Your Own Terms, a Fortune 100 executive and a hip-hop artist. “Making more money always looks like it’s going to get you closer to your goals, even if it’s actually leading you down a path you don’t really want.”

Success is an inside job
Real success is about personal perspective and reflects your pooled beliefs, values, strengths, motivations and personality. With a clear picture of what success means to you, you can pursue activities and opportunities that are in harmony with and support your goals, rather than chasing achievements society may value but that don’t reflect your needs and desires.
 
It takes deep self-knowledge and a degree of confidence to actually define success on your terms and then live into it. While many women are working toward becoming a CEO or C-Suite exec, others prefer more hands-on work or roles as individual contributors. Some may wish to take a break on their trek up the corporate ladder and others are full steam ahead at all times.

Don’t Set and Forget
People and circumstances change. What feels like success to you in the early stages of your career may be very different a few years on. Promotions, exploring new areas, professional development opportunities and international assignments can dramatically change your definition. Changes in your personal life, such as marriage, children, aging parents, illness or a return to school can also shift priorities and lead you to redefine success.
 
Think of your personal ideas of success as guiding principles but not set in stone. Rosseau offers six ways to identify your own vision of success.
 
Embrace your Passion. “It’s about tapping into you,” Rosseau says. “What are the things that naturally take hold for you and that you enjoy doing?” What passions did you dream about as a child or teen and do they still resonate with you? This is where you find the energy and excitement to strive toward your potential.
 
Perform to Progress vs. Perfection. Striving for unattainable perfection is draining and debilitating. Instead, focus on the incremental steps that lead to progress over time.
 
Promote with purpose. Share your authentic story with others and ask them to share theirs with you. You will learn something new, deepen the relationship, grow your network and acquaint others with where you want to go.
 
Parlay your Platform. Even early in your career, you have skills, relationships, experiences and a budding reputation you can build on. Fine-tune your personal pitch so you can share it concisely with others and accentuate the positive in your interactions to build a personal platform that draws the right kind of attention.  
 
Put it into Action. Nurture your passions and invest in your own development. Rosseau suggests “incubating” your passions with new experiences and supporters who can help you grow.
 
Practice Philanthropy. Throughout your career, giving back through volunteer work, mentoring junior colleagues and sponsoring rising stars can enable you to tap into a longstanding attribute of success for many — making a difference. 
 
Contemporary success research reveals that definitions continue to change and are becoming increasingly personal. In fact, research in the field often now starts with asking people to define success for themselves. Exactly as it should be.

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