“I am just not good enough”
“I have not achieved enough for my age”
“I’ve not experienced any real success in life”
“I have nothing to show for the work I’ve done”
Some decades ago, these were the words of the college dropouts, the newly unemployed professionals, the victims of the recession. These were the thoughts of individuals, who in reality, were struggling to find a silver lining in their career achievements.
Today, these phrases, are as likely to be uttered by honors graduates; by executives and managers in large organizations who earn a steady, comfortable income. These thoughts haunt individuals living comfortable, almost luxurious lives, but feel a nagging sense of failure, of unfulfilled career potential.
Our definitions of career success have changed dramatically. Gone are the days when a leadership position in a successful organization will satisfy an individual. Today, individuals crave more; success is defined through the number of entrepreneurial ventures you can get off the ground, the number of accolades and honorary mentions in magazines and awarding nights. Day after day, we are confronted with stories of successful individuals living extraordinary lives, being honored and praised for that new start-up, that new press release, that new award. As a result, we are left thirsty for more, craving for higher success, to stand out from the other “sheep”.
This thirst for unique success, for greater achievement, for creating impact was once considered a characteristic of adolescent thinking. In the study of cognitive and adolescent psychology, this thinking pattern of idealistic thinking, of crafting personal fables of success and achievement, is considered as immature cognition. Interestingly, this same brand of cognition is seen in individuals of all ages today. Years of being told that we are special, that we have access to opportunity, have made us all into idealists, determined to craft our special stories of impact. We are confronted with a wide range of blog posts, self-help books, podcasts and TED talks, each telling us how to be unique, how to drive forward success, and we are compelled to be the next on the Top 25 influencer list.
Once, during a lecture with some undergraduate students, I put forward the question on what these students considered to be their long term career goal. One after the other, students spoke about their dreams to start their own consultancies, charities, private practices, non-governmental organizations, to lead organizations and institutions. The class in itself was inspired by the potential for change expressed in the student group, until the input of one student shifted their perspective. This student, a high performer in all aspects, answered ‘I don’t want to be an entrepreneur or a CEO or anything glamorous. I want a good job which I love, where I can lead a normal, balanced life’. This answer by an intelligent student, shed some important perspective. In our pursuits of influence, success, and the extraordinary, do we consider the cost of these actions? The flip side? Do we adequately recognize the sacrifices and challenges that come with being an entrepreneur, of extraordinary career success? Are we all really willing to do that?
The thriving ambition that is shared by most of us today, whether we are at the start of the career ladder, or comfortably in the higher rungs of leadership, comes with its consequences. In addition to the sacrifice and sweat, blood, and tears to be shed, it ignites a cycle. The “never enough” cycle. Each achievement is followed by the wave of anxiety in considering “what will I do next?” Each successful impact is followed by the nagging anxiety on how to do one better the next time. We go into competition with ourselves, and what follows is a sense of dissatisfaction that leaves a very bitter taste.
This, in no way, means that we ask students to give up on their change-making dreams, that we ask budding entrepreneurs to retire from their pursuits in favor of a standard job. There is only one solution for the potential dissatisfaction and disappointment that comes with holding ourselves up to higher ambition. And that is awareness. It is being aware of the flip side of entrepreneurial success, so we can decide for ourselves if our values fall into misalignment with the sacrifices needed in achieving these higher ambitions. It is being aware, so that you can recognize what you have already achieved, regardless of what you will achieve later. It is being aware enough to be grateful for humbled by what we have achieved, so you can find satisfaction and fulfillment. That is our responsibility to ourselves.
Our responsibility to others, to the people you nurture and develop in the capacity of a leader, a mentor, a friend, an educator, or a parent, is to be aware of the messages we share. Do you set a precedent for extraordinary career success? When we share stories of success and glory, do we share the flip side? When we encourage others to pursuit the extraordinary, to live out their potential, do we also tell them they have a choice to not? Our responsibility is to be aware of, and conscious of the truths we relay to those around us – because as much as they can inspire, they can also spread despair.