The One Thing That Guarantees Success at Work

Made you click, didn’t I?

All jokes aside, I am glad you did, because I do have something to say on the topic of success. However, it may not be quite as simple as you had hoped.

Our culture is obsessed with success. We spend our lives chasing it. Matter of fact, we basically start our lives chasing it.

Case in point: My wife and I were lucky enough to welcome our first child to our family this year. People generally ask me two things about him: Is he sleeping? Where do you think you will put him in school?*

School? He’s five months old. Yet, he already has milestones he needs to hit or he will be “behind.” Our world is already signaling to him and his exhausted parents what success is and encouraging us to keep up. Now, some of these milestones are all well and good for important medical reasons, but they also point to our orientation as a culture.

I see it all the time in my work at Frontier which affords me the unique opportunity to sit down with countless leaders to discuss their careers, teams, challenges, and goals. Success inevitably comes up as the object of those pursuits. I’ll never forget a conversation I had last year during one of our leadership programs, roughly recreated here from memory:

Participant: I have really been struggling lately in my new role. I didn’t realize the demands would be so high. It’s impacting me at home and at work.

Me: What do you feel is the greatest challenge you are facing?

Participant: Well, in my family we are successful, and I am not succeeding.

Me: In your family?

Participant: Yeah, we are expected to achieve at a high level, and we do.

Me: Have you ever taken a moment to decide what success is for you? Not allowing your boss, parents, spouse, partner, or anyone else decide? What is success for you on your terms?

Participant: Long stare, followed by tears.

I’ve had hundreds of variations of this same conversation. The truth is we all need to have it with ourselves more frequently, because we all are striving for some form of success whether we’re conscious of it or not.

We join a new company with a new boss and shiny quarterly goals. Next thing we know, we have adapted to this new environment, bought into the path to success set before us, and we’re off to the races! In a sense, that is the beauty and efficiency of the human mind, and it is also an indicator of one of our fatal flaws.

Rather than doing the hard, conscious, and meaningful work of defining success, we unconsciously take on the safe, convenient definition of success provided to us by our work, neighborhood, and family. That conventional definition often serves us quite well—until it doesn’t. And then you find yourself in a conference center with a facilitator you just met wondering what the hell you are doing with your career and how you got to this place.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t pursue business goals or set business goals for our teams—we should. I’m just cautioning about letting those milestones and goals and promotions and titles tell you whether or not you’re successful in life.

There is no silver bullet when it comes to success, even though there are thousands of articles and blog posts out there that would suggest otherwise. The way I see it, you can either unconsciously default to others’ definitions of success for your life, or you can do the intentional, courageous work of defining it for yourself. Not just once, but throughout the various ups and downs and seasons of life.

I can’t promise you will then be successful on your terms, but at least you got to decide for yourself. And I deem that a success.

*Let the record show that people asked us this even before the baby was born.

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