(By Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams)
“A corporate lawyer may work for a highly respected firm and have a lavish compensation package, but if her career falls short of her dream to become a Supreme Court justice, for instance, or if practicing law seems merely a good way to make a living and doesn’t provide an intellectual buzz, she won’t feel successful.“
How do you know if you’re successful? Do you rely heavily on objective metrics such as your job title, the size of your bank account, or the colleges your children are getting into? Or do you focus more on the subjective, such as the satisfaction of solving thorny problems at work, the joy of collaborating with clever colleagues, or how happy you are at home?
Even if you find yourself listing mostly objective factors, the subjective elements have a way of tugging at you, don’t they? The relationship between the objective and the subjective is actually complicated and idiosyncratic. Subjective success is an individual’s response to an objective situation. A corporate lawyer may work for a highly respected firm and have a lavish compensation package, but if her career falls short of her dream to become a Supreme Court justice, for instance, or if practicing law seems merely a good way to make a living and doesn’t provide an intellectual buzz, she won’t feel successful.
In almost 4,000 interviews and more than 80 surveys, senior executives were asked what success means to them in work and in life. Subjective factors such as making a difference and working with a good team in a good environment came up frequently in leaders’ definitions of career success. And rewarding relationships were by far the most common element of personal success. In fact, the executives in our research sample have discovered pretty universally that keeping a high-powered career and a family on track means allocating their energy and time wisely rather than grabbing at every possible brass ring. In other words, if your definition of success is just a laundry list of objective rewards, it may not be all that realistic — or as satisfying as you’d imagine.
As we note in our article, no one would head up a major business initiative without establishing clear metrics for success, based on a strong vision of what a “win” will look like. The same principle should apply to managing your life and career. Life is too short to spend valuable energy chasing after objective success measures that don’t affect your subjective bottom line. Just as you’d do on the job, make your professional and personal “wins” clear, meaningful, and achievable to ensure the maximum emotional return on your investment of effort.
Here’s one final question we’d like you to think about: Have you ever had a “win” that should have been meaningful but left you feeling dissatisfied and empty? If so, share your story in the comments below. In a future post, we’ll examine the reasons that an objective accomplishment can fail to translate into subjective satisfaction.