Success has changed. Have you?

What do running, sunshine and Seattle have to do with success? Everything for Sue, a former coaching client who, after a long search, was offered the role of CEO of a company she believed in and felt she was uniquely prepared to lead. Sometime after our work together Sue called to tell me why she took the job (which made sense) and why she changed her mind and ultimately turned it down (which also made sense).

So what happened? While this role was in fact a good fit in many ways, and certainly looked like success to the outside world, Sue turned it down because in revisiting her values and drivers, she understood that the city of Seattle, wonderful in so many ways, did not fit an essential element of the lifestyle she knew was a linchpin to her success. A dedicated runner, Sue knew she needed a 45-minute run—outside, in the sun, daily, to activate her superpowers. It was a non-negotiable lifestyle value for her. Running was part and parcel of Sue’s life and had been from the time she was a child. Upon reflection she realized that seemingly expendable run the in the sun fed her sense of authenticity, clarity and courage. She would need all three to be the leader she wanted to be and to activate her distinct version of success.

Part of why success is elusive to so many is that we’ve been programmed to believe that if we work hard, do the ‘right’ things, and meet the ‘right’ people; our lives will follow a relatively straight trajectory to success and happiness. We share an underlying belief system that doing those things ‘should’ result in being successful. But unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. No one’s life is a straight line; the journey of life follows a path of mountains and valleys, successes, failures and everything in between. Sitting at the feet of your life and learning from it is the first step towards creating your version of success.

I want to offer an approach to create your own success metrics. The very definition of success is changing for so many of us. How you come up with success now may look more like a shift towards significance, more of an internal yardstick than an external one. In my 23 years as a coach, I’ve never had so many people reaching out for help and guidance in charting a new path towards a more substantial, more meaningful definition of success. Read on to learn the elements you can work with to come up with your own yardstick of success.

Success Redefined Quote from Barbara Waxman
Success Has Changed. Have You? Barbara Waxman

The pandemic has shifted almost everything – how students learn, how we shop, communicate and work. The pandemic has certainly shifted how many of us think about success. The American paradigm has long followed a dominant storyline: work hard; reap the rewards. We’re a scrappy frontier nation, after all. We love nothing better than a good bootstrap story, a rags-to-riches fairytale. And thus, “success” has predominantly been defined by external things like promotion, achievement and financial reward. Covid, however, has flipped the script. We’re living amid the Great Resignation, the chaos created from a growing realization that life is more than striving for the external. In October 2021 alone, 4.1 million US workers quit their jobs. And that was down from a record 4.4 million who left the workforce in September.

Over the past two years, I’ve never had so many people reaching out for help and guidance in charting a path towards a more substantial, more meaningful definition of success. It’s hard not to fall prey to the ubiquitous cultural messages and multi-billion-dollar advertising industry that tells us “success” looks like a flashy car, mega social media “likes,” and a tropical vacation. These outward measures are seductive for a reason. Think about how you typically describe someone who earns a great salary and has achieved financial independence. “Todd? Oh, he’s killing it! He’s so successful.” Code: Todd makes a lot of money.

Here’s the reality–a rapidly growing number of the Todd’s of the world have a dirty little secret. They might look successful on the outside but don’t feel that way on the inside. Money is not the ticket to feeling successful. Something is missing, and they are tired of putting whatever ‘it’ is off.

Covid has forced us to reframe how we think about what success itself means, and that, I believe, is causing a painful reckoning—because all change is hard even if it’s change for the good. Perhaps all the suffering, all the loss over the last two-plus years, will result in a new and healthier consciousness about what we value and what we work for. What I am seeing in my work with clients and the broader world is a change in the very nature of ambition. This emerging definition of success in 2022 fits along the lines of this quote by Tony Robbins:

"Success is doing what you want when you want, where you want, with whom you want as much as you want."

It must be noted that there is privilege in having the ability to consider life shifts and contemplate what success means. It is a privilege to choose to leave a job when so many cannot get one in the first place, and by no means do I take the pandemic’s immense toll lightly. However, the pain and suffering of the last few years, like all pain, have also presented opportunities for growth and reflection. As we think together about what the shifting shape of success might look like, I believe the following formula applies to us all, regardless of job title and income bracket.

A Formula for Success, Redefined

Seek authenticity. Know thy self.

Your life story is like a topographical map, full of contours, hills, and valleys, with life’s lessons concealed amidst the silhouettes. Understanding the contours of your life, the story of who you are, and recognizing the story you tell yourself is powerful. Your perception is your reality. Therefore, it’s essential to explore your life story, examine and question at least some of your assumptions. What is called for is a life review—without judgment. Inviting vulnerability, in conjunction with recognizing the superpowers you uncover, are the first steps towards showing up more authentically and becoming a more resilient human being. Becoming more conscious of your “story” is like following that topo map and tracing a path to authoring your future.

By revisiting the story of your life, you will glean what I call your drivers. Understanding your drivers, those values that give you a sense of clarity and guide healthy decision-making, is part of getting a true read of your patterns and motivations. Those values become that authentic voice that resonates deep within you, driving the kind of decision-making that enables you to be clear about when you want to say ‘Absolutely Yes’ to someone or something, and just as importantly, when a ‘Hell No’ is what’s called for.

Cultivate alignment.

Authenticity sets your path toward success. It is the wind that gives you lift and momentum. It’s that feeling of being in flow, which happens when you are aligned with whom you know you want to be and how you want to be in the world. For example, when a spoke on a bicycle wheel is loose or pops out, the wheel wobbles, and fixing it is called truing the wheel. Being in alignment is truing your identity, and it results from being true to your most authentic self. It’s a beautiful thing and a smoother bike ride! Alignment is the secret sauce of happiness and success—it allows you to put yourself in opportunity’s way—the world opens up to you. It did for Maria.

Maria and I started working together in 2018, after her health—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—had come crashing down. Recently divorced, she was burned completely out and ready to quit her job and other entrepreneurial pursuits. The chickens, she told me, quoting her grandfather, had come to roost. She’d taken a yearlong sabbatical thinking that job stress was the issue, but even after time off, the malaise continued. Through our work together, she understood the underlying problem was that her wheels were out of true. She shared:

"Once I began to focus on my values (drivers) and align myself with what mattered most to me, then I started to get in a flow. I began to find myself in the path of opportunity and was able to focus my talents in a way that brings me joy and creates impact."

Activation: Put it all to work.

A well-trued bicycle wheel doesn’t get you anywhere unless you pedal. You can redefine success any way you like, but it still requires action to bring it to light. So how do you take authenticity and alignment and create success? How do you read the topo map of your life and get where you intend and desire to go? To dream without a deadline is a fairytale. To plan without knowing where you are headed is a recipe for frustration. Do you remember the story of Alice in Wonderland when the Cheshire Cat asked Alice, who asked for directions, where she intended to go? Of course, she had not focused on that. Many of us haven’t been that specific in ideating the future we want. But how can you get there if you don’t know where you want to go?

SMART Goals for Resilient Leaders by Barbara Waxman

Being micro-ambitious means being realistic about what you can and will do, not aiming for perfection. The path toward achieving anything big begins by starting small, through micro-ambitious steps. Small, identifiable, measurable actions grow up to become big change.

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The Future of Resilient Leadership

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