How do you define success?

Monday, 26 November @ 5:16 PM

I had a great mentor many years ago named Harry.  Though it’s been almost 30 years, I can still remember one of our conversations in particular – about the importance of defining success.

Harry shared a story about an old friend of his who had joined AT&T at the same time he did.  He shared that this friend was still working at AT&T and was probably in a position four or five levels below Harry’s current level on the executive team.  

He went on to point out that his friend had chosen to stay in the same town vs relocating – something that definitely limited his promotional opportunities.  It also meant that he and his family had been able to establish deep roots in their community.  They were close to family and friends and strongly connected to their church.  He also mentioned that his friend rarely had to travel or work nights and weekends.

Then Harry shifted to his own story.  He was clearly in a much more prestigious position within AT&T.  No doubt, he made a lot more money, got to participate in very cool corporate events (such as the Olympics) and traveled to a lot of interesting places – all on the company’s dime.

The rest of Harry’s story – he had relocated many times, meaning that he and his family had never really been able to set down roots and struggled to maintain close, long-term personal relationships.  Harry’s extensive travel schedule and the requirement to attend corporate functions (often several times a week and on many weekends) meant that he spent a great deal of time away from his wife and kids.

His question to me – who was more successful, Harry or his friend?  His lesson – success depends very much on how you define it.  And, while each person is likely to define it differently… the most important thing is that you define it.

I came away from that conversation with a lot to think about.  It helped me to be much more intentional about the choices I was making about my career and it’s impact on our family.  Over time, I noticed that my definition of success changed quite a bit.  Two of the most memorable career-related decisions we made along the way involved significant shifts in priorities.

The first was when we decided to resign from a very lucrative position so that we could move our family back to the town that had become “home” for us as a family. Because timing of the move was very important, I accepted a position that dropped me from the Executive VP level to VP level and led to a substantial (45%) cut in pay. Yet, we were very happy with the outcome because it provided something of great value to us as a family.

Then, just over a year ago, I found myself leaving another lucrative position to pursue something that had become increasing important to me.  That something was finding a way to help more people, organizations and nonprofits achieve their philanthropic goals.  That something was Philanthropegie.

In both of these situations, we traded what many would look to as measures of success (wealth, status, financial security) for things that don’t often show up on people’s list of success criteria (family, fulfillment, making a difference).

These were absolutely the right decisions for us.  What’s important is knowing what is right for you.

So, how do you define success?



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