Can they coexist? Some thoughts on a ‘way.’
“The path that one person follows is not the correct path for any other person. Each of us must walk his own path to enlightenment— that is the way.”
— from I Ching Wisdom by Wu Wei
Professional success (as typically measured) and deep satisfaction with work are presented as two ends of a spectrum.
Constantly in tension with each other. In a zero sum fashion. More of one leads to less of the other.
Success is an external metric. Satisfaction wells up from within.
Success is to be achieved in the future after a lot of hard work (and some luck.) Satisfaction can be experienced in the here and now.
Success is about the destination and the next goal. While satisfaction is achieved through enjoying the process or journey, regardless of the outcome.
My Learnings On the Journey
I have spent a lot of my professional life searching for success. Without questioning it. Simply accept it as the natural path of life and being a responsible man. As I look back on the past 30+ years of work, a few important lessons stand out.
- Letting others define success for me. And assuming when I got to that success I would be able to do the thing I really wanted to do. Success as a prerequisite for satisfaction.
- Not fully savoring the rewards. I’ve heard very successful professional athletes talk about how when they got to the top of their sport, they almost immediately started thinking about what was next or how to get back there.
- Our world is built on comparison. Amidst my success, I was often plagued by envy — realizing my achievements paled in relative terms to the material successes (prestige, status, wealth) of my peers, classmates, or neighbors.
In recent years I have embraced many of the following which have helped find a mixture of success and satisfaction that allows for a high quality of life and also feeling rewarded inside.
Define Your Own Goals
Goals are important. They motivate actions which if done with self awareness can create satisfaction. So pick the right for goals. For you. Not as defined by your family, peers or social norms.
Be Open to Change
It is easy to be swept along by the expectations of society like a leaf in a river. The goals you committed to a few years ago, may not be relevant anymore. Find the right mix of constancy and willingness to change. I like the Churchill quote: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”
Listen to Others Without Fearing Their Words
I can’t tell you what to strive for. No one can. And although others will judge you, and their words may sting, they don’t have the wisdom or right to tell you what to do. But do listen to others, especially those whose opinions you generally respect. And when they say something surprising, ask them what experiences have caused them to think this way.
Enjoy the Process
Not everything is enjoyable. Nor can drudgery be magically transformed into fun. To enjoy the process more, we need to lean into our power to control our minds. Philosophical thinkers and medical researchers both agree that we feel pain (or pleasure) based on expectations. In our work, our power is to focus more mental attention on the good parts and to link the work to a greater purpose that motivated us to start it in the first place.
If you pick the right goals (for you) and spend extra time recognizing the good parts of the process, then the daily effort will feel less like a chore and more like the right thing to be doing. In that way you can get to outcomes you want and feel good about yourself along the way. Achieve both what David Brooks calls ‘resume virtues’ and ‘eulogy virtues’.