Redefining What it Means to be Successful

You’re the kind of gal whose got a checklist, right? You’ve mapped out your educational goals, your career path, what age you’ll be married and you even have a name for that dog you haven’t adopted yet. You’re used to working through each of the items on your life’s to-do list and checking them off one by one. Things have always happened according to your plan. But, all of the sudden, it became harder to check things off of the list. So you worked harder at it. But that wasn’t enough. So you came up with a different plan of attack. Still, no dice.

You officially got frustrated (to say the least).

Eventually, you started to feel lost because you saw yourself off track for the first time and you didn’t know how to get back on the path to achieving your goals. You started questioning your abilities, comparing yourself to others, and wondering why. Why can’t I get that job? Why won’t someone give me a chance? Why is this happening to me?

Sound like you? Because this definitely sounded like me.

I am a competitive person by nature and grew up setting goals for myself and achieving them. I never didn’t get what I worked for as a kid so I assumed that life as an adult wouldn’t be any different. Boy, was I wrong.

To tell this story, I’m about to get really honest with you. Really honest about how setting linear goals can set you up for disappointment and really honest about wanting you to come to these realizations much sooner than I did. So to set the stage, let me share how I had my professional life all mapped out:

  1. Transfer out of community college in 2 years to a 4 year university (and, by the way, I only applied to 1 university which now I realize was REALLY risky)
  2. Finish my undergrad degree in 2 more years and get into grad school (again, I only applied to 1 school…kind of dumb)
  3. Complete a Master’s degree in 2 years
  4. Get a teaching position at a community college
  5. Secure a tenure track position at a community college
  6. Teach for the rest of my life (and consider getting a Ph.D.)

But here’s how my professional life actually played out:

  1. Transferred out of a community college in 2 years to a 4 year
  2. Finished undergrad degree in 2 more years
  3. Got into grad school
  4. Completed Master’s in 2 ½ years
  5. Did not get a teaching position and had to accept that I probably never would
  6. Worked in the non-profit space for 4 years
  7. Took a left turn into the corporate world because I was emotionally worn out
  8. Left the corporate world with no job lined up because I hated it
  9. Decided to figure shit out for myself
  10. Started my own business and I am now my own boss

I had planned a very specific path to success that I defined with a very narrow scope. I was only going to be successful once I had a tenured teaching position somewhere. So, to be honest, when I got thrown off track it was really hard for me to comes to terms with what I initially thought of as failure. So I did a lot of soul searching, had a lot of hard conversations with myself, and learned how to look at things differently because that was the only way out.

Getting out of a career slump can feel like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole if you’re not going about it the right way. I know that you don’t want to rewrite your list of life goals (and that is not what I’m suggesting you do) but eventually you need to find (or make) the round peg to put in that round hole. It’s probably sitting right in front of you to grab. You just don’t see it yet.

Most people have the makings of a happy and fulfilling career; they just also have a very specific definition of what a “happy and fulfilling career” is. The key to pulling yourself out of a career slump or putting yourself back on track is to redefine what success means to you. So take a step back and grab these tools because they are going to help you find that round peg.

Be Agile

The pace of change is lightning fast and multi-directional and in order to survive, you have to be on your toes. There isn’t a ladder to climb anymore; rather, there is a web of opportunity waiting for you. Take the opportunities you have to learn new skills (no matter how small) because you never know where you are going to end up next. The more skills you have under your belt, the more agile you will become and finding your way through the web of your career won’t feel nearly as overwhelming. I moved from the academic space, to non-profits, to corporate technology and I learned skills in each of those fields that are allowing me to thrive in the space I am in now.

You also need to operate under the assumption that your goals will have to change or at least be modified. Success in one field looks different than success in another and you are very likely to work in more than one field throughout your years in the workforce. Millenials have something like 7 different jobs over the course of their career so you need to keep your goals fluid in order to not hit the wall. Avoid disappointment and frustration in your career by allowing yourself to take to the opportunities that present themselves even if sometimes they fall outside the scope of your original plan.

Be Open

When I was in the middle of my career slump, I hired a career counselor and one of the first things she had me do was read Body of Work by Pamela Slim. I am going to suggest that you do the same.

The biggest takeaway for me was that I needed to be open to new ways of defining what success was for myself because my body of work is so much more than the job I am working.  When you open your eyes to all of the contributions that you make towards projects and people in your social circles, you will see that the legacy of your body of work is so much more powerful than your job.

“Your body of your is everything that you make, contribute, affect, and impact throughout the course of your life” – Pamela Slim

Once I opened my mind to see the opportunities I had, I started to redefine what success was going to look like for myself. I grew up as someone who wanted to be something very specific, so I never considered my side projects to be anything other than hobbies. But trust me when I say that I feel so much more fulfilled now that I include them in my list of accomplishments. If you measure success in a quantitative way, you can only succeed by working your way to the answer. Measuring your success in a more qualitative way allows you to include the things that fill your emotional buckets: your volunteer work; your passion projects; your hobbies. And it’s when you become open to including this work in your story and how you tell it to yourself and others, that you become able to overcome anything.

Be Purposeful

The last piece to pulling yourself out of a career slump and putting yourself onto a path towards success is creating your personal legacy. What is it that you want your family and friends to remember you as? You know who you are and who you want to be so start doing the purposeful and meaningful work that will build your legacy. Once I had redefined my goals and committed myself to this new path, things became easier. I wasn’t fighting myself anymore. I had made the conscious decision to do work that served me as much as it served others and, at that point, everything I did became significant.

Build a network of peers that support your work and value it. Surround yourself with people whom you can both help and learn from. Let the painful experiences and failures of your past shape who you are and your future. These are all ways that you can contribute to writing your own personal legacy on a daily basis.

What I am going to leave you with is something that I challenge myself to do all the time; make yourself uncomfortable every once in a while. Force yourself to make really objective decisions even if they make you reassess and restrategize. Make yourself pursue something that you always thought was silly and wouldn’t get you anywhere. Start looking outside of your comfort zone for prospects that will help you grow. Allow yourself to find happiness and fulfillment in the little things while working through the bigger challenges. And stop fighting opportunities that present themselves because, if toddlers can figure out that the square peg doesn’t fit in the round hole, so can you.