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Updated: Apr 29

The meaning of success — and how to find it!

It is time to define the new era. Our faith has been shaken. We have lost confidence in our leaders and our institutions. Our beliefs have been tested. We have discredited the notion that the Internet can change everything. Our expectations have been dashed. We have abandoned the idea that work should be a 24-hour-a-day rush and that careers should be a wild adventure. Yet we are still holding on to dreams and aspirations.

We are seduced by the idea that picking up the pieces and simply tweaking the formula will start the party again. Despite our best thinking and most burning experience, our ideas about growth and success are stalled in a boom-bust mentality. The market is primed for the next surge of wealth creation. Just as we traded in the suits and enormous bonuses of the Wall Street era for T-shirts and a piece of the startup revolution, we are waiting to grasp the new frills of success.

There is a way out. Instead of focusing on what is next, let us return to what is first. The unique question defined the preceding era of business, where is the opportunity? I am convinced that business success in the future starts with the question, what should I do with my life? Yes, that is right. The most obvious and universal questions are on our plates as humans take the most crucial and sensible approach to sustainable success in our organizations. People fail by migrating to a “hot” industry or adopting a particular career-guiding mantra. They flourish by focusing on the question of who they are — and connecting that to the work they truly love, thus unleashing a productive and creative power that they never imagined. Companies do not grow due to representing a specific sector or adopting the latest management approach. They succeed because they employ the hearts and minds of individuals dedicated to answering this life question.

This is not a new concept. But it is probably the most powerful one that is disrespected by the corporate world. Too many bright, educated, talented people operate nothing near their full potential, are unsure of their place in the world, and contribute too little toward modern society. Far too many people look like they have their act together; however, they have yet to reach their full potential. It comes down to a simple, intuitive check: You either love what you do or do not.

Those lit by that passion are the object of envy among their peers and the subject of intense curiosity. They are the source of good ideas. They make the extra effort. They demonstrate commitment. They are the ones who rescue this drifting ship daily and are rewarded with money and responsibility. Ultimately this leads to the satisfaction of knowing your place in the world. There is a potential boom in productivity if we can only get those square pegs out of the round holes.

So, after all, this addresses the question, what should I do with my life? It is not just a productivity issue: It is a moral imperative. It is how we hold ourselves accountable for the opportunity we are given. Most of us are blessed with an ultimate privilege: We get to be true to our nature. Our economy is so vast that we do not have to grind it out forever at jobs we hate. For the most part, we get to make a choice. This choice is not about a career search but an identity quest. This question aspires to end the conflict between who you are and what you do. There is nothing braver than filtering out the chatter that tells you to be someone you are not. Nothing is more genuine than breaking away from the chorus to learn the sound of your voice. This question is an act of courage: It requires a level of commitment and clarity that is almost foreign in our working lives.

Many people have shared their life stories about daring to be honest with themselves to show others their lessons learned. These are ordinary people like all of us. People of all ages, classes, and professions. These people do not have any resources or character traits that give them an edge in chasing their dreams. Some have succeeded, while many have not. Very few have what accountants call “financial independence.” Very few are so bright that they would succeed at anything they chose. They are just people who faced up to it, armed with only their weaknesses, equipped with only their fears.

What can be learned from them is far more powerful than what can be expected or assumed. The first assumption to be busted was the notion that specific jobs are inherently cool while others are uncool. For many, speed and risk transform the experience into something so stimulating, exciting, and intense that we begin to believe these qualities define “good work.”

Throughout your journey, you will meet people in many different types of organizations and plain industries who are committed to their work. This sustained them through slow stretches and challenging times. They never inspected the clock, never dreaded Mondays, never bothered about the years passing by. They did not wonder where they belonged in life. They were remarkably productive and confident in their value. In unusual places, they found their calling, and those callings were as distinctive as everyone.

And this is where the second significant insight came in: Your calling is not something you inherently “know,” but your destiny. Many people eventually find their calling after immense difficulty, making mistakes before getting it right. Most of us do not get epiphanies like a whisper — a faint urge. That is the call. It is up to you to do the work of discovery, to connect it to an answer. There is never a single correct answer. At some point, it feels right enough to choose and now devote time to making your choice fruitful.

This hard-fought lesson is good news, meaning today’s confusion can be tomorrow’s dedication. Our challenging climate serves as a reckoning. The tougher the challenges, the more clarity gained about what truly matters. The unique fact is that most people have good instincts about where they belong but make poor choices and waste many productive years on the wrong work. Why we do this leads to the heart of the question, what should I do with my life? These wrong turns hinge on many basic assumptions that have ruled our working lives, career choices, and ambitions for the better of two decades. Very little consistency can be found in how people discover what they love to do, except when it comes to four misconceptions (about money, smarts, place, and attitude) that have solidified into staggering fears. We must uproot these stumbling blocks before finding our way to where we belong.

Money Does not Fund Dreams

Should we make money first — to fund my dream? The notion that there is a directive to your working life is an assumption: Pay your dues and then tend to your dream. We expect to find numerous examples of the truth of this path. But none are found.

Sure, there are a ton of rich guys who are now giving a lot to charities or who have bought an island. Many people have found something meaningful and original to do after making their money. But that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about the garden-variety fantasy: Put your calling in a vault, make a ton of money, and then return to the vault to pick up your calling where you left it.

Having the financial independence to walk away seldom triggers people to do just that. Making money is hard work, and it changes you. It takes twice as long than anyone plans for. It requires more sacrifice than expected. You become so psychologically and emotionally invested in that world — that you do not want to ditch it.

We have all met people who had left their money behind. But having “enough” did not trigger the change. It became personal: Something drastic happened, such as divorce, the death of a parent, or the recognition that the long work hours were hurting their children.

A ruling assumption is that money is the shortest route to freedom. Absurdly, this strategy is cast as the “practical approach.” However, the opposite is true. The fastest way to the good life involves building the confidence that you can live happily within your means. It is scary to imagine living on less. Embracing your dreams is liberating, providing us with a sense of purpose, automatically reorganizing spending habits discovering you need less.

Smarts Cannot Answer the Question

Suppose the lockbox fantasy is a universal and eternal stumbling block when answering The Question. In that case, Smarts and intensity are the essential building blocks of success, and satisfaction is a product. A set of misconceptions took root in celebrating risk and speed during the 90s startup revolution. The first is the idea that a bright, motivated individual with a great idea can accomplish anything. The outcome is that work should be fun, a thrill ride full of constant challenge and change.

Being more intelligent does not make answering The Question any easier. Using your brain to solve this problem usually leads to answers that make your brain happy and jobs that provide what can be called “brain candy.” Intense mental stimulation. A synthetic substitute for gratification that can be ultimately more rewarding and enduring.

After hearing hundreds of others, the pattern finally made itself shockingly clear. The Question “What am I good at?” is the wrong starting point. People who determine an answer usually mistake intensity for passion. To the heart, they are vastly different. Intensity comes across as a pale business, while passion is meaningful and fulfilling. Here is a test: Is your choice something that will arouse you for a year or that you can be zealous about for ten years?

This test is more challenging than it seems on paper. In the past decade, the work world has become a battleground for the struggle between the boring and the stimulating. The emphasis on intensity has seeped into our value system. We still cling to the idea that work should be challenging, meaningful, refreshing, and entertaining. But really, work should be like life: sometimes fun, sometimes moving, often frustrating, and defined by significant events. Those who have found their place do not talk about how exciting, challenging, and stimulating they see their work. Their language invokes a different triad: meaningful, significant, fulfilling. They rarely ever talk about work without weaving in their personal stories.

Place Defines You

Every industry has a culture. And every culture is driven by a value system. In Hollywood, where praise is given too quickly and thus has been devalued, the only real metric is box-office receipts. So box-office receipts are all-important. In Washington, DC, some very powerful politicians are paid middling salaries, so power and money are not equal. Power is measured by the size of your staff and how many people you can influence. In police work, you learn to be suspicious of ordinary people driving cars and walking down the street.

One of the most common mistakes is not recognizing how these value systems shape you. People think that they can insulate themselves, that they are different. They are not. The relevant question in looking at a job is not What will I do? But Who will I become? What belief system will you adopt, and what will take on heightened importance in your life? Because once you are rooted in a particular system — whether it is medicine, New York City, Microsoft, or a startup — it is often agonizingly difficult to unravel yourself from its values, practices, and rewards. Your money is good anywhere, but respect and status are only local currency. They get heavily discounted when taken elsewhere. If you are successful at the wrong thing, the mix of praise and opportunity can lock you in forever.

Don Linn, the investment banker who took over the catfish farm in Mississippi, learned this lesson the hard way. After years as a star at PaineWebber and First Boston, he dropped out when he could no longer bring himself to push deals on his clients that he knew would not work. His life change smacked of foolish originality: 5.5 million catfish on 1,500 water acres. On his first day, he had to clip the wings of a flock of geese. Covered in goose shit and blood, he wondered what he had gotten himself into. But he figured it out and grew his business into a $16 million operation with five side businesses. More importantly, the work reset his moral compass. In farming, success does not come at another farmer’s expense. You learn to cooperate, share resources, and pesticide-flying services.

Like Don, you will be happier if you are not fighting the value system around you. Find one that enforces a set of beliefs that you can get behind. There is a powerful transformative effect when you surround yourself with like-minded people. Peer pressure is tremendous when it helps you accomplish your goals instead of distracting you.

Carl Kurlander wrote the movie St. Elmo’s Fire when he was 24. For years afterward, he lived in Beverly Hills. He wanted to move back to Pittsburgh, where he grew up, to write books, but. Would doubt always stop him it makes any difference to write from Pittsburgh instead of Beverly Hills? His books went unwritten. Last year, when a looming Hollywood writers’ strike coincided with a job opening in the creative-writing department at Pitt, he finally summoned the courage to move. He says that being in academia is like “bathing in altruism.” Under its influence, he wrote his first book, a biography of the comic Louie Anderson.

Attitude Is the Biggest Obstacle

Environment matters, but in the end, when tackling the question, what should I do with my life? It is all in your head. The first psychological stumbling block that keeps people from finding themselves is that they feel guilty for simply taking the quest seriously. They think that it is an indulgent privilege of the educated upper class. Working-class people manage to be happy without trying to “find themselves.”

But just about anybody can find out what this question means. It is not just for free agents, knowledge workers, and serial entrepreneurs. I met many working-class people who saw this question as essential. They might have fewer choices, but they still care. Take Bart Handford. He went from working the graveyard shift at a Kimberley-Clark baby-wipes plant in Arkansas to running the Department of Agriculture’s rural-development program. He did not do this by just pulling up his bootstraps. His breakthrough came when his car was hit by a train, and he spent six months in bed exploring The Question.

Probably the most debilitating obstacle to taking on The Question is the fear that making a choice is a one-way ride and that starting down a path means closing a door forever.

“Keeping your doors open” is a trap. It is an excuse to stay uninvolved. I call the people with the most challenging time closing doors Phi Beta Slackers. They hop between esteemed grad schools, fat corporate gigs, and prestigious fellowships, looking as if they have their act together but still feeling like observers who have not come close to living up to their potential.

Leela de Souza almost got lost in that trap. At age 15, Leela knew precisely what she wanted to be when she grew up: a dancer. She pursued that dream, supplementing her meager dancer’s pay with work as a runway model. But she soon began to feel that she had left her intellect behind. So, in her early twenties, with several good years left on her legs, she took the SATs and applied to college. She paid for a $100,000 education at the University of Chicago with the money that she had earned from modeling and, during the next seven years, made a series of seemingly smart decisions: a year in Spain, Harvard Business School, McKinsey & Co., a White House Fellowship, high-tech P.R. But she never got any closer to making a natural choice.

Like most Phi Beta Slackers, she was cursed with tremendous ability and infinite choices. Figuring out what to do with her life was constantly on her mind. But then she figured something else: Her need to look brilliant kept her from genuinely answering The Question. When she let go of that, she was able to shift gears from asking, “What do I do next?” to making strides toward answering, “To what can I devote my life?”

Asking “What Should I Do with My Life?” is the modern, secular version of the great timeless questions about our identity. Asking The Question aspires to end the conflict between who you are and what you do—answering The Question is how to protect yourself from being lathed into someone you are not. What is freedom if not the chance to define who you are?

Many of us have spent years in the companies of people who have dared to confront where they belong. They did not always find an ultimate answer, but taking the question seriously helped get them closer. We are all writing the story of our own life. It is not a story of conquest. It is a story of discovery. We learn what gifts we have to offer the world and are pushed to greater recognition of what we need. This turns out to be only the first step.

Sidebar: One Size Does Not Fit All

Different answers to the ultimate question

Organization Man

So many people decide to stay with the same employer for their entire adult lives. This individual is no different but unique. His name is Russell Carpenter, 35, and he is an aerospace engineer at NASA Goddard. We can all learn from him. Russell began working at NASA during college. They paid for his tuition and financed his Ph.D. in exchange for his summers. Russell chose to stay with government pay scales. The money is okay, but it is never the reason to stay. He is building a guidance system for the newest type of satellite.

The halls and offices at NASA are usually quiet as the engineers contently and slowly push towards a solution, which is lesson number one: time frame. While at NASA, Russell has found an intermediate time frame where he can accomplish the intricate objectives his department is responsible for, but he is not under excessive pressure to do it all in 90 days.

Aerospace engineers are consumed with redundancy and backup systems. Russell knows that metals give, gears slip, and motors overheat, and he plans for that in his designs. Not everything has to go right to work properly. This way of thinking shows up in every aspect of his life, including how he achieves his ambitions. This is lesson number two: His backup plans do not lead to different destinations, such as “If I do not get into business school, I will be a schoolteacher.” His backup plans lead to the same goal, and if he must arrive late by a back road, that is fine.

Later, Russell went to a baseball game; this is lesson three: Russell does not let himself get burned out. He does not think having only one employer is a big deal. His method is his secret, but it is no secret.

“So, what do you do?” For five years, Marcela Widrig had a dream job that paid her well, let her live in Barcelona, and allowed her to travel throughout Southern Europe. She sold modems for a prominent modem manufacturer. Modems were the means to her ends: money, travel, and human connection.

When her corporation moved her to San Francisco, she suffered culture shock. The Internet destroyed everything she loved about sales. The new ethos was speed. Get the deal done in a day! Do not fly — email makes it easier! Human contact had disappeared.

The worst part is The Inevitable Cocktail-Party Question: “What do you do?” Marcela had been disconnected for so long to have forgotten about this disgusting American tradition. She found it humiliating and reductive, and greedy. Everyone is beginning to think that The Inevitable Cocktail-Party Question is a scourge on our society. But it is becoming apparent that it is really about freedom to choose. Our status system has evolved to values of being unique and genuine, even more than the values of being financially successful.

In other words, if you do not like The Inevitable Cocktail-Party Question, maybe it is partly because you do not want your answer.

Marcela no longer liked her answer. She endured migraines and insomnia. After flying to Hong Kong for a meeting that did not even last one hour, she vowed, “I cannot sell one more modem.” But she did not quit for two more years. Her vacations include flying to Switzerland to train in a school for a deep-tissue massage. It was her way of moving toward her goal of actual human contact. One day she returned from one of the trips, the modem company went under, and she was forced into her new life.

It took her over a year to drop her business-suit persona and embrace her new profession. The Inevitable Cocktail-Party Question no longer troubles her. “I do body work,” she says. “I love what I do and believe that comes across in my work.”

Image provided by Midjourney (April 2023). Retrieved from

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