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Success At All Costs?

Written by: Hilary Rowland, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


We all think we know what success is or at any rate, rarely stop to question what it is. When I was coaching someone into a senior position at one of the previous companies I worked at, I became aware that he was one of those people who seemed to have risen through the ranks effortlessly, but that at this point in his career, it was important to reflect how he had got there and what had made him successful in order to build on that success.

Our idea of success comes to us in many and varied ways. First of all, it’s our parents who subtly or not so subtly feed us ideas of what constitutes success: entry into a particular school or university, getting a place on a sporting team, popularity with an in-crowd. The point has been made that many of us live the unlived lives of our parents!

After that, it’s our peers who reinforce certain ideas about success, but when we embark on a career, it’s hard to avoid the prevailing idea that success means climbing the greasy pole upwards, although careers are a lot more fluid than they used to be and there are many more options open to us. At this point, success seems to be about money, status and achievement.

There seem to be unspoken expectations that the first half of our lives are about achieving certain milestones – getting established in a career, finding a partner, finding somewhere to live and possibly starting a family. All these things are undertaken, often without much thought or need to question. They just feel like the right thing to do. All our peers are doing them. We tick all the boxes and expect to feel successful, but are we?

At some point, success seems to come with a whole lot of other things – stress, lack of time, pressure, unrealistic expectations, either our own or our bosses. They creep upon us and we don’t notice until they’re becoming unbearable and unless we start to examine what success really means to us, they will be unbearable. It will have become a case of success at all costs.

If it were just a question of managing our careers, it might be all right, but having ticked all the boxes and now having a family, a mortgage and a growing awareness that we might not be invincible and that doing something about our health might be advisable sets up considerable demands on our sense of about all the things we should be doing and that there is ever more less and less of time to do it. What to do?

Perhaps we need to redefine what success means and whether we are prepared to pursue success at all costs. It might mean asking ourselves some hard questions:

  • What really matters to us? What do we really care about? There’s the much quoted ‘No one on their death bed ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time in the office.”’ If we’re talking about death beds, what do we want to be said about us at our funerals?

  • What really makes us happy?

  • Is it really the case that stress and pressure are inevitable aspects of senior positions? If we looked for a different way, how might that be to the benefit of the whole organisation and its wellbeing?

  • What satisfies our core needs?

  • Which of our achievements is most satisfying?

Tchiki Davis of the Berkeley Wellbeing Institute points out that there are different kinds of success:

  1. Emotional success (i.e., feeling good)

  2. Social success (i.e., feeling connected)

  3. Occupational success (i.e., feeling fulfilled by your work)

  4. Financial success (i.e., being able to afford the things you need)

  5. Community success (i.e., the well-being of your friends, family, and the larger community)

What’s your definition of success in each area?

What we may find is that some of our success goals work against each other, for example, feeling connected/spending more time with the family and working harder to make more money, and we have to look at what the compromises and trade-offs are. You probably can’t have it all!

Using the Japanese concept of Ikigai might be a good way to start looking at what success means. Ultimately it guides us to what is meaningful in our lives and what our core purpose is, and it involves asking the questions:

  1. What do I love?

  2. What am I good at?

  3. What really matters to me/what does the world need?

  4. How can I get paid?

What guides us in answering these questions are our values. Richard Barrett, Founder and Chairman of the Barrett Values Centre writes about how our values change over time and as our needs change. We start off our careers needing recognition and acknowledgement for our talents and skills and needing to differentiate ourselves in the market. We then become aware that there are aspects of our cultural or parental conditioning that don’t serve us anymore and we want to become accountable for our own lives. That leads us to seek to satisfy our needs for meaning through what we’re passionate about. At some point, we may start to wonder how we can use our purpose to make a difference in the world. What would be our definitions of success at each of those stages? It’s not straight forward!

But more to the point, where are you now? What’s guiding your sense of how successful you are? How do you measure your life? Not addressing these questions means that at some stage we’re likely to run out of steam, but getting clear about what success means to us will help build out confidence.

Hilary Rowland

Next Chapter Retreats


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Hilary Rowland, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine Hilary Rowland founded Next Chapter Retreats with her business partner Peter Hyson following an accomplished career, with more than 30 years experience in business advice, professional speaking, coaching and HR. She has worked with senior executives across numerous companies including the BBC, PWC, Academy for Chief Executives, and a variety of SMEs.She's passionate about helping individuals find their sense of purpose and then live it. They have had considerable success with their unique retreats over many years working with senior executives in groups, witnessing how effective the power of people working together can be on their personal development. This approach allows the creation of an environment for true reflection and exploration by taking participants ‘off-grid’, free from the distractions of their professional and personal lives, and with the time to work at real depth.



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