When I listen to the Tim Ferris podcast (anyone else a fan?) he often asks his guests about what one sentence they would choose to put on a billboard for everyone to see.
Mine would be: “Find your own version of success”.
(my second choice would be Debbie Millman’s “Busy is a decision”. I so I wish I said it first, but that’s a topic for another day).
A few years ago, I decided to completely redefine what success meant to me. I swapped my career in the City for living on my own terms. I used to run consulting projects for insurers who want to manage their risk better. I now help my clients get clarity and confidence to create their best work life.
What actually is success?
Success is such a loaded, but such a relative, multi-layered concept. If you google “definition of success” you will find hundreds of them, often very different from each other.
The Oxford dictionary says it’s “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose”.
But what was that purpose in the first place? How often do we stop to think about that aim we are going after?
If I asked you to imagine a successful person, who do you think of?
Maybe you immediately think of a CEO living in a £2m house filled with photos from exotic holidays? Or perhaps you’ll think of someone like Donna Strickland, last year’s Nobel prize laureate in Physics? Is it an independent person who follows their passions? A parent with a big family?
I’m curious – is your vision aligned with your personal values and aspirations? Or an image that your family or the society call successful?
What strikes me in my work is how often we live by the rules of success that are not aligned with our values at all.
Others define success for us all the time.
First, we are born into families that set the path, teach us the rules of the game and how to make choices that are “right” for us.
On top of that, we add layers of beliefs we collect from society and other people in our lives. They stick to us stronger than super glue and shape how we see the world around us. They can also pretty much run the show if you let them.
Examples are everywhere.
One amazing, intelligent woman I work with worries that her business is not “a real job”, a definition that echoes the opinions of her practical, working class parents.
Another smart and creative coaching client of mine believes that only very talented people can be successful. She often feels she’s not enough.
The society inundates us with images of success too. Thankfully this has started to slowly change now, but when I came back from maternity leave at a time when the only route up was to act like man.
In 2012 Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer announced that she’d only take two weeks after giving birth to her son.
And there was me feeling guilty for leaving my son in day care after spending his first full year with him, struggling with sleep deprivation and having an occasional cry in the bathroom. I couldn’t have felt further from success then.
Some of these unspoken rules of success in your life might be obvious to you. Others might be not, but they are still there affecting the choices we make.
A belief that I had when I swapped my City job for my own business is that I had to first become a “proper expert” first to be successful. Best with a PhD. It took me a while to understand that this belief was there and how it was holding be back. I was not showing up in my business like I wanted to out of the fear of being seen as a fraud. What if everyone thinks that I’m incompetent?
Raise your hand if the impostor syndrome has held you back at some point too.
When you’re a parent it can be particularly hard.
That’s because for most people the belief system is a private matter. To the point that it can take a while to untangle all the rules that are there, sitting behind a pile of thoughts.
But once you become a parent, it seems to give others permission to give opinions on what you should or shouldn’t do with your life and career. An extra load for your belief system to deal with.
“It must be so hard for your children when you travel”,
“Why do you want to have your own business? You’ll end up working around the clock”,
“Are you sure you want to take the risk of this new job? What if it doesn’t work out?”
Beliefs about what it means to be a good parent can be hard to challenge. This is so understandable. We want the best for our children and we let these opinions sink deeper, and mess with our belief system more than a comment on that new pair of shoes would.
Ok, so how do we separate what’s important and what’s not? How do we create our own version of success?
1. Take your belief system under scrutiny
Look at rules have you learnt from your family, other influential people in your life and society. Can you get clear on what “rules of success” do you live by, and how they may be affecting the choices you’re making? Your beliefs can empower you, e.g. ”I know I can be good at anything you I work at it” or get in your way: ”I can’t succeed without a degree”.
Which rules have you adopted from others unquestioned? Which ones have you challenged to create your own?
Which of your rules of success come from what others may think? Which ones come from your values? Which ones you’d still follow if nobody was watching?
2. Find your own version of success.
When I start working with new clients, I often ask them to describe in vivid detail the work life they would love for themselves. What does a successful life look like? I ask them to imagine all the little details of a really good day, both at work, and as they’re enjoying their life outside of it. We then work further with this vision, understand what’s behind it, create goals that will start bringing them closer to that vision.
You can also do it by yourself by writing your vision on a piece of paper. Find a quiet spot, take your favourite notepad, make a cuppa and put your imagination to work. Make it as detailed as possible.
If you’re raising your eyebrows, let me explain: visualisation is not some sort of “think it and you will be it” advice you may hear from a self-help guru.
It’s a technique for creating a mental image of a future you want. When we visualise, we begin to see the possibility of achieving it. Research using brain imagery shows that visualisation works because our brains interpret these images as equivalent to a real-life action.
3. Decide which beliefs you choose to live by
Go back to your beliefs and see if there’s anything there that needs to change for you to reach that vision.
Which beliefs do you want to let go of to create the life that you want?
Which empowering beliefs you already have can help you get there?
What new rules of success you’d want to start living by?
It’s not easy, and often takes time but it’s so worth to start chipping away at what’s holding you back.
And although it’s a simple 3-point summary, I’m far from saying that it’s easy.
I’m writing this blog on the 50th anniversary of the landing of the moon. The TV’s on and I love how John F Kennedy seems to be offering me the perfect ending.
Decide what your trip to the moon is. Choose your goals but don’t do it because it’s easy.
Do it because it’s hard, and be unwilling to postpone it.
Life’s too short of a meh work life.
Author: Marta Abramska, Life Coach at InsideOut