A strange outdoor exhibit recently caught my eye in Germany. A multi-coloured ladder standing isolated in space – serving no obvious purpose and poignantly leading nowhere. The inscription read:
“Career ladder – nobody has ever seen one before. Pay particular attention to the top rung”.
This exhibit illustrates with stunning accuracy what many clients tell me: over many years they climbed enticing rungs towards real or imagined peaks, their eye firmly fixed on the next promotion, the next bonus, and yet…the initially pleasing rewards often left an aftertaste of emptiness. Whether they reached the desired goal, or met with redundancy – the ‘what next’ eventually paid them a pertinent visit and demanded new answers – answers that go beyond linear progression. Others know from the outset that career ladders are not for them. Having spotted ‘the game’ and seen their friends grow in material success but not in happiness, they are still none the wiser about how to approach work or success differently.
Let me clarify: nothing is being said here against career progression, making a profit, or achievement per se – so long as your version of success truly fulfils you and perhaps even serves the world around you. What concerns me is that the most widely accepted model of success follows the Oxford dictionary whereby success is the “attainment of fame, wealth or social status.” What concerns me even more is that this is what the media spoon-feeds us, and our children, every single day. If money or social status is the answer, how come that one in three employees world-wide cite unhappiness at work for reasons unrelated to money or status (www.forbes.com)? If fame is the answer, how come that a successful member of the X-Factor team asked me to help him change jobs last year?
So, let’s get to the bottom of the term ‘success’ and its original meaning: we have the Latin sub (under) + cedere (to go). Succedere is “going beneath.” The Latin succeeder also means “following after” (www.edenics.net). Notice something? There is no mention of “going up” in a linear fashion. The emphasis is on going beneath, or going beyond. Sanskrit, perhaps the oldest language preceding Latin, helps to enrich this concept further: there are more than seven (yes, seven) Sanskrit words for success, and all of them allude to a spiritual principle. The term siddhi, for example, denotes ‘success’ or ‘achievement’ in relationship to attaining supernatural ability through spiritual practice. Equally useful for our purposes today is the term dhanyata which refers to ‘success’ intertwined with ‘fulfilment’. What I like about these terms is that they offer us a choice on how we like to interpret success for ourselves. Furthermore, they can set us free from the idea that success has to be visible and measurable.
Personally, I enjoy the word ‘fulfilment’. I have observed that fulfilment enters people’s working lives when there is a close fit between what they do and their personal values, and when they consciously align their definition of success with those values. My recent conversation with a friend throws some light on this. His formula of ‘high turnout or numbers equal success’ led him to perceive his life as not being successful when his movement classes attracted few participants. In my 14 years of knowing this friend it would not have occurred to me to doubt his success. So, I reminded him of the times when his smaller classes allowed him to ‘move mountains’ with individuals, the far-reaching effects of which may not ever become known to him. I also commented on his uncanny ability to connect with strangers, to sustain friendships through difficult times, and his evident joy at building a loving relationship with his partner and child. Our conversation revealed that he was judging his success by an old value system that prioritised ‘quantity’ when his actual values were quality, connection, and intimacy. It was as if ‘pressing the update button’ on his definition of success helped him feel differently about his situation. Interestingly, he then also received two new bookings the next day. The way I view my friend’s success is expressed beautifully by R W Emerson:
“To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
It is in this sense that I would like to wish you, the reader, a successful and fulfilled 2014. Wherever you are in the world, if you would like help with identifying your values so they can serve your working life, you are always welcome at http://www.realvocation.com