The American paradigm has long followed a dominant storyline: work hard; reap the rewards. We’re a scrappy frontier nation, after all. We love nothing better than a good bootstrap story, a rags-to-riches fairytale. And thus, “success” has predominantly been defined by external things like promotion, achievement and financial reward. Covid, however, has flipped the script. We’re living amid the Great Resignation, the chaos created from a growing realization that life is more than striving for the external. In October 2021 alone, 4.1 million US workers quit their jobs. And that was down from a record 4.4 million who left the workforce in September.
Covid has forced us to reframe how we think about what success itself means, and that, I believe, is causing a painful reckoning—because all change is hard even if it’s change for the good. Perhaps all the suffering, all the loss over the last two-plus years, will result in a new and healthier consciousness about what we value and what we work for. What I am seeing in my work with clients and the broader world is a change in the very nature of ambition.
It must be noted that there is a privilege in having the ability to consider life shifts and contemplate what success means. It is a privilege to choose to leave a job when so many cannot get one in the first place, and by no means do I take the pandemic’s immense toll lightly. However, the pain and suffering of the last few years, like all pain, have also presented opportunities for growth and reflection. As we think together about what the shifting shape of success might look like, I believe the following formula applies to us all, regardless of job title and income bracket.
A Formula for Success, Redefined
Seek Authenticity: Know Thy Self
Your life story is like a topographical map, full of contours, hills, and valleys, with life’s lessons concealed amidst the silhouettes. Understanding the contours of your life, the story of who you are, and recognizing the story you tell yourself is powerful. Your perception is your reality. Therefore, it’s essential to explore your life story, examine and question at least some of your assumptions. What is called for is a life review—without judgment. Inviting vulnerability, in conjunction with recognizing the superpowers you uncover, are the first steps towards showing up more authentically and becoming a more resilient human being.
By revisiting the story of your life, you will glean what I call your drivers. Understanding your drivers, those values that give you a sense of clarity and guide healthy decision-making, is part of getting a true read of your patterns and motivations. Those values become that authentic voice that resonates deep within you, driving the kind of decision-making that enables you to be clear about when you want to say ‘Absolutely Yes’ to someone or something, and just as importantly, when a ‘Hell No’ is what’s called for.
Authenticity sets your path toward success. It is the wind that gives you lift and momentum. It’s that feeling of being in flow, which happens when you are aligned with whom you know you want to be and how you want to be in the world. For example, when a spoke on a bicycle wheel is loose or pops out, the wheel wobbles, and fixing it is called truing the wheel. Being in alignment is truing your identity, and it results from being true to your most authentic self. It’s a beautiful thing and a smoother bike ride! Alignment is the secret sauce of happiness and success—it allows you to put yourself in opportunity’s way—the world opens up to you. It did for Maria.
Maria and I started working together in 2018, after her health—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—had come crashing down. Recently divorced, she was burned completely out and ready to quit her job and other entrepreneurial pursuits. The chickens, she told me, quoting her grandfather, had come to roost. She’d taken a yearlong sabbatical thinking that job stress was the issue, but even after time off, the malaise continued. Through our work together, she understood the underlying problem was that her wheels were out of true. She shared:
“Once I began to focus on my values (drivers) and align myself with what mattered most to me, then I started to get in a flow. I began to find myself in the path of opportunity and was able to focus my talents in a way that brings me joy and creates impact.”
Activation: Put It All To Work
A well-trued bicycle wheel doesn’t get you anywhere unless you pedal. You can redefine success any way you like, but it still requires action to bring it to light. So how do you take authenticity and alignment and create success? How do you read the topo map of your life and get where you intend and desire to go? To dream without a deadline is a fairytale. To plan without knowing where you are headed is a recipe for frustration. Many of us haven’t been that specific in ideating the future we want. But how can you get there if you don’t know where you want to go?
Being micro-ambitious means being realistic about what you can and will do, not aiming for perfection. The path toward achieving anything big begins by starting small, through micro-ambitious steps. Small, identifiable, measurable actions grow up to become big change.
What the pandemic and the great resignation are facilitating is a new understanding of success that is less determined by paycheck or public profile than by an inner sense of authenticity, alignment and value-driven intention that drives your decision making. Unfortunately, it took a global pandemic to shake things up fully. Still, fortunately, it only takes a dose serious reflection and micro-ambitious steps to realize a newly redefined sense of purpose and satisfaction. And that, my friends, is how you can move towards your own version of success.