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Careers and Redefining Success

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The following article is from Melanie, our staff writer. Melanie is in the beginning phase of her journey to Financial Freedom and she’ll bring a refreshing point of view for us. I’m on a short trip to Boise this week so there will be 2 articles instead of the usual 3. 

career success

For earlier generations, the definition of a successful career typically meant working in a single profession at perhaps one or two companies throughout their careers. Perhaps along the way there were salary increases and promotions but for the most part they worked at the same job and often the same company year after year. It wasn’t unusual to start at a company right out of college and work at the same company until retirement. For many years, the yardstick that I used to measure my career success followed this model.

But the workforce is rapidly changing in ways that affect just about everyone. Younger people no longer follow this model and are changing jobs roughly every two years, moving towards entrepreneurship or still struggling to figure out ”The Thing” they want to do. For me, I’ve started to question the idea of traditional work; working at the same job or same profession day in and day out for the next forty years. What if I don’t want to do the same job twice? What if I like change or learning new skills and trying different things? I find that I resonate most with entrepreneurship and the desire to continue exploring my options and redefining my definition of success.

Diverse Jobs

My career history has been a hopscotch of activity, which might not look ideal to potential employers. I’ve had several diverse jobs in the past few years and have lived in three different cities during that time. I started my career in Los Angeles managing an arts program for a nonprofit and it was a great first career job. It was rewarding, challenging, and I learned so much in the three years I was there. But then I received another opportunity that felt right at the time, so I left that job to pursue graduate school.  During grad school I taught theater in Harlem, among other jobs. Despite my experience and 20 interviews, upon graduation I had a tough time finding another job. As a result, I changed my focus; relocated across country and did other things; I taught in schools; I advised students studying abroad; and now I’m working in events and communications for another nonprofit.

The common denominator with all my jobs is that they are all nonprofit based with a mission to serve the greater good. However, these jobs have varied greatly. I have not had the same job title, or even been in the same subsector within all of my nonprofit jobs.

My initial job in the arts came with a fancy title; responsibilities that included supervising employees; managing budgets and having input into large scale decisions. It also came with relatively low pay. Now I sometimes miss the career status I had. I question if I’ve lost my career credibility. If I’m not working in the arts any longer and my last experience doing so was several years ago, is it still relevant? Part of me questions my path and wonders where I’m going. While part of me is thrilled at now having less responsibilities (and therefore less stress), sometimes my ego feels like I used to be much more important.

Redefine Success

It’s weird that a job title and duties can make you feel important. While I definitely resonate more on the side of work should be your passion, I have succumb to the fact that a job is still a job. It does not define who you are as a person. It’s one aspect of what you do. A few days ago I read Joe’s post about “Are You Living the Life You Want?” He recalled people’s reaction when he said he was going to leave his fancy job at Intel. Most reactions were unsupportive and most people couldn’t wrap their brains around it.

What might look like success on the outside, appeared to be a deep, troubled water on the inside. A job is not a life. Your life is your job! Live it the way you want.

In this country we have a very rigid, defined idea of success and most of it revolves around a 9-5 job, a family, and a house. I used to buy into it, too until I realized it was making me unhappy and that wasn’t my version of success.

As I continue working, freelancing, and trying new things I find myself having to continually re-define my measure of success. Redefining success on your own terms is tough, especially when everyone else’s version of success is different. For example, when I was in New York, I was teaching, performing and felt like I had a great work-life balance. I was just barely getting by, but from a career standpoint and a life standpoint, I felt successful. People on the outside, seeing me hustle for other work probably thought otherwise.

We’re taught that success needs to be externally validated, not internally validated and that just screws up the whole system doesn’t it? If we are, as Joe said, to live the life we want, we need to live on our own terms, and come up with a version of success by us, and for us. Sometimes that means going against the grain of what people traditionally call “success.”

Opportunities are out there

Imagine what opportunities can arise when living the life you want, and defining success on your own terms.

You could:

  • Stop making yourself miserable
  • Try out new things
  • Have conviction in what you are doing
  • Open yourself up to making even more money

In the scheme of life, careers, and passion, I realize it’s a delicate balance. Not everyone can quit their job and try something else. Most people can’t, actually. But that shouldn’t mean that you should relegate your life to someone else’s standards and feel stuck. Being stuck is the worst. Motion equals progress in my opinion.

I’m curious — how have your thoughts about careers or success changed over the years? 

photo credit: epsos.de 

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{ 29 comments… add one }

  • Ernie Zelinski July 21, 2014, 2:36 am

    When I was in school and university, I got brainwashed into believing that success was having a prestigious job and earning a high income. That is so wrong to me now.

    “Success,” according to a Greek proverb, “is doing what you like and making a living at it.” That is what success is to me today.

    In 1980 I was terminated from my engineering job for taking too much vacation time. I was quite flabbergasted, indeed, close to being traumatized. A few years later I realized that, from a career success perspective, my firing was the best thing that ever happened to me. What’s more, getting fired was great for other aspects of my life, including my mental and physical health.

    As far as I am concerned, the typical workplace is demeaning to the human soul,
    particularly to the creative and independent soul. So is looking for a job, everything from drafting up résumés, sending out résumés, not getting replies, the interview process itself, and the formalities that come with starting a new job.

    Success to me today means having freedom. Many people apparently don’t want freedom; they would rather be imprisoned by organizations that tell them what to do, when to do it, how to do it. As Lord Boyd-Orr once said, “If people have to choose between freedom and sandwiches, they will take sandwiches.”

    I will forgo the sandwiches and take the freedom. A good portion of my success paradigm was first introduced in my book “The Lazy Person’s Guide to Success” (now out of print so don’t think that I am trying to sell you the book), but this paradigm has changed somewhat since I wrote the book, and no doubt will continue to change to some extent over time.

    One of the most important elements of real life success to me is having the freedom and independence to make choices in what I do with all areas of my life. Success means doing what I want at the time I choose. Corporate life, of course, would interfere with the freedom I enjoy.

    Here is a sample of the freedom I have: After I get up — sometimes at the crack of noon — my first priority is to exercise one to two hours to maintain my physical health. Then I have a shower, which I truly experience in a leisurely and meditative state, followed by putting on my official work attire — most often a pair of jeans, sandals, and a T-shirt with something such as “I Am Big in Europe” written on it.

    Unlike the majority of people, I fit in my work whenever I can, usually writing on my laptop in one of my favorite coffee bars. I don’t know whether the owners of the coffee bars where I hang out consider me a coffee-house phenomenon or a coffee-house nuisance — I consider myself the writer in residence, which adds to my experience of success.

    Most days I start working about 3:30 in the afternoon and put in only two or three hours a day, sometimes even less, sometimes a bit more. The odd time I don’t start work until 4:30 in the afternoon, at which time I chuckle to myself because government workers are already going home after having put in eight hours of regimented work.

    Although I don’t make as much money as I could by working eight or ten hours each day, I live comfortably and freely. I certainly wouldn’t trade my present lifestyle for a boring or stressful job that pays a billion dollars a year, not even for one year. This was also the case several years ago when I was struggling financially, $30,000 in debt, and sometimes not knowing where my next month’s rent was going to come from.

    In financial terms, real success to me is handling money wisely so that I don’t have financial problems. Financial success means earning the money to buy the necessities of life and having a little extra to buy some luxuries, such as going out to a great restaurant two or three times a week. Financial success is also the sense of freedom that comes from having saved a nice little nest egg. This can come in handy in the event I want to do nothing but play for a year or if my income drops for some reason.

    Success to me is having not only the time, but also the ability to enjoy a lot of leisure activities. It is also the wise use of leisure time. Maintaining optimum health at any age must be a priority. This can only be attained by allocating some leisure time for adequate exercise and meditation each and every day.

    Career success to me also is having a worthwhile purpose to pursue. My purpose is to help people develop their make progress toward attaining some of their dreams, and have a great work/life balance. Like many authors, I receive a great deal of feedback from readers. There is no greater satisfaction than receiving a handwritten letter, e-mail, or phone call from someone who has benefited greatly from reading my books.

    Above all, career success to me is all about freedom and prosperity. As I stated in two or three of my books, “you can’t be genuinely prosperous unless you have personal freedom. You will have attained true freedom in this world when you can get up in the morning when you want to get up; go to sleep when you want to go to sleep; and in the interval, work and play at the things you want to work and play at — all at your own pace.”

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • retirebyforty July 21, 2014, 9:19 am

      I’m sure almost every young person thinks success is having a prestigious job with a nice income. That’s how the majority of the population still view success and there aren’t many alternatives. Now that I’ve tasted freedom, I don’t think I can ever go back to the corporate life. I do whatever I want with my time and I love it. I don’t have a manager telling me what to do and maybe even more important, I don’t have to tell others what to do. I just have to manage myself and it’s a great fit for me.
      Freedom might not be for everyone, but you’ll never know until you try it.

    • Melanie July 21, 2014, 9:35 am

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I was especially inspired by you having a different version of success and a preferred lifestyle even when in debt. I am still in debt and it’s hard to separate my self-worth and my net worth, career and success, etc. We’ve been conditioned to think that jobs, money, etc. make us successful, but if you are unhappy, stifled, or feel like you are fitting yourself into a prescribed schedule that is not success in my book. Thanks for your inspiring story!

  • bill July 21, 2014, 3:33 am

    ^oh yes

  • Jon July 21, 2014, 4:27 am

    I think more and more of the younger generation do this exact thing – jump around to try to find what they enjoy doing most. In the short term, this hurts them when it comes to getting a job because employers don’t like to see this. But I think employers are going to have to change their outlook because they are going to find fewer and fewer candidates that fit the bill as they say.

  • Stefanie July 21, 2014, 5:49 am

    If you had told me five years ago that I’d be making most of my income writing about money I would have laughed in your face. I think the most important thing is being open and prepared for opportunity wherever it may come from, and to create your own when you’re struggling.

    • Melanie July 21, 2014, 9:45 am

      Haha same! Opportunities come when you least expect it and come in many different shapes and sizes.

  • John July 21, 2014, 6:24 am

    “In this country we have a very rigid, defined idea of success and most of it revolves around a 9-5 job, a family, and a house. I used to buy into it, too until I realized it was making me unhappy and that wasn’t my version of success.” I could not agree more Melanie. I saw this a lot when I left my job several years ago to work with my wife on our business. Most of our family members and a few friends thought it was just a phase and that it made no sense. You have to find what works for you and, more importantly, what makes you happy. I may work more hours in a day now, but I’m much happier and have the flexibility to do what I want. That’s also not to mention the fact that we get to teach our kids that there is so much out there in the world as long as they’re willing to work for it.

    • Melanie July 21, 2014, 9:48 am

      Yeah, most people think you should just buck up and stick with it and be miserable. Success comes in many forms and I think having flexibility of time to spend with your kids is amazing!

  • Chattanooga Cheapster July 21, 2014, 7:27 am

    I can only echo what others are saying. When I was younger I thought I would work my way up the “ladder” where ever I went. Once I got into the working world I realized that my idealized views were way off base. In the corporate world “success” is achieved almost exclusively by sacrificing your health and relationships. My definition of success is far different, as it is defined by good health and relationships.

    Many of the wealthiest men in the world are fat 60-somethings on their umpteenth marriage who barely know their kids. Compare them to a 60-something guy I know who runs 3 miles a day, plays tennis several times a week, and can often be seen with running around town with his grand-kids with an ear to ear smile on his face. Which one would you call successful?

    • Melanie July 21, 2014, 10:02 am

      You make such a good point! Makes you think about perceived success versus actual success.

  • Even Steven July 21, 2014, 7:45 am

    I think a lot of younger people are jumping from company to company trying new things and trying to hit the career lottery early. I have made the decision to stay with my company and move to different roles within the company. I do not plan to stay for the typical 30-40 years, I have a clear plan and it will work best if I stay where I am at in the company, I find that sometimes the grass is greener when it’s your grass and you have nourished it for a few years.

    • Melanie July 21, 2014, 9:56 am

      Yeah, sometimes you just need to water your own grass! In my old job, I reached the pinnacle of growth and there wasn’t a lot more I could do in regards to a promotion or a salary increase. I think that’s important for people to consider — how can I grow with this company? Is there room to grow?

  • Pennypincher July 21, 2014, 9:26 am

    Another great post from the RB40 team! I admire your working to serve the greater good.
    Tired of being poor and broke after college, I was happy to just be paying the bills!
    Corporate life teaches you many things. How to be a professional, give and take respect. Met some incredibly talented people. Some with a mind blowing work ethic. Many long days/nights, very little personal life. The ‘corporation’ is like an organism that must grow to survive. You can easily become a ‘zombie’ from it all.
    Like you said, a job is just a job. Let me add, work is work, a jobs a job. I had measurable withdrawal symptoms when I first left, missing the pay, camaraderie, and the level of respect you just don’t get out in the “real world”. Life balance is key to happiness/success.

    • Melanie July 21, 2014, 10:01 am

      Aww, thanks! You are so right about this — “The ‘corporation’ is like an organism that must grow to survive. You can easily become a ‘zombie’ from it all.”

      Balance is still something I am figuring out, but Joe and others have inspired me to try to find it. 🙂

      • pennypincher July 21, 2014, 11:44 am

        Ps- Forgot to mention, two more zombie making corporate working-world issues. An awful killer commute and dealing w/some difficult people on a daily basis. But then, I used to have nightmares about waiting on tables in college for years afterward as well!

  • Sharon July 21, 2014, 11:26 am

    I started to pen my post, but remembered Pennypincher’s view of corporate life. I don’t think I could express it more succinctly. It’s perfect from my perspective as well. I was one of the ones with the mind-blowing work ethic. Due to a reorg and burnout, I did the most unexpected thing. I decided I was tired of the BS and took early retirement. And that person who I had been, who had very little personal life, now has a full calendar of travel, music, fun, sports and recreation. I don’t miss my old self at all (though it did take a few months to get used to all of the freedom). So now at 53, I get freedom, a pension and have a tidy nest egg for the future. So there’s that reward for it all. But I’m glad to have gotten out before the work hours and stress ruined my health.

  • Ginny July 21, 2014, 11:29 am

    A wise person once said to me “your career is not your life but a means to fund your life.”

  • Bryan July 21, 2014, 12:05 pm

    Great post. I think we are in the dawn of a new era with work/life choices. The older generation doesn’t understand, because they came from the Depression era where any job was amazing and put food on the table. We don’t have to live like that anymore.

    • VA July 22, 2014, 11:30 am

      I think it’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes I worry that by reading too much about early retirement, I am making myself miserable at what would otherwise be an enjoyable job.

      • Melanie July 22, 2014, 7:35 pm

        I understand where you are coming from. I think if you have a job you love, enjoy the schedule and “feel free” that is all that matters. Early retirement is not for everyone. Freelancing is not for everyone. Neither is the traditional workforce. I agree, the PF slant is geared towards early retirement — and for me that means working on things I want at my own pace, NOT to just stop working. I have no desire to stop working completely. But I do want to find my identity outside of work and think about success in non-traditional terms. If you are happy, rock on! Happiness should be the measure you are judging yourself, not by what we have to say. 🙂

    • Melanie July 22, 2014, 7:38 pm

      There are definitely more opportunities now — opportunities that my parent’s generation didn’t have!

  • papadad July 22, 2014, 1:01 pm

    Career to me is life long. I think an interesting topic/angle to write about could be geared toward launching a second or “encore” career after having had a “successful” first career. Those who have retired early, have the financial means to NOT work but choose to do something (for pay or otherwise) always inspires me. I realize not everyone is as motivate/industrious to do this, but there are many (dare I say most) who find both a passion and some benefits of good health in keeping their brains active after retirement thus launching an encore career.

    every day that i clock into megacorp i remind myself that work is a means to an end and that end for me is financial freedom. I also remind myself that success is all relative and no one is going to carve my payscale, my paygrade, or my last 3 performance review results on my gravestone so better make sure I contribute something positive to society along the way.

  • Alexis July 22, 2014, 7:01 pm

    I also believe people have the wrong idea of what success means and looks like. Having a nice house and fancy car is great, but in the end if you are extremely unhappy with what you do on a regular weekly basis then all of those items mean nothing. I rather have nothing and be happy than live off materialistic items and be unhappy with my life.

  • Jason July 23, 2014, 6:45 am

    Great post Melanie! My thoughts about career and success have definitely been on a roller-coaster ride over the past few years. I used to get sooo stressed about trying to make my work perfect, and satisfy everything I need in my life. Now I tend to look at things a little more like Ginny’s comment above: “your career is not your life but a means to fund your life”. I’m fairly lucky in that I enjoy my job for the most part, despite being with the same employer since I started nearly 10 years ago, and there are plenty of opportunities to grow and develop. But I definitely don’t want to do it forever, and don’t want it to be who I am.

    I think you need to enjoy your work to a reasonable extent, and those you work with, but you don’t need your career to satisfy all your personal aspirations – use your job to fund the things you care most about.

  • Remmik July 23, 2014, 7:08 pm

    Thanks Melanie as it’s encouraging to hear that the younger generation won’t fall under the trap of the old model. All I can say is that after 15 years at my old company, I’m having a great summer as a layoff-ee despite the expected annoyances of the job search.

  • DC July 23, 2014, 9:00 pm

    I think people today are definitely not interested in working at one company. I think it also can be easy to get comfortable in a job and this can lead to missing out on opportunities. I just started a new job a few weeks ago and leaving my team of 4 years wasn’t easy.

  • Tawcan July 23, 2014, 10:14 pm

    Great post, job shouldn’t define who you are or how successful you are. You need to enjoy your job or you’ll be suffering. The way I see it is that if you’re enjoying your job, then it’s not really a job. You’re just getting paid doing something you like.

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