Jamie Anderson and Ayelet Baron venture beyond the workplace, broadening out the definition of what it means to be successful.
After many years of climbing the corporate ladder to what she thought was success, a senior executive who we will name Eileen, took in the scene around her at an airline event for frequent flyers: swathes of exhausted and unhappy faces.
She realised that she had certainly broken the glass ceiling in terms of career progression, but at what cost? In the months before the event she had divorced, and the endless stress and travel was damaging her health.
Eileen is not alone. Many people in business reach a level of high professional achievement only to realise that they’ve made too many commitments and tradeoffs. This realisation has become an epidemic among senior managers and leaders, what some have termed ‘summit syndrome’.
The aspiration to be recognised as a multifaceted and purposeful human is powerfully present across the upper echelons of senior management. But in so many cases these high achievers hide their wider dreams and aspirations, and suffer in well-paid silence.
Many from Generation X who have achieved professional goals, had a tertiary education. Many were benignly guided away from their passions in pursuits such as sport, music and art to lead to a ‘good’ job and successful life.
A career professional who we will name John experienced just this advice as an elite junior cyclist in his mid-teens, before being guided towards the ‘rational’ career path of a university degree. This linear educational path often then sets an individual onto a more or less linear career path – law students become lawyers and accounting students become accountants. And once in an organisation, career paths often unfold in an equally linear way – first as an individual contributor within a functional department, then team leader and on to middle and sometimes senior management in the same function.
Something else starts to happen on this linear track. As we progress we are ranked and compared to others according to a narrow range of performance criteria. As we progress, we accrue artefacts of recognition – degree certificates and job titles, for example. Rarely does the path take into account wider life goals such as fulfilling private relationships and parenting, the pursuit of personal passions, health and wellbeing.
We propose an alternative philosophy to purposeful living – what we call lifeworking. This approach does not try to separate life and work into two distinct and seemingly incompatible spheres, but instead meshes both. We propose three possible paths for high achievers:
Whatever choice they make (and sometimes they choose more than one option), individuals need to be the ones driving the shift towards lifework. But in our experience there are two barriers that prevent them from doing so – defining purpose and addressing fear.
Once Eileen realised that her quest to ‘be the best’ had become narrowly defined, she stepped back to reflect. This began a process whereby she started to create purposeful goals that went beyond promotion and generating value for the firm. She had affection for many of her colleagues, and felt she was needed in her role as an advocate for younger and female co-workers. But she had lost a sense of purpose, and made the dramatic decision to step away from the corporate environment to take time to define what success really meant for her.
John was pursuing a similar path, but his exploration of the meaning of success was a team effort. To develop the concept of their lifework project, John and his wife Anne-Marie spent many hours talking together, and these discussions culminated in a drawing exercise.
In late 2009 the two sat together with a large sheet of paper and co-created a hand-drawn picture of what success really meant. Their sketches revealed a wider definition of success – they aspired to have a loving relationship and to live in a semi-urban environment in which their children could play and be free. John also dreamed of returning to elite-level competitive cycling.
When Eileen and John embarked on their respective journeys towards lifework they both recognised the need to confront deep-rooted fears. The first set of fears were personal, and for John these related primarily to financial security. Eileen had a fear that if she stepped away from her linear career, then she could never go back. But the more she thought about this and talked about it with others, the more she realised that the value of her qualifications and experience would not perish within a year or two.
The second set of fears related to social and professional environments: what of a family who values education and career success? What about possible reactions of bosses, peers and colleagues?
In the end John and Eileen realised they needed to accept that not everyone will understand the decision of a non-linear career path choice. The people who matter the most are close friends and family – as they are the ones who will live with the consequences, and need to have their own fears addressed.
Anyone who pursues the path of lifework needs to acknowledge that certain givens are no longer valid. Embarking on a non-linear career adventure often requires investment in time and money as new skills are developed: the further away from core expertise, the greater the investment.
John let go of his academic titles, no longer conducted applied academic research, discontinued attending academic conferences, and reduced long-haul business trips. He did not step away from academia completely – he worked as a free agent with a number of institutions, including his previous employer.
John also established himself as an international keynote speaker. He raced regularly and, four years after embarking on his lifework project, won a bronze medal at a world-level Masters cycling championship in Italy.
When Eileen left her corporate job she joined a small startup, but after a few months realised that she needed to take time off to focus on her health and wellness and reflect and reprioritise her needs. Eileen wrote her first book, and started to build her brand as an expert on the future of work and creating 21st-century organisations, giving herself the title of ‘Chief Instigator’. Now, she has written her second book, and is building her reputation as an international speaker and advisor.
The lifeworking approach meshes life and work into an integrated existence, but most importantly it is a way of living in which the individual and not the organisation defines the meaning of success.
Do you have the courage to redefine success? The authors of this article did – we are ‘John’ and ‘Eileen’.
To find out more about Lifework, view Jamie Anderson’s TED talk: ‘What is Success, Really?’