Thoughts on Success – in a career and in life

a personal potential

There are a lot of definitions of success and formulas for achieving it. For example, J. Paul Getty is said to have recommended, “Rise early, work hard, strike oil.”

Elbert Hubbard is credited as the author of an often quoted description of a person who has achieved success as one “who has worked well, laughed often, and loved much.” This has some similarities with Andrew Carnegie’s statement that “There is little success where there is little laughter.”

There are also similarities in the way people as different as George Patton and Booker T. Washington said they measured success:

“I don’t measure a person’s success by how high he climbs, but by how high he bounces when he hits bottom.” George S. Patton

“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.” Booker T. Washington

Noting that most successful careers are not planned, Peter Drucker put it this way: Most successful careers result from understanding what your values are, what you’re good at, what you’re not good at, the kinds of situations you work well in and the kinds of situations you don’t work so well in. Then you try to find a fit with all of that.

When a student in one of Goodwill’s Excel Centers asked me what the keys to my success have been, I put it in pretty simple terms, “I got a good education; I’ve worked hard all my life; and I’ve never stopped learning.”

Another approach: The best way to succeed is simply to exceed the expectations others have of you. If you exceed the expectations of your customers, they’ll probably keep buying from you. If you exceed the expectations of your boss, you’ll probably get to keep your job. Of course, after a time of exceeding expectations, the way you are performing becomes what others expect. Then, if you are to continue to exceed their expectations, you have to improve. And the cycle never stops.

During my career I have met countless people who get no enjoyment or satisfaction from what they do for a living and who want to make a career change in hopes of getting more satisfaction from the work they do going forward. I give them the same advice I frequently give young people who have no specific career goals or aspirations. I tell them to look for a place where:

  • There’s a good values fit. Your values and those of an employer don’t have to be identical, but they had better be compatible. Otherwise, you’re going to have problems.
  • You can use your abilities to a substantial degree. Otherwise, you’re going to be frustrated.
  • You can learn and grow. That’s more important today than ever.
  • You think you are likely to enjoy the people you work with. After all, you might be spending half your waking hours with them.

If you get all four of those, you’re probably better off than 95% of the population. I’m extraordinarily fortunate to have had all four in abundance my entire career.

My favorite description of a successful life, though, has developed in part as a result of having known through my work literally thousands of people who have had significant disabilities limiting their occupational choices, but who have not let their circumstances prevent them from making the most of their abilities and opportunities. Many of them have been people who “worked well, laughed often, and loved much.” I wrote about a few of those individuals in a December 2013 post to this blog I titled, “The Magnificence of the Ordinary.”

Their examples, along with those of many others, have strongly influenced my idea of a successful life:

When you get to the end of your life, you compare what you did with what you might have done, and you compare the kind of person you were with the kind of person you might have been. It’s a relative measure, not an absolute. It’s really about how close you came to developing your potential.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Success – in a career and in life

  1. Great post, and I love these quotes. Focusing on exceeding others expectations…I suppose this is good, but you can always do more than that. YOUR expectations should be even higher, and I feel like you should focus on going above your expectations. I get what you’re saying, but for some, others’ expectations may be too low!

  2. Dear Jim,

    I very much enjoy reading your updates. They reinforce the appreciation I have always felt for you over the years while at Goodwill. Your achievements are really quite outstanding and your current reflections are quite priceless. Many thanks. Ken

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