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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Our Corporate Social Responsibility as an Employer

The organization I lead now has over 3,200 employees, two-thirds of whom have limited options because of a disability, criminal history, low education level, or other significant barrier. And while there are a lot of part time employees among those 3,200, nearly half of them are the primary source of income in their households. That places an enormous responsibility on those of us in leadership positions to run the organization really well so we can continue to provide a livelihood for all those people who are counting on us. And we don’t take that responsibility lightly.

What we do matters. If we’re not paying attention to what’s going on around us and we allow ourselves to be blindsided, it matters. If we become myopic, complacent, or arrogant; if we fail to take care of our customers; if we fail to recognize what our competition is doing or fail to see new competitors or new forms of competition that are emerging, it matters. If we don’t successfully adapt to changes in our environment – changes in technology, demographics, the legal or regulatory landscape, or the larger economy, it matters. Even worse, if we cut corners, act unethically or illegally, take actions that might benefit us in the short run, but that will eventually result in long term damage, it matters tremendously. How we go about our work matters just as much as the work itself. And all of these things matter to a lot of people who are likely to lose their jobs if those of us running the organization aren’t doing our jobs as well as we possibly can. And if we let that happen, we should and probably will lose our jobs, too.

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On the other hand, if we are paying attention to what’s going on around us; if we’re recognizing opportunities, trying new ways to grow our businesses and accomplish our mission; if we are operating according to high ethical standards; if we’re continuing to learn and adapt; if we’re being good stewards of our resources; and if we’re treating everyone with respect and providing the kind of workplace and culture that enables our people to grow, we’re likely to see our organization grow, evolve, and employ more people. Fortunately, that’s been our recent experience, as we’ve added over 1,000 jobs in central Indiana and increased our revenue by 55% in the last five years.

Of course, our experiences haven’t always been that positive, and no employer can guarantee that any job will last forever. Changes in our external environment are occurring at an incredible rate and require near constant adaptation. Along the way, some jobs disappear while others are created. Some people learn and adapt to changing circumstances and requirements, others don’t.

Our approach is to do the best job we can to grow the organization in a financially responsible manner while simultaneously increasing our mission-related impact. In addition, while recognizing that each of us is primarily responsible for continuing to learn all our lives, as an employer, we are often in a position to help our people learn and grow, improve their education, and earn credentials that enhance their future employment prospects. Then, if circumstances beyond the control of an individual result in the loss of a job, at least the person affected is likely to be better prepared for his/her next step than might have been the case otherwise.

In my opinion, when a company is operating in a manner that enhances the prospects it will be able to continue providing a livelihood for its employees, and when that company is doing all it can to help its employees learn and grow, it is exercising what might be considered its most important corporate social responsibility.