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The last time I got a haircut, my stylist and I got into a discussion about wanting more out of life. We talked about taking more time off, making more money, working fewer hours and all kinds of things.
As she snipped and combed, I started asking some questions. Did my stylist have a good relationship with her daughter? Could she go on vacation to her favorite spot in the world? Was her job flexible, and did she have great friends?
Going through all of these questions, my stylist gradually brightened and so did I. Maybe she didn’t have a crew of stylists working for her, but she was making it — actually, she was crushing it.
In our discussion, we learned that sometimes people think of success as a big title like CEO. I can certainly think of CEOs that are enjoying their life, but I can also think of more than one miserable CEO who is swimming in accolades and money but starving for real friends — unable to be present with their families and having no time for the simple pleasures of life.
The experience with my stylist confirmed to me that titles and managing lots of people doesn’t define success. Living the life you want does.
Research backs this up. People in the US tend to be happier when they have more cash, but globally, it’s non-material things like autonomy and respect that better predict well-being. People are still able to have positive emotions — especially the kid directed at others like compassion — even when they’re not wealthy. That’s good news because it means money and titles are not the only routes to joy. You can define success on your own terms.
Related: Figuring Out What Success Really Means to You
The CEO title doesn’t mean you’ve made it
People often see CEOs or other high-level titles as the epitome of success because they assume that, once you’re at the top, you can simply delegate jobs and end up with less work. One thing that became incredibly clear to me once I became a CEO, though, is that the workload and expectations don’t ease up. If anything, the workload is heavier and the expectations are higher if you really want to do a great job.
I’m responsible for more, and I have to define balance differently as a result. I enjoyed myself with my family on a recent trip to Florida, but I didn’t get to leave my laptop at home the way some people might have. I constantly have to learn to pivot or pull myself and my team through to the next level.
This rule that you can’t just stop once you feel like you’ve “made it” applies to those outside the C-suite, too. Look at Tim Tebow — he dominated football at the college level because of his athleticism and all-in attitude, and he earned the Heisman as a sophomore.
Once Tebow arrived in the NFL, though, he struggled to work with more complex plays and adjust on the fly. The league required more and different skill sets, and his career got benched because he couldn’t deliver them. His story demonstrates that, because what you bring into a new situation or level won’t always be completely sufficient — you have to commit not only to developing the good skills and habits you’ve got but also to new ones. Failure to learn can stop your progress cold.
Related: You’re Less Likely to Be Happy Once You Start Making More Than This Amount, Studies Say
Real success means maximizing potential and influence
Because continued hard work and growth are such huge components of the stability and expansion of my career and business, I see my title only as evidence of my past accomplishments. Rather than viewing my title as proof that I’ve “arrived,” I ask myself if I’m reaching my maximum potential and whether I’m making a positive influence. If I can say yes to those things, then I consider myself to be successful.
These are questions you can ask yourself, too. Can you see that what you’re doing makes a difference? Do you genuinely feel good about how you are spending your time, the results you see in projects, or how people are reacting to you?
If you can define what you want, and if you take action to live out those healthy, safe desires and dreams, then you’re successful — even if those dreams and desires are unlike anybody else’s. The person who discovers who they are on a sabbatical instead of working, the dancer who feels free even though they’re not the doctor their family wanted them to be, the developer who isn’t the life of the party but who’s thrilled he wrote the software on everybody’s phones — all of them are successful because they painted their own finish lines, ran their own meaningful race and ended up exactly where they aimed to be.
Related: How to Build a Business and a Family at the Same Time
Others will define success for you, but you don’t have to listen
As you try to figure out what success means for you, you’ll likely have no shortage of people who want to give you their two cents.
My wife has to deal with this all the time. As a stay-at-home parent, she provides awesome support to the family. It’s her work behind the scenes — handling travel details, making sure the kids are fed — that keeps me able to work at a high level and sets us all up to do well. I have enormous respect and gratitude for her effort. Yet, from time to time, I can see that some people are surprised she gave up her career for our family. But it works for our family.
She’s happy providing the support she does, and she defines success as her ability to do that well. You have the same power to set your own definition of success and be happy, so don’t let others steal that power and tell you what your success should be.
You’re the captain, so plot the course you want
Success doesn’t come from a title or what brand of shoes you’re wearing. It comes from living the life you personally want and doing what matters to you. It looks different for everybody, and you’re in control of how you define it for yourself. So find your own sense of meaning, and when others let their biases and judgments come out, just plug your ears. They might have their opinions about where your ship should go, but ultimately, you’re the captain at the helm.