Defining Success in Your Own Terms-- Claiming Your Professional Dream

"To have a possibility of happiness we must at the beginning fall in love at least a little with our work." -- David Whyte, The Three Marriages

In my book, Success with Soul-- Loving Your Livelihood, Living in Balance, I note that a major reason people come to me for coaching is a feeling of dissatisfaction with their work and career paths-- with what they are doing and the sense of disconnection with whom they have become.  Often, they don’t even recognize that they’re trying to model their ideas of what success is on what their parents or other influential people in their lives have wanted for them. In direct and indirect ways, people get messages from childhood about what they can do, can’t do, should do, and shouldn’t do in their professional lives, from their families, teachers, mentors, peers, and society at large.

In her insightful book, Hand-Me-Down Dreams, Mary Jacobsen asserts that in order to claim our own dreams for our work and lives, we may need to examine whether our parents were able to live out their dreams. Did they get the education they wanted? Were they stopped from having the career they wanted by virtue of their sex, class, racial or ethnic background?

Or Whatmaybe the careers they really wanted didn’t exist. Life coaching, for example, was not a recognized career when I graduated from college-- and is now booming. New job categories in the fields of technology and health are proliferating.  Also, the growth in number and kind of small businesses has been phenomenal over the past decade, as people (many of whom are women) pro-actively learn to sell and serve in areas of interest to them. In this way, as George Kao, social media marketing expert, suggests, you can at least have some money coming in while applying for jobs that interest you.

Those of you seeking a career within an organization might like to know that anthropology was just a blip on the map when my father discovered it. He'd expected that he would become a doctor until a friend in his freshman year at college told him about an exciting class being offered in the new field of-- anthropology! My father definitely took a risk in choosing “the road less traveled,” but he didn’t see it as a risk. Anthropology called to something deep within himself he hadn’t been aware of-- a way of working that involved cross-cultural exploration, using other languages, and opening new, global channels of communication among people.

Had my father become a research physician, he would certainly have pleased his own father, an immigrant to this country, who would've been delighted to have a son be a doctor-- a career offering societal respect and financial security. But when his father gave him his blessing to go in this new direction, my father didn’t hesitate to claim his new career path (being a professor at Stanford University, which lasted a lifetime).

Despite the scarcity of job opportunities at the time, my father was convinced from the start that he would find way to work as an anthropologist-- and would enjoy it in a way he never could have as a doctor.  What was important for my father was that his own father didn’t demand of his son that he sacrifice a way of working he'd chosen in order to please his father’s desire. The great gift my grandfather gave his son was the emotional freedom to follow his own path, trusting that he would best support his family by loving his livelihoodf.

The kind of conviction and determination of my father is really the bedrock of many career seekers and innovators up through now who have felt professionally successful. Steve Jobs, for example, who created his own tech career and business, knew what he wanted to do and persevered, even under humiliating adversity.  By the time he was 30, Jobs had set up the wildly innovative and successful company, Apple-- and then was fired by the Apple board, who felt he was no longer the right person to lead the company.   He was devastated and blindsided.  As he said in his commencement address to Stanford students in 2005, “I felt ashamed, I didn’t know what to do.  I’d been rejected, but I was still in love.”

His lifeline, ultimately, was discovering deep inside himself that no matter what, “I loved what I did.”  Not knowing what else to do, he followed his intuition using “beginner’s mind,” and started the company, Next, still doing what he loved to do.  Then he got back his dream job when Apple rehired him, with Next technology becoming “the heart of the Apple renaissance.”

Most of us are not Steve Jobs, but most of us do have the potential within ourselves to choose to work at something in our lifetime that deeply satisfies us by what it allows us to do in supporting, innovating, leading, and enhancing something that's important to us.  Defining success in our own terms requires that we listen deeply to what we are genuinely called to do and "pass by that which we do not love."

Now try this exercise: Write down a list of all the jobs and careers you’ve tried. For each, write down what you liked best about it-- and how it affected your satisfaction level with your whole life. Afterwards, consider and then write down, your own definition of success, wherever you are in your life path, with regard to: 1) The way you work and/or stay involved in your community; 2) What messages from your family and/or society you’ve had to overcome to find rewarding work; 3) What kind of support you've received (from family, friends, coach, therapist, colleagues) to find rewarding work; and 4) What is important to you in your life as a whole.

What is the next step you plan to take to claim your professional dream?