What does it mean to be successful?
Perhaps leadership really does begins at home, with each of us defining what we want for our careers and our lifestyles.
Many years ago, I worked in a busy and fast-growing consulting firm. By all accounts, I was doing well— I was getting the recognition, the new projects, the “growth opportunities,” the salary increases, the ownership opportunities that defined success. I was good at my work. I genuinely liked my colleagues.
On an average day, I commuted 90 minutes to work, worked a long day and commuted 90 minutes back home, listening to books on tape and energizing music to switch gears.
I’d come in the door, figure out some kind of dinner while talking about work, have a glass of wine, sort of watch TV while reading a book. I’d fall asleep. At 5 a.m., it was time to do it all over again.
On Fridays, I’d arrive home with my computer and a bit of work to “catch up on over the weekend”. The weekend that was supposed to be personal time, family time, social time, creative writing time, gardening time, fixing up my new house time.
One day, at 5 a.m., while sitting on the deck watching the sun come up, I realized that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my job— it was an entrepreneurial environment that engaged my creativity and offered plenty of opportunities. Yet very little about it was right. For me.
I had become really good at climbing the wrong ladder.
Fast forward six months, and I was working in a nonprofit environment. I had a 40-minute each way commute, a 35-hour work week, a role that required autonomy, creativity, strategy and the ability to live on a nonprofit paycheck. It was a great fit for a number of years.
Until my needs changed. As career and lifestyle needs tend to do.
So I’ve been following with interest all of the recent media talk about “leaning in,” and shorter work weeks and telecommuting policies and other discussions on women (and men) managing, surviving, adapting and thriving in the workplace.
(I particularly enjoyed this piece in which Forbes writer Elaine Pofeldt broadens the conversation to include what was in the end, my own choice.)
But it feels like a big part of this whole work-life conversation is missing.
Who is defining what it means to be successful in our work? To make a valuable contribution? To be a leader? Whose rules are we actually playing by, and is there truly room for those of us who want to rewrite those rules?
What does it mean to define the success we want? Or to revise that definition?
For some of us, being the woman in the board room or the guy in the corner office is what it’s all about. Some would rather own the building the room sits in. Some are more fulfilled by technical roles and the mechanics of problem-solving than by moving up to management.
Some of us thrive on 70-hour weeks and building something new. Some of us are at our best with a three-day work week. Some of us want to take a few years off to focus on raising children.
Some of us would rather walk away and play a different game altogether. And quite often, what we want and need in our work lives changes over time.
I believe that writer Christopher Morley had it right when he said “There is only one success – to be able to spend your life in your own way.”
And yet, what I hear from women and men alike is that they aren’t succeeding in “making it all work.” More often than not, that’s about playing by rules that have nothing to do with how they want to be spending their life.
It’s easier, often, to get caught up in expectations that have nothing to do with making our own way. We get sucked in to what does not align with our values, our strengths, our priorities or our needs and the needs of those other important people in our lives.
We keep our head down, follow the rules and we think this is success.
We’re wrong. (And quite often, unhappy.)
What if we shift the conversation from what the rules are and how to compete towards embracing and making room for a wider variety of contributions? It’s time for each of us to take a leadership role in defining what it means to be successful in our work.
We women may face judgment and analysis of our career choices more often than men do, but it’s really about all of us. We’re in this thing together. And perhaps leadership really does begins at home, with each of us—defining what we want our careers and our lifestyles to be like and what it is that we are actually working for.
Let’s talk about that for a change. The rest will slowly take care of itself.