Sunday, February 03, 2013

What Does Success Look Like?

A couple of weeks ago, my sister brought over a section of our local newspaper for me. I don't subscribe, and I've mostly ignored my local paper since it went behind a paywall online. She correctly guessed, though, that I'd be interested in this article- it was a big write-up, complete with a cool 3/4 page picture, of one of my graduate school classmates. This classmate has gone on to a solid academic career, working on interesting science that may eventually be medically useful. It was a very flattering article, and I have no doubt it was well deserved.

A small part of me felt a bit of a sting upon seeing this article- no one is likely to write a big, flattering article about me in my local paper, after all.

But mostly, I didn't care, beyond being happy for my classmate. And since I'm the introspective type, I immediately started wondering about why I didn't care, particularly since I've been full of career-related angst lately.

I think it is related to the career advice I've found myself giving a lot recently: know what success looks like for you. My classmate is very successful, but that life is not what success looks like for me.

So what does success look like for me? I think that if I really had that figured out, my career angst would solve itself. Despite the fact that I tell other people that figuring out what success looks like to them is an important first step to figuring out what sort of career options will be viable, I can't fully describe what success looks like for me. I have the broad outlines, though. Success for me is to be always learning new things. I am starting to suspect it also involves creating things, which surprises me. It is having the recognized expertise in some field to make other people want to learn things from me. It is feeling like I'm doing something useful for other people. It is having a lot of autonomy in my work, and feeling like I can make the decisions that matter to me. And it is having a job that provides both the funds and the flexibility to live the lifestyle I want.

The reason my classmate's success is not the success I want is in that last bit- that particular type of academic career path doesn't provide enough flexibility for my tastes, and doesn't offer a reasonably likely path to that flexibility until quite late in the career, if at all.

But the more important questions of whether some aspect of my definition of success is missing from my current career path, and if so, which aspect is missing? Those still elude me. I'm working on that.

What does success look like for you? Are you on the path to achieving it?


  1. Yeesh, this is a hard question. I'm in academia, and a large part of how I function is by the runner's mentality "be better than that person I see ahead of me." The way I keep my sanity and a family life is by clever partitioning of my brain to enforce time periods in my week that aren't competitive.

    If I had to look at things seriously, I think I would judge myself successful if I am doing interesting science, and/or if there is a part of my life where I am making a difference in the world, or at least my neighborhood. One scientific contribution that will be remembered for several decades would be nice, though I recognize that as a long shot. A group of people who I could point to and say "I made a difference in their lives" would also be nice. My current life is not set up to achieve this goal right now.

  2. Anonymous4:45 AM

    I once had an economist who I admire describe another person in my field as someone who, "does good work." I want that said about me (and I want it to be true!)

    As much as I don't sent goals and resolutions for my personal life, I have a career bucket-list. It amazes me that I've been checking things off it. (Get an IPUMs mug, write a handbook chapter, get cited in a textbook, etc.)

  3. Sometimes I have fantasies that one day they will interview me on NPR about my work, but I'm not holding my breath. It would be cool to do something that people are interested in, broadly speaing. But that's not my definition of sucess. Basically, I'm pretty focused on my research and what I think of it (am I interested in it, enjoying it,e tc) and I don't think too much about external validation. My work fantasies include winning a big grant and/or a book prize. I'd like tenure. I have pretty modest ambitions for career success, as much as I love my career, because I'm so family focused right now, and I have to give up career superstardom (at the moment) in order to be present for my family. I take the long view so I'm not worried about it. Like @nicoleandmaggie, I would love to be known as someone who does good interesting work. I have the same ideas as Cloud, I think - lifestyle over career "success" in the broadest sense. But I can see going more full on work dominance mode once the kids are tucked away in college.

  4. This is a very valid question... And setting out without having it atleast a little bit figured out is like running blind...
    I have outlined my path as best as I could. The finer details can only be filled in along the way...
    For me this involves learning stuff which is important enough to make lifes of others who learn it meaningfully fuller and easier.
    In an IT background, this involves learning to make the correct design decisions... Being an architect who is in touch with the code...

    Success is being that mom who makes growing up fun, and eventual moving apart a natural part... Without the pain and angst...

    Thanks for asking it here!

  5. Anonymous7:18 AM

    I wonder why there are so few comments on this one. Maybe it is because success sounds like a destination and we are all too busy being successful in our daily lives to think about end-goals. Or maybe not.

  6. I've been pondering a question along these lines. I want to write about things I find fascinating, and I also want to write things I'd like to read. That's the internal side of it -- to do good work. On other other hand, I wouldn't mind fame and fortune either :)

    1. Personally, I would hate fame (perhaps because I'm an INFJ), but like @Cloud, I'm genuinely happy for my former classmates who have made the papers for jobs well done.

      It's actually my secret fortune that I've earned from my work that makes me feel very successful. I still enjoy being successful in two quiet businesses without anybody knowing it for sure - whereas when I used to live in the big city and I worked in a much more high profile job, I'd have brokers and insurance salespeople hounding me. Quiet actual wealth is better than people believing you're rich when you're really not there yet.

  7. Professional success? I would like to do some really important, groundbreaking work, get offered an endowed chair at MIT, and then decline it. :)

  8. Success is a funny thing to think about, at least to me. I too have seen some of my old classmates on newspapers (one just got an Emmy!) but it doesn't really affect the choice I made to become a forensic toxicologist. I doubt I'd like to see myself on TV though, talking about the sort of things that I do - wouldn't be for good things, that's for sure, lol.

  9. Anonymous11:41 AM

    I have tried for a while now to define this for myself because like you I do not believe in a universal concept of success. I'm much better at identifying what I don't define as success though. My definition of success remains :TBD.

  10. Success: waking up in the morning with the feeling "I can't wait to get started!". To be successful, I have to be flexible. For a time, it meant staying home with the kids - the alternative would have made my life miserable. Right now, it means having a job that is intellectually challenging and has potential for career growth as well as having plenty of time to spend goofing around the the kids.

    Thanks for this post, Cloud. I've been thinking about the meaning of success a lot lately - and it is so interesting to read other people's thoughts about it.

  11. Anonymous9:12 AM

    After spending a good number of years since I graduated with a PhD, and wandering around the earth, virtually, from a temporary job to another, from a postdoc to another postdoc, I can say that for me, success would be finally geting a permanent position, where I am my "boss", that no one will tell me things to do or not to do, and that I can do the research projects I really love to do.
    Needless to say, I am still in limbo, with another period of anxiety for looking for a new job. Because, you see, I'm werid: Why I’ve unsuccesful in obtaining a stable job? Well, I never felt that my “CV” was worth to try for a tenure track in any university. I lack of confidence on myself; I have 30+ publications with my name in it, yet, somehow I don’t dare to try! Why? I’m paralized! I just seem not to understand how this world works.


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