by Julie Pham, Ph.D.
Have you ever been asked, “What does success look like to you (at some point in the future)?” Have you ever asked yourself that question?
If you have any achievement-oriented people in your life, or you are one yourself, my guess is the answer is yes.
I was asked by a friend a few months ago, “What does success look like to you in five years?” I bumbled my way through, trying to remember my organization’s mission statement. Implied in that first question is another question: “What activities do you need to be engaged in now to help you achieve your vision of success?”
For example, success for me looks like becoming a best-selling author in five years. That means I’d better write a great book — and get a smart agent — and market the heck out of it.
Then my friend asked, “What did you think success looked like to you five years ago?” I got her point. I had no idea I’d be doing what I do today. I can’t even remember what I imagined success was back then. So much has happened since. Whatever it was, it must not have been that important.
Asking “what does success look like” and creating a corresponding workback plan makes sense for a single project but I’ve found it’s way more unpredictable to apply this to my career or personal life. For most people I know, unexpected events happen in our lives that change our ideas of what success looks like. As someone who has gone through numerous pivots, I no longer invest too much energy into creating detailed plans, and I forgive myself if I take a detour.
Even though I’ve been asked some form of this question numerous times and I have asked it of others, this time, it nagged at me. Why is success described as something that can be seen, something tangible? What if we were to reframe the question as, “What does success feel like (at some point in the future)?” I realized my answer would be different.
Recently, I talked to a girlfriend who has struggled with losing weight for years. She named a weight she wanted to get down to. That’s what success looks like to her. She described how she would feel confident and healthy again at this goal weight. I asked, “What if you focused on doing activities that make you feel confident and healthy instead of losing weight itself?” We often conflate what something looks like with what we think achieving it will help us feel. The activities that might make her feel good might also help her achieve her weight goal or they might not. Inversely, she might engage in unhealthy activities that don’t make her feel confident in pursuit of her weight goal. With this reframe, she is more clear about what she actually wants versus what she thinks she should want.
I know talking about how we “feel” might sound wishy-washy. That is because feelings are usually described in very generic terms: happiness, sadness, joy, anger. We are constantly fed elaborate images of success, yet we lack the words to accurately describe the feelings we desire.
Here are some of my answers to the reframed question. Success feels like:
- The pain that comes from struggling to learn something hard followed by the delight in knowing that I can still surprise myself through learning
- Having so much passion for what I do, I never even think about the difference between “work” and “life” because they’re one
- The freedom that comes from accepting the responsibility for my own choices
The activities that will help me feel this version of success are so much more open-ended than if I were to stick to pursuing what success looks like.
It’s not so much about what I will do, because so much is possible. Reframing the question helps me filter out activities that won’t help me feel success. For me, that means things that bore me, that make me count the minutes until I’m done, and that require asking for permission from others instead of giving myself permission.
I’m not saying don’t name what success looks like. Just be aware that what it looks like and what it feels like are two different ways of envisioning the future. When I look at this through the lens of how I want to feel, I realize that I am pretty successful already, even without the best-selling book or a legion of followers that signal achievement. Sometimes I’m anxious about how I’m performing compared to my peers. I then remind myself to ask, “Do I care more about what I want to feel or what others think I should have? Am I going to follow my internal compass or look for cues from others to tell me where I should go next?”
When you employ this reframe, you too might discover you’re already successful. Or you might realize you’ve been pursuing success in a way that is actually preventing you from feeling success. You might also start to look for strategic ways to achieve what success both looks and feels like.
It’s the beginning of a new year. Let’s start by writing out some possible “success feels like …” statements. Here are some examples to get you thinking:
- I want to feel like I matter to those in my life
- I want to feel pride from doing honest work
- I want to feel a sense of surplus love that I can invest in others
- I want to feel …
Then consider what you need to do — and not do — to help you feel those ways.
Now that you’ve begun describing success differently, try asking someone in your life, “What would success feel like to you?”
Julie Pham, Ph.D., is the CEO at CuriosityBased, an organizational development practice focused on fostering collaboration, connection, and communication. She grew up in Seattle, after immigrating to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam. She co-owns Northwest Vietnamese News with her family.