Monday, January 22, 2020

Thinking About Success (Part 3)

This is the third in this short series. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 via these links. Once you have decided what success is—at least for you—the next step is to work out how best to achieve it. The subject of this posting is the clashes this can cause in your life. Achieving success raises both practical and, quite often, emotional and ethical questions. Most people experience some clashes between the actions that they believe are most likely to bring them success and prosperity and their personal values and beliefs. Work/life balance is usually seen purely as a problem of scheduling time. This is far too superficial. The reason why it is often so difficult to obtain a balance between the working and non-working aspects of life is the clash of values and expectations that lead to the symptoms of scheduling problems.

It’s easy to assume that personal achievement and workplace success are more or less identical; and that material prosperity is probably more important as an external sign of success than for the extra comforts and richer lifestyle if provides. Looked at this way, long hours, constant availability for workplace demands, and the expectation that work will always come first are expressions of an underlying set of values. Work is what matters most, because success at work is the most important aspect of a “good life”. All other aspects of living must be held subordinate to the central drive to do well in career terms. And since that matters so much, it’s obvious that you must do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. Seen through the filter of this value set, there are no scheduling problems; no issue of work/life balance. Work comes first. Period.

The hidden problem lies in the phrase: “do whatever it takes.” In reality, while many ambitious people are prepared to take this almost literally, even they will have some inner boundaries that they will not cross easily, or without bad feelings afterwards. For the rest of us, the demand to do whatever it takes to achieve working success causes far more obvious clashes. That’s why there is a prevailing sense that to be successful usually means “selling out” to the corporation. Given the unspoken expectation in most organizations that fitting in with every corporate demand comes with the paycheck, it’s clear that setting boundaries on what you are willing to go along with is going to cause trouble some time.

If we look at some of the most common activities associated with career success, it’s easy to spot the potential problem areas:
  • Playing office politics.

  • Putting advancement before friendship or loyalty.

  • Never questioning the corporate line.

  • Subordinating all other aspects of life to the organization’s needs.

  • Making yourself visible (and amenable) to the demands of the “movers and shakers.”

  • Following the expected script (to the letter) in all external dealings.

  • Putting organizational needs and interests before our own or those of your family.

  • Doing whatever it takes (those words again) to achieve your goals and budgets, however demanding (or unreasonable) they may be.
It’s easy to characterize work as a kind of paid slavery to the all-powerful employer, but that isn’t really how it works. Most people fit in more or less willingly with what they see as the inevitable demands of a successful career. They want the money, the prestige, the recognition, and the status. They’re willing to “pay” a price for getting these things, because that’s how the world works. You cannot be an independent spirit and still succeed in the corporate world. At least, that’s the general assumption.

Yet our inner values and needs won’t simply go away. You may believe that smooching the big bosses, and displaying yourself to best advantage on every minor occasion, will get you to the top. But if, deep down, such behavior makes you feel bad, what you are creating is an internal dissonance that will eventually cause you great stress and upset. Those inner values are part of you. They define who you are. If what you have become and who you are don’t match reasonably well, there will be problems.

The major questions about how to achieve success are not the practical, superficial ones about what job to choose, or which career to pursue. Those things matter, but they can be changed and adjusted until you get them right. The real problems of attaining success are matters of value:
  • What kind of success best fits with your personal values?

  • Can you honestly do what it will take to achieve that success in that context and still be who you are?

  • How can you decide on which compromises are acceptable, if what you value in different aspects of your life turn out to be incompatible?

  • How far does your personal view of life’s priorities match with what your employer expects?
Most of us live in societies where material and career success are highly valued; where questioning the prevailing view of the “good life” is seen as both suspicious and lacking justification. I suspect it has always been like this. But, in the past, people had many fewer options and far lower expectations. In the remote past, survival alone would have been enough. Even in the 19th century, few peoples’ expectations ran much beyond a life of modest comfort and a reputation for basic respectability.

In recent times, the meteoric rise of the advertising and marketing industries has changed that. Almost every moment of our waking time, we are bombarded with images of desirable goods and services. We are encouraged to aspire to “lifestyles” that necessarily include a certain level of disposable wealth. We are constantly urged to push ourselves towards even more prosperous ways of living, because doing so demands that we spend more. No one urges a life of simplicity and modest aspirations. There’s no money in it. The 1960s produced an urge to drop out, but it didn’t last. Aside from those dealing in drugs, no one else in the commercial world could base a business on a lifestyle like that.

Achieving real inner success is never going to be easy, not just because it may demand considerable determination and talent, but because it will almost always require you to act in ways that are contrary to the prevailing expectations of others.
The inner values that tell you what is right, wrong, good, or bad are essentially personal. It’s almost impossible to explain them to anyone else, since what formed them was a set of life experiences unique to you. Yet our own values always feel unquestionably right and inevitable. Since they determine how we see the world, and everything in it, we cannot view reality in any other way. So if our values do not quite match those of the people around us, we must either suppress them (and “sell out”), or risk being seen as eccentric or worse. Achieving real inner success is never going to be easy, not just because it may demand considerable determination and talent, but because it will almost always require you to act in ways that are contrary to the prevailing expectations of others.

Truly happy and successful people—however much or little they earn—are always those who have managed to match their life choices to their inner values. For some, this may lead to fame and wealth. For others, it may produce a life of contented obscurity. Whatever it produces, that life is right for that person.

I often urge people to slow down and reflect more. The reason has a lot to do with hoping that, by doing so, they will take the time to act out of their own values and nature, not just blindly follow what is seen as conventionally good for them. Most of the misery in the corporate world comes from people getting themselves into situations that force them to act in ways that violate their real nature.

You can do it, but the cost in stress and unhappiness will be an extremely high one. And the highest cost of all may be to look back on your achievements in old age and realize that what you gave up in return was what you truly wanted.

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Steve Roesler said...

Very complete and well thought-out post as always, Carmine.

The bulleted list is dead on. What people often don't know at the outset (hiring process) is which of these are actually organizational norms. Not until some time on the job has passed does it become obvious where the values conflicts might be. And then each of us is confronted with the struggle of "This doesn't feel right" vs. "But everyone else seems ok with it--it must be me."

I recently heard a couple of speakers at a business meeting do presentations that ended with the catch phrase, "No Pressure...Just High Expectations." The message was clear to me: If you want to succeed there is, indeed, a lot of pressure to meet high expectations. It would have made more sense just to speak the truth. Instead, the participants were left with a well-orchestrated mixed message.

I'm coming across more and more clients who believe they don't have the time to reflect on satisfaction and consistency in their lives. That if they do, they'll somehow be "left behind."

The question that your series is asking is this: Behind what?

For the person who takes time to reflect and act consistently on values, there is no getting left behind. That person lives a life unfettered by the intrusion of external measurements. As a result, the scorecard is an internal peacefulness vs. what I am starting to see as "comparative existence."

Keep writing, friend...

9:21 AM  
John Wesley said...

You're right on about the way marketing has affected our perception of success. Everyone these days wants to be rich and famous, and doesn't realize that these feelings are the product of marketing campaigns. This leads to a lot of people who are very dissatisfied with life.

1:57 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Steve. Thoughtful and helpful as always.

Keep reading, my friend.

4:00 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thank you too, John.

I'm afraid most poeple are so used to all the marketing messages that they often confuse them with the truth.

Good comment.

4:03 PM  
Peter Vajda said...

Pursuing values that emanate from our Inner Core should not cause pain and suffering...challenges and stretching, yes, striving, yes, but not pain, struggle and suffering...this is the difference between True and Real values and ego-based values. When there is alignment and congruence between out inner values and outer behaviors, we experience a sense of well-being in the throes of battle. When there is misalignment and lack of congruence, no amount of struggle and clawing our ay to the top will result in any modicum of true and real happiness.

8:21 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Peter.

Alignment with true values offers excitement and satisfaction, as well as plenty of the kind of challenges most people enjoy.

Going against them never produces anything but frustration and inner turmoil, no matter how much money you earn or how much fame comes to you. It's never worth it.

Keep reading, my friend.

8:53 PM  

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