Sometimes the pot of gold at the end of the career rainbow isn’t all you thought it would be. Here are some thoughts on why you may find yourself asking, “Is this all there is?”
I recently read a paragraph in Reclaiming the Fire by Dr. Steven Berglas that resonated with me. Here it is:
Achieving what you want and realizing that no favorable psychological changes have automatically ensued is far worse than failing to reach a goal.
With failure you can always go back to the drawing board, or “try, try again” -these are actually energizing conditions.
With success that forces you to ask “Is that all there is?” no such second chance exists. The disappointment of exposing the myths that surround success is devastating because we are obsessed with success.”
For those who have found themselves highly successful in their chosen field, these lines can have a biting truth to them.
For those still on the journey to success as they have defined it, these lines mostly ring hollow. They fall into the category of, “easy to say when you’re already successful.”
Personally, I was lucky to hear this from someone who was as successful as I could ever hope to be while I was still a relatively young 28 years old. (See How to be happier than a billionaire.)
Still, as I read these lines it reminded me of a few important concepts:
People are bad at predicting how they will feel
If you are like most people, you’ve probably been telling yourself a story for quite some time. It’s something along the lines of, “when I ________(fill in the goal), then I will be happy (or feel successful or whatever).”
“When I make $500,000 a year I will be successful.”
“When I finish my Ph.D. I will be happy.”
The problem is that once you achieve that goal, you simply return to your baseline level of happiness. In fact, if you’re wondering how you will feel attaining a goal, you’re better off asking someone who has already attained it (see Dan Gilbert’s research).
-And as the quoted paragraph above illustrates, when you do finally achieve whatever your ambition is, you may experience a tremendous sense of disappointment.
It reminds me of the first time in a Lamborghini. I had a poster of a Lamborghini on my wall when I was a little kid right on through high school. I thought they were something magical, and owning one… hell, even sitting in one, was like a dream.
Then, one day, a friend had one that he brought by… and the emotion I felt as I sat in it was disappointment. It was cool, to be sure, but it was incrementally better than other cars I was much more familiar with. I had expected something amazing… and it was a let down.
If you are lucky, your definition of success changes while you are young
I say this for three reasons:
One, as you can see from my conversation with my 101 year old grandmother-in-law (see Career Coaching: 101 years of perspective), relationships are the currency that really matters.
Two, happiness has relatively little to do with your objective circumstances (roughly 10%), and thus your attitudes, interpretation of events around you, and where you focus your memory are extraordinarily important.
Three, I had the privilege of meeting some extremely wealthy people who didn’t realize what was important in life until they were at retirement age (see Why even successful people need career coaches). By then it was too late to get back the time they had lost… and no amount of money could change that.
The Mexican fisherman meets the Harvard MBA
This is a classic story, told many different ways, a version of which I have shared from bemorewithless.com.
“An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican replied, “only a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.” The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”
“But what then?” Asked the Mexican.
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”
“Millions – then what?”
The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
In other words, material success can feel like a real trap when you have achieved it and extremely alluring while you are still reaching for it. -And yet, if you are willing to reexamine what success really means to you, you may be able to shortcut the whole process.
The key is to redefine success as soon as you can so that the rest of you life can be as successful as possible.