3 Tips to Define Career Success on Your Own Terms

by Sharon Elber

Career Success

Taking the time to define what career success looks like for you is important for several reasons. If you don’t have a clear picture of what career success looks like for you, then:

  • You will not be able to recognize it when you achieve it.
  • You will have a hard time building a practical career path plan or setting intermediary goals towards a satisfying career.
  • You may waste time, energy, and money chasing opportunities that do not serve your ultimate success.

This guide will help you think through what career success means to you. Included in each section are practical question prompts designed to get you thinking more deeply about how to define your own career success. Consider using them as journal prompts or exercise questions to work through in a notebook to get the most out of this article.

#1: Identify the Aspects of Your Work that Feed Your Passion

“Follow your passion.” It is an old adage that may seem too good to be true. However, people that are able to incorporate their true passions into their work report higher levels of job and career satisfaction.

It is not realistic to expect our work to excite us all the time. However, part of steering your career in a direction that will ultimately feel satisfying is to tune-in to those aspects of your work that feed your passions.

Take time to identify what about your current or past work made you feel alive, passionate, and excited about your work. In addition, if your work thus far has felt like tedious drudgery, give yourself permission to imagine different types of work that would be more in line with your passions.

Passion Question Prompts:

  • What tasks or projects have you worked on that made you feel satisfied, enthusiastic, and in your zone?
  • Can you identify times when doing your work did not feel like work at all? If so, try to think through what it was about those experiences that was feeding your passions.
  • What special talents or skillsets give you a sense of empowerment at work and feel effortless?
  • Have you ever lost all track of time and suddenly realized hours had passed while you were engrossed in your work? If so, take time to get in touch with those experience and identify what passions may have been at play while you were “in the zone.”
  • How might you shift your career to make your passions more central in your day to day work?

#2: Get Real About Your Values

We all have unique professional values that inform our approach to our work. Often these values evolve over time as we mature and through various life experiences. In fact, it is not at all uncommon for the values that we thought we held when we launched our careers to transform as we actually engage in the work.

Defining a career trajectory that will ultimately feel satisfying requires that you get clear about what aspects of work you value most so that you can plan a career path that will map onto your current value system.

Examples of professional values include:

Money

For some people, the bottom line of a paycheck is a highly held professional value. Because money offers so many options for security, leisure, and opportunities for our children, there is absolutely nothing wrong with valuing money over other aspects of our professional life. However, if money is not something you highly value, then defining career success through this narrow lens is likely to lead to disappointment and burn out.

Autonomy

While some people are happy to follow direction and be given clear instruction on tasks, others find such professional situations to be uncomfortable, stifling, and even oppressive. If you value autonomy highly, chances are you can identify it by getting in touch with a persistent sense that your superiors at work seem to be “getting in your way” rather than offering helpful guidance. People that highly value autonomy are often miserable doing work that is highly micromanaged or tightly controlled by restrictive policies and procedures.

Flexibility

Does a 9-5 job feel like it is keeping you from important things in life such as family obligations or seem to interfere with your natural productivity rhythms? Or do you appreciate the structure and predictability that a regular work week provides? Getting in touch with your need to control your own work hours is an important aspect of evaluating what career success looks like for you.

Leadership

Do you thrive when you are in charge of work situations? Or, do you find being the ultimate person responsible for the outcome of a team to be too much pressure? Take some time to decide how much you value being a leader in order to get a clear vision of what success means to you.

Impact

Some people are highly geared towards making an impact on others through their work. If this applies to you, then chances are you have identified passions in the above section that include making an impact on the lives of those you serve through your work. If impact is something you value highly, take the time to think through what kinds of impact you want to make and identify a career path that will give you the opportunity to do just that.

Value Question Prompts:

  • Rate the example values given above on a scale of 1-10 in terms of how much you value them: Money, Autonomy, Flexibility, Leadership, Impact.
  • Take a moment to list other important values that you have which were not on the list above.
  • Have your values changed since you started working in your current profession? If so, make a note of those changes.
  • Recall a professional moment when you felt you were able to embody one of your most deeply held values. How did that feel?
  • Think through the work other people are doing in your chosen field or employment sector. Are there others doing work that is more aligned with your core values than your current position allows?
  • Is your current field completely antithetical to your core values? If so, what are some other careers that may be more in line with your core professional values?

#3:  Analyze Your Best Work Moments

One of the ways to get in touch with what career success looks like for you is to consider those times in your current or past positions that felt extremely positive and uplifting. By opening up these experiences to some analysis, you can start to define success through a lens that will resonate with your own values, passions, and talents.

Best Work Moments Question Prompts:

  • Identify three professional experiences that felt extremely satisfying for you. Take some time to write about each one, identifying the specific elements that felt empowering or made you proud of a specific accomplishment.
  • Using the previous sections of this article as a guide, identify the passions and values that were active in this experience that led to it feeling so satisfying.
  • How can you redefine your notion of career success now that you have a clear picture of a successful moment from your past?
  • What would it look like to make the kind of success you identified in these professional experiences more central to your day to day work?

Prepare to Change Your Course

Once you have taken the time to clearly define career success on your own terms, then it is time to start making a plan to shift your career in the right direction. Be sure to read the articles listed below to learn more about making a career path plan, setting career goals, and identifying educational opportunities to make a career shift that will serve your definition of career success!

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