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Reflections on defining success authentically to align with our core positioning
I have been thinking a lot about success. How we define success and how our idea of success can sometimes be misaligned with our essence. In an earlier post, I wrote about how identifying and owning one’s essence is essential for a differentiated and authentic positioning.
As the year draws to an end, I find myself in a more reflective space. In this post, I want to share a personal lesson on how I used to define success, how that created misalignment, and how I repositioned myself.
The trap of optics
Most of us take our cues of success from the world around us. I was no different, and early in my career, I measured success as follows (in no particular order):
More status and authority
More accolades and admiration
I looked around me, and those who I considered successful had these things. I worked hard toward career advancement. I was pretty good at what I did, and I moved up the career ladder to become a manager, a director, and a VP of marketing at both Fortune 500 companies and Startups. More money came, naturally, as did more responsibility and authority. More opportunities to be recognized, respected and occasionally admired.
But this image of success had a dark side for me. Stress, worry, fear of failure, and the fear of not keeping up. I acknowledge that everyone feels this as part of one’s career trajectory. We are growing and changing, and experiencing discomfort is part of the journey. But for me, this idea of success began to interfere with my authentic self. I was trying to look and act like others around me. I started should’ing myself more. I should be more dynamic. I should be more visible. I should have more presence. I should be inspiring! Work became less joy and more burden. Less creative, more stifling. Less flow and more stuckness.
So I hit the pause button and made a few observations:
Good enough vs. great
I’ve always had a curious mind that bent toward learning, so it was easy for me to pick up new skills. I was good at many things, but I wasn’t great at them. In fact, in some areas, I wasn’t even very good, I was simply good enough. I was not great with data, I was simply good enough. I was not great in operations, I was just good enough. I made a list. The great list was very short.
Can vs. should
Being the oldest of three children, responsibility came naturally to me. I can take charge. I am bold, organized, responsible, and disciplined. This made me suitable for leadership roles. But when I reflected on how I was as a leader, I observed that did not wear that leadership suit lightly. It weighed me down. I took my responsibilities as a leader way too seriously. My inner critic became very loud. This created stress and anxiety, which impacted my performance. I was hard on myself and those around me.
Feeding vs. draining
I observed that certain types of work fed me. Work that was strategic, creative, and imaginative energized me and revved me up. But certain kinds of work drained me. Operational stuff, budgeting, and in-the-weeds execution all sucked the juices out of me and exhausted me. Smart leaders hire people who complement their skills. But all leaders need to enjoy leading and managing people. I did not. I did it because I was pretty good at it, but it did not feed me.
Finding my way back to my essence
Finding my essence, I realized, was a process of discovery over time. It was not easy. I had many sleepless nights and much anxiety about whether I’m on the right path or simply going in circles. I had to listen to that quiet but clear inner voice and turn down the volume on my very loud inner critic. I didn’t entirely silence her. She was still valuable, but I listened to her judiciously and sparingly.
It took me a few years of experimenting with my work and work style. Paring back some work, taking on new types of work to understand what made me come alive. Not only do we do our best work when we come alive, but we also serve our purpose best when we come alive.
I paid attention to how I felt while doing the work vs. how I felt about the outcome of my work. Am I in flow? Am I having fun? Do I find myself thinking about my work because I want to and not because I have to? I started should’ing less and just being more. Focusing on my own process meant I only competed with myself. I focused on making my next work product better than my previous work product.
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive. —Howard Thurman
The intersection of essence and need
Once I honed in on my essence (what I was truly great at and what made me come alive), I had to figure out how what I had to offer met an urgent market need.
After a few years of experimenting, I saw that helping founders address difficult, strategic questions early in their journey not only made me come alive, it helped them build better products and a stronger GTM motion. The work I do with positioning does exactly this. I delight in storytelling. I am a writer! It has taken me many years to claim this boldly. I love to write and work with words to create and inspire. I love helping startups hone in on their essence and shape their vision, and tell their story. I can say with confidence that I am at my best when it comes to telling stories: helping others tell their story as well as telling my own.
This brings me back to the beginning of this post: How I defined success. That old template of success was not serving me. It was making me unhappy and self-critical. So I dumped it. Now my new success criteria looks like this:
Being in service of something bigger than me
Experience joy in all of my work, even the challenging bits (especially the challenging bits)
Choose creativity over consistency or predictability
Find contentment in the journey
I can tell you that I am happier and more fulfilled than I was ever before. And the funny thing is the success criteria that I used to chase after show up now and again without me chasing them. Sometimes they show up and get me out of alignment too! But over the years, I have developed the ability to notice that I am out of alignment. That I am letting the external mess with my internal. And I have created my own practices for bringing myself back to my essence. And the best part was realigning with my essence allowed me to not only be more authentic and relevant but also differentiated.
I’ll wrap up this post by saying THANK YOU for reading First Impression and giving me your time, attention, and support. It means the world to me. I wish you all a joyful holiday season and an abundant new year. See you in 2023!