Professionals must  be in the  top 10% of the intelligence level in this country; so why are so many under-satisfied with their career?  The answer is easy: getting to it is the hard part.

In my coaching practice, I work with type “A” personalities.  There’s almost nothing my clients can’t do. They are smart, hard workers, creative thinkers, problem solvers.  They are also dissatisfied, and come to me because they can’t figure out on their own how to make it better.

The first thing I ask them is “what do you want to accomplish?”.  “Well, to be successful” they usually reply.  But what does that mean?  The other day I taught a Junior Achievement course to grade ten students at a public high school.  One of their tasks was to describe what success would look like to them.  This same, simple question cripples many professionals, not because they can’t answer it but because they answer it incorrectly.  Indeed, that’s usually why they’ve come to me.

At some point in our life, an intelligent person is no longer satisfied simply existing – even if that existence is at a relatively high level.  They need greater meaning in their life. They need to have a purpose. Think of going for a walk.  No one aimlessly wanders around unless their purpose is to get in shape, walk their dog, have the space to think in order to resolve an issue, or to enjoy the day or the company of the person they are wandering with.  But there is purpose there.  So one day – often between the ages of 30 and 40 but for professionals it can happen much later in life as well – they wake up and realize that they are not happy with at least one aspect of their life and that unhappiness can start to erode their stability in all areas.  It’s a clear sign that they need to rethink their definition of success.

What defines success for you? In an April 2014 Harvard Business Review article of that name by Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams, the authors offer that success can be measured in two areas: objective metrics (such as title, savings, the accomplishments of your children); or subjective metrics (such as ability to problem solve, the joy of collaboration, happiness at home).  They suggest that rather than creating a very long laundry list of goals to aspire to, intelligent individuals narrow the list down to a manageable lot.  “…no one would head up a major business initiative without establishing clear metrics for success, based on a strong vision of what a “win” will look like,” say the authors.  “The same principle should apply to managing your life and career.”

But how do we create that list?  In my experience, we often do so based on the influence of those around us, and on our own belief systems.    This has a very poor chance of being accurate, for several reasons:

    1. In most instances, people give advice that is based on their own experience, and more applicable to themselves than to another.  Sometimes it can be good advice, and sometimes it’s projection.  I call these mirror moments – when you might as well hold the backside of a mirror up to your face and let whomever is talking to you say those words to the person who really needs to hear it;
    2. Without deep and honest contemplation, we form our self-suggestions from the reptilian and limbic portions of our brain – those areas that are only capable of solutions based on past experiences.  When we limit our future options to past experiences, we are destined to repeat our errors, or at best, employ strategies that might have served us in the past but might not serve us well in the future.

So we can’t rely on the advice of ourselves or others.  Instead, we need to commit to a process of honest contemplation and discovery.  My clients know they need to do this, even before I suggest it to them, because of the anxiety they’ve been feeling.  At some level, we all understand that anxiety about our lives is a manifestation of the fear of exploring and being honest about our deeper needs.  The anxiety tells you that something is wrong, but then too often we point the finger elsewhere: our boss, the type of work we are doing, our work environment, or our responsibilities at home.  Those things may in fact be “off”, but a geographical cure (like changing jobs) isn’t going to help you.  First, you need to address what’s not working inside of you because those feelings will end up following you around wherever you go.  Trust me, they will.

And this dark space that contains the fears that are driving your dissatisfaction is usually the last place any professional wants to go.  There’s a reason that the professions have some of the highest addiction rates of all types of jobs: intellectuals would often prefer to numb out than face their fears.  They numb out with drugs, alcohol, spending, sex, and especially with work.  They use long hours to justify bad behaviour.  But in truth it’s self-inflicted pain to avoid the greater pain of being honest with what they really need.   I could quote Drucker or Covey but for a change let’s hear from modern day shaman Premasudha Janet Hobbs who writes that that the purpose of this darkness “is to clarify, and spurt us on…We need to encounter ignorance and even betrayal to make us uncomfortable enough to give us the will and energy to graduate from this very rough school room that is earth”.  Or as I tend to say, we wait until the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of changing.

So if we recognize that the path we are on is no longer serving us, how to we get to the heart of what success really means to us?  We go through a process of rediscovery: throwing out all our old ideas about what we want in life, and rebuilding the vision of ourselves from the ground up.  This doesn’t mean that our lives must become radically different – that’s not usually the case.  But we do learn to be honest with ourselves – even if that means that we might need to make some changes.  Coaching is really the process of guiding people sensitively and safely through this journey.   On the other side is a wonderful surprise: once we start to behave in ways that are more  true to our self, life becomes far more accommodating.  Relationships improve, life starts to hand us remarkable (and often immediate) opportunities, work becomes more productive and satisfying, and the world around us actually shifts to accommodate our needs.   Things become easy, and very sweet.  But the road there is a rocky one, there’s no two ways about it.  This is why I often refer to this process as phoenix having to rise from the ashes.

The things that are worthwhile often require hard work.  There’s a popular quote running around on Facebook these days: life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.   So honestly…what does success look like to you?