At age 23, I networked my way into a job leading a high-level program for the Pentagon.
This put me on my dream path of being an operative in the CIA.
This was after earning a prestigious Master’s degree and studying intensive Dari and Arabic on the weekends.
I held a leadership role with influence over U.S. foreign policy objectives in Central Asia — particularly Afghanistan — to prepare civilians for the frontline of the war on terror. I was making roughly six figures, racking up awards, promotions, and countless compliments and approving smiles from the people in my life who watched as my career trajectory skyrocketed.
This had been my dream for so long, and the fact that I’d achieved it could mean only one thing: I was successful.
… Or at least that’s what the world told me I was.
But I didn’t feel successful.
In the years since then, I left the world of intelligence and became a career coach… Natural career pivot, right?
I’ve seen so many of my career coaching clients struggle in similar circumstances: They are working hard and getting everything they thought they wanted, only to find that they still don’t feel “successful.” In the course of working with these clients, I’ve identified a few steps to help them find success on their own terms.
1. Stop Listening To Others’ Opinions. The world is full of noise, and as anyone who has ever been faced with a tough decision knows, there are plenty of people out there who have opinions about how you should be living your life. In fact, studies show a whopping 70% of Americans read product reviews prior to making a purchase – it seems we want to hear everyone’s two cents prior to venturing any risk. When I started polling the opinions of those around me, the response was unanimously one of shock: You want to leave your sparkly job in this economy? Once I’d opened the door for them, the feedback came at me fast and furious. Most of it did nothing more than cloud my own judgment and vision about what I already knew I truly wanted.
…So why bother soliciting feedback in the first place? I see this frequently with clients. They have a mental catalog of feedback they’ve been collecting from other people over the years. More often than not, the words of the naysayers become a self-sabotage mechanism, and my clients use them to protect themselves against the vulnerability of pursuing what they truly want. Once you have a good grasp on what you want to do, stop asking others to weigh in – period.
2. Ask yourself: What Does Success Mean To You? We all have subconscious beliefs— usually formed early in life — about what success looks like. The trouble is that we have no reason to question these ideas until we’ve followed our preconceived “roadmap to success” and realized it leads to a dead end. At that point, our belief system is begging for a complete overhaul.
When I made up my mind to leave the Pentagon, I had to confront the definition of success that had been hard-wired in me since childhood: the journey of getting “MORE.” This meant outperforming everyone else and earning more accolades, more titles, and more money. When I really took stock of what I had, I realized that my ideas of success were completely intertwined with other people’s opinions of me. That is not sustainable.
3. Figure out what’s driving you. The realization that my definition of success was driven by fear, ego, and others’ impressions of me sent me into a quarter-life crisis. To be honest, I’m not sure I knew who I even was during that time of my life. I weighed my options: Stay the course, or chart my own path. As terrified as I was of the unknown, I knew the status quo wasn’t sustainable – I was just too unfulfilled.
I see this all the time in my practice. I’ve had clients who are scared to abandon their careers because they’ve earned advanced degrees, taken on debt, and made major life decisions and even cross-country moves to accommodate a career they desperately want to be rid of. What drove you to make these decisions in the first place? Check-in with yourself so you can be more conscious of what inspires your decisions as you move forward.
4. Get clear on what you’re scared of—and then put yourself out there. After leaving my job, I began networking again, hoping to get clear on what I truly wanted to do. After all, clarity comes from engagement, not thought. I needed to get “out there,” and so should you! In the process, I learned a lot about what other people wanted to do professionally, and I shared a lot of my own insights and advice. As the people around me implemented my suggestions in their own lives, they began seeing results. “You should be a career coach,” they’d say.
That sounds like poverty, I thought to myself.
And then I judged myself and the entire profession in the way I imagined everyone else would judge me: purple websites with waterfalls, old ladies with outdated job search tactics, and worse. That fear of judgment might have kept me from pursuing a coaching career, but I already knew how unhappy the alternative made me. Once you get clear what you’re scared of, take it as an indicator that you’re moving closer to what you truly want to do with your life. Successful people are always scared of their dreams—they just act anyway.
In a society that defines success in terms of status, title, income, and power, it’s not surprising that many people feel tied to the careers that offer those possibilities. However, one glance at the shelves of Barnes and Noble’s self-help department says it all: Most of today’s best-selling leaders talk about success in terms of authenticity and happiness. It all starts with coming up with your own definition of success. After all, if you don’t think about it, how can “it” happen?
In the words of Steven Pressfield, author of Turning Pro, “to feel ambition and to act upon it is to embrace the unique calling of our souls. Not to act upon that ambition is to turn our backs on ourselves and on the reason for our existence.”
When your “success” isn’t making you happy, you have no choice but to take an inventory of what that word truly means to you. Don’t let the opinions of outsiders or the fears of your subconscious interfere or stand in your way. The stakes are simply too high.
This article first appeared in Forbes.