The 2 Secrets to My Success

Looking back on my career as CEO of both public and private companies, I realized that happiness and success go hand in hand.

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A few years ago, I was playing a practice round of golf with a good friend. He was a retired CEO of a major high-tech company. At the time, I too was retired, after having been chairman and CEO of both a well-known environmental consulting company and a large, publicly traded engineering firm. All of these companies were very successful, and they became high-growth organizations during our tenure.

Venturing into the philosophical, we began to discuss the paths both of us traveled: from relatively poor engineering school students to significant leadership positions.

That conversation led to a lot more contemplation of my own career experiences. I also found myself doing a lot of research about success. And I had many meaningful conversations with my children and grandchildren to get a perspective from different age groups 

Much of what I learned from my experiences and learned from the research went into my book, Career Happiness and Success. And, in the end, I discovered two major “secrets” to my success.

Secret No. 1: Don’t Focus on the Money

I was originally going to call my book Keys to Financial Success for Professionals. But the young adults and college students who read my early drafts said they would rather have happiness as a focus and primary goal, and then possibly find ways to incorporate financial success as an afterthought.

At first, I pushed back. I said the primary pursuit of happiness was fine while in school, but it would be diminished after starting a family, buying a house, etc. By that point, money would become more important. And without enough, it would be hard to prioritize happiness, especially if you couldn’t find any path for increasing your income in the foreseeable future.

My youngest grandson, who was in his first year of college, told me that he and his friends all knew adults who were financially stable, but hated their jobs. Therefore, as students, they decided to make happiness their priority.

I gave a lot of thought to what my grandson said. Upon reflection, I realized that the idea of actively deciding between happiness and success had never entered my mind when I was making my early work and career decisions.

In retrospect, I realized that money was never a key factor in setting my own career goals. Very early on, I asked my wife to handle our finances so that I could instead concentrate on my career. All I asked was for her to let me know if she was coming up short, and I would amp up my hours and get her the needed money, since I got paid on an hourly basis in those days. And I didn’t mind working the extra hours. Other than spending recreation time with my family, working was the thing I enjoyed most. Which brings us to Secret No. 2.

Secret No. 2: Do Work You Enjoy and Are Good At

An additional important realization was that I never took a job I felt I would not be very good at. Now that I look back, I see a trend that followed me throughout my career: While I always worked because I needed money, I selected jobs that I felt I would shine in and really enjoy.

In fact, there were times when I took jobs for less money, primarily because I could see that they would be more educational — and more fun — than the higher-paying positions available. I know that choosing those roles propelled my career forward an order of magnitude further, and faster, than the higher-paying jobs would have.

I was both happy and successful doing the jobs I was good at. And I’ve discovered that happiness and success usually go together. In the research, and in my own life experience, I see that happiness is a prerequisite for success. Albert Schweitzer summarized it best: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”

As I look back on the careers of my friends and colleagues, the conclusion that happiness comes first and leads to success seems very logical. After all, most successful people started out at the “bottom rung” with little financial compensation. Although they may have envisioned some level of success in the future, the primary driver in the early days was that they loved what they were doing. That love made them do more and higher-quality work at each stage of their development. And this attitude naturally led to higher levels of success and financial return.

A corollary of this explains why some people do exceptionally well up to a certain level of management, but then level out or fail if they rise to higher positions. This can result when they do not have certain traits or skills necessary to perform the functions of the new, higher position, so they’re not good at it. Therefore, even though the pay is higher, the work becomes less enjoyable. And they shift from loving their job to strongly disliking the new position.

Happiness and Success Go Hand in Hand

Please don’t think there’s a conflict between being happy and successful, including financial success. The two will go hand in hand, so long as you find a career path doing something you are good at and have a passion for. In fact, it is highly likely that when you find work you really love, it will be the catalyst for you to become exceedingly successful.

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