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What is Success?

What is Success?
Welcome, it’s good to see you. This session explores the question, what is success? Throughout this session, you’re going to have the opportunity to think carefully about what success means to you. I’m not here to tell you what your life should look like. You should decide that for yourself, because this is your one and only precious life on Earth. My job is to help you achieve the success that you desire and deserve and I’ll do that by sharing with you what researchers have learned about what predicts success in life.
The lessons you learn in this course will be useful to you in at least three ways, and these are the areas that most people think about when they think about what makes for a successful life. This course will help you get better and more meaningful results at work, regardless of the type of work you do. It will help you achieve your career goals, whatever those goals may be. And it will help you enjoy a happy, healthy life, with time and energy to spend with the people you love and the communities you care about. Let’s talk about each of these in more detail. Beginning with the importance of achieving results.
When we take on a job, each of us has a responsibility to add value to our organizations, our colleagues, and to the people our organizations serve. So this course is designed to help you get better results at work. Whether your organization’s purpose is to provide products and services, make money for shareholders, heal people, cure diseases, educate others, alleviate poverty, or any other goal. And in this course, we’re going to make the assumption that getting results isn’t enough. You will spend many years throughout your life working, and you’re likely to feel that your years spent working will be better spent if you believe that the work you do matters to someone, somewhere, somehow.
Researchers have found that when we believe we are engaged in meaningful work, we have greater pride in what we do. Feel more responsibility for the outcomes of our work. Are more willing to above and beyond the call of duty. Handle stress better, and are more likely to stay motivated during the inevitable ups and downs of everyday work. In a global study of 12,000 primarily white-collar workers in a variety of industries, researchers Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath found that the employees who felt their work was meaningful were more than three times more likely to stay with their organizations. They were also more engaged and more satisfied with their jobs.
Unfortunately, the same study found that 50% of the employees surveyed did not find their work to be meaningful. In another study of over 70,000 employees in over 100 countries, researchers from the Gallup organization found that the employees who said that they experienced their work as meaningful were more likely to feel engaged, enthusiastic and committed to their jobs. The researchers also found that organizations with engaged employees experienced greater productivity, higher profitability, higher customer ratings and lower turnover. Unfortunately, the Gallup researchers found that on average, only 13% of employees across the 142 countries reported feeling engaged with their work. Although there was variation across countries, the highest percentage of engaged employees was still under 35%. Now that’s a problem.
Because employees who are disengaged from their work put minimal effort into their jobs, miss work more often, and are more willing to change jobs. Clearly, finding meaning at work matters. Now let’s turn to career success. Different people have different ideas about what they want to achieve in their career. Some people want to climb the organizational ladder to the most senior levels of their organization or field. Others want to stay at the same job for many years and be respected for the expertise they bring to their job rather than taking on the obligations of senior levels of leadership. Some people want a career that feels like a calling and makes them feel like they’re fulfilling their life’s purpose through their work.
Other want a career that gives them the energy, time, and flexibility to fulfill their purpose outside of work. And still others see success as having a choice to ramp up or ramp down their careers whenever they want to in order to be able to take care of other interests and commitments. Such as traveling or taking care of our family at different times in their lives. Regardless of the type of career you desire, researchers define a career as a series of work experiences that evolve over the course of your life. They define career success as feeling positive overall, with both the career choices that you make, and the outcomes of these choices.
Researcher Ellen Cossack and her colleagues encourage us to create what they call a sustainable career. A sustainable career is one that fits with your values. Provides enough financial security to take of your economic needs. Is flexible enough to evolve as your interest and life stages change. A sustainable career assumes that your personal life, your family and community matter to you, and that you may be willing to make career decisions based on what’s important to you in your personal life, your health, your family, your community. And you may be willing to adjust your career plans, or your work schedule to support your spouse or partner’s career plans.
A sustainable career also helps you adapt to the demands and unpredictability of a complex and fast-changing environment in which opportunities come and go quickly. Jobs and professions can have a short shelf life due to technological advancements. Organizations transform themselves due to mergers and acquisitions. And the global political climate can change in a blink of an eye. Here’s a video that will give you an idea of how quickly the world is changing around us. As you watch it, think about the implications these changes might have on your own career.
There has never been a bigger force for change than technology. It changes absolutely everything about the way we live, the way we get around, the way we eat, even the way we talk to each other.
So here’s the point. If you want a sustainable career, you’ll need to actively manage your career in order to stay employable as well as employed. You’ll need to take steps to ensure your expertise stays relevant. Which means understanding how the environment is changing and investing in lifelong learning. You’ll want to make sure you’re getting measurable results in whatever jobs you have, so that no one will ever doubt your ability to add value wherever you are. You’ll want to be sure you have a diverse network of mutually supportive relationships, as well as a reputation for being a team player, and for being the kind of person people want to work with.
So that many people will support you in whatever career you choose. And you’ll want to keep money in the bank as a cushion for the expected and unexpected changes that may come your way. When you think about your career success, you’ll want to focus on both external and internal measures of success. External measures of success are things that are objective and can be seen and evaluated by others as well as yourself. Things such as status and titles, degrees, awards, what you get paid, where you live, and what you drive. Your external measures of success are all fine and dandy if they make you happy, but you need to be cautious about pursuing external measures of success.
Many of us know people who seem successful by external measures of success. Yet they don’t feel successful or happy with their choices. Judging your career primarily on external measures can be hard on your self-esteem if you lose your status, title, salary or other external indicators, if that’s how you measure your worth. Internal measures of success include things that are subjective, which means only you can decide whether or not they matter to you. These are things like believing you’re making a difference through your work, feeling as though your work is aligned with your values, taking pride in the day-to-day work that you do.
Appreciating the autonomy that comes with your job, enjoying your colleagues and the people you served through your work and being grateful for the opportunity to do what you do. So far, we’ve discussed two measures of success, achieving meaningful work results and attaining your career goals We’ll now turn to having a happy, healthy life a measure of success as well. After all, is it worth it if you focus so much on your work and career that you don’t take care of your health? Die before your time or never have time to spend with the people you love? As the old adage goes, no one ever says on their deathbed, I wish I spent more time at the office.
Now here’s a two minute video that will give you some perspective on life outside of work. I’m giving you fair warning that some of you will need to have your tissues nearby.
If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would you choose? » Kylie Minogue [LAUGH] » Marilyn Monroe. » God I wouldn’t have a clue. » I know straight up. Paul Hogan. Kim Kardashian. » No, no, no. » I’d like to have dinner with Justin Bieber. [LAUGH] » What? He’s not coming to my house. » No, [LAUGH] » I’d have Bob Hawke. » Dave Hughes. » Barry Humphries. » Jimi Hendrix. » People who have made a difference in the world, maybe Nelson Mandela at the dinner table. » [SOUND] » I am scared. » If you could have dinner with anyone in the world who would you choose? » Probably a whole family, like a whole extended family.
Mom and dad.
Mom and dad.
Does it have to be a celebrity? Could it be family? » We love it. We talk about how school is. We ask mom and dad how their day was. » Family. » Yeah, mom and dad. » Family. Who would you like to have dinner with? » They just want to be with us while they’re eating food, which is pretty cool [LAUGH] » They see us above everything, I’m going to get. » Yeah, » Yeah » There was a bit of a message in it for me. » Yes [LAUGH]
What are we having for dinner?
Despite the importance of our lives outside of work, people often put their personal lives last. Often risking their personal relationships as well as their health and happiness. But researchers have found that people who take time off from their jobs are more satisfied with their work. They prioritize their work better and they also make better decisions. Because during mental downtime, our brains stay quietly busy, making sense of recently learned information, reinforcing learning, and providing us with the unexpected flashes of light, all of which can help us use better judgement. People who take time off from work also experience more positive emotions and less stress. And they tend to have lower rates of depression.
Researchers have found that consistently working too much overtime and not taking vacation time puts you at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, which means heart attacks and strokes. The increased risk could be from the stress of the job. But it also could be that people who work too many hours may not take time to exercise or to eat well. Or they may put off seeing the doctor when they notice a health problem if they’re too busy working. Overworked employees can negatively affect the organization’s health as well as their own health. Because overwork can lead to higher absenteeism and turnover, increase safety violations, and more errors due to poor judgment.
Overwork can also lead to decreased productivity, in part because working excessive hours makes it harder to prioritize and easier to waste time on details that don’t matter to the bottom line. Sarah Green Carmichael, Senior Associate Editor at the Harvard Business Review, says it best. In sum, she says, the story of overwork is literally a story of diminishing returns. Keep overworking, and you’ll work progressively more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless. Despite the personal and organizational advantages of taking a break from work, many people don’t take time off. Although some people don’t have the option to take time off, even when people do have that option, many people don’t take the time off that they’re entitled to.
Several studies have shown that the average employee in the United States takes only about half of their available days off. Many people who do take time away from their job work on vacation, check their e-mails, or are contacted by people about work-related issues. One study found that almost half of all working adults in the US check their work e-mails everyday when on vacation, and 10% check them every hour. Another study of 1000 workers found that 50% checked their email while in bed, and 38% checked it during dinner. One thing is certain, you’re going to have to figure out how to set boundaries between your work life and home life, because the organization is unlikely to do it for you.
Now, just think about it. What happens when you do a really good job for the organization? They give you more work, and they may say they love you and can’t live without you at work. But as seductive as it is to hear that people at work love you and can’t live without you, it’s wise to remember that they’re using those terms loosely. Because you most certainly can be replaced at work, and real love is found at home. Now that we’ve discussed success in terms of getting meaningful results, having the kind of career you want, and taking care of yourself and the people you love, it makes sense for you to write down what your ideal successful life would be.
Because you can then what you learn in this course to achieve those goals. The best way to do this is to imagine you’re 96 years old and you’ve led a very good life. Your loved ones ask you how you would define success both personally and professionally. Looking back on your life, what would you say? Thanks for taking the time to think about what success means to you. I look forward to seeing you at our next session.
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The Science of Success: What Researchers Know that You Should Know

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