Making Meaning of Success
Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.
~ John Gardner
As the first month of the year comes to a slow close, I look back to see what I’ve achieved in January. My critical self tells me very little; except that I showed up. Working through two weeks of a nasty winter cough and cold that laid me flat in bed, slowly picking up the threads of my writing and reading practices, being present for coaching sessions and client meetings, going back to early morning Tai Chi classes and feeling clearer and creative enough to move to this page and having a few what might be termed pivotalconversations (including one with my mother). My mood at the end of the month is lighter, my measure of success far simpler: I showed up, like the pigeon that lands on the driveway every few minutes to pick up just one twig and flies off, its neck an iridescent purple in the morning sun, building its nest somewhere slowly and steadily. If I’m honest, my relationship with success has mostly been something I’ve ignored. As a leadership coach, I make wellbeing a priority and performance a mindful process; the outcome is about authenticity and must reflect my values of excellence, creativity and integrity, whether I bake a tea cake filled with the goodness of local, seasonal ingredients, design and deliver a workshop module, or have a difficult conversation. So, last week, when three of my coaching clients ducked their heads, gave me embarrassed smiles and sidestepped their own achievements, it made me curious. Each is highly successful – a senior woman banker, a CEO of an investment firm and a senior leader at a unicorn e-commerce start-up. Small or big, they dismissed their achievements, from birthdays (oh, I don’t celebrate), gifts/talents (I like photography, but I don’t share it with everyone), to discounting major accomplishments (it’s not such a big deal; everyone works hard), to their specific impact on successful outcomes (I didn’t do much, others did everything). The etymology of success is from a Latin verb (succeeder), come close after, or a good/happy result. It’s no surprise that somewhere along the way, it became a loaded word, filled with both cultural and personal meaning. It impacts leadership presence more than we know – we make ourselves smaller, or we end up bigger than is healthy. Experiencing true success can often mean discovering our right size. To do that, it’s important to understand the meaning we make of it and how to own it in a wholesome way.
Our understanding of success is complicated; it is also reinforced by the workplace and in families. We want to be successful, but we don’t want to own it because it’s not viewed as healthy. It is enormously intertwined with results and financial security, so much so that we have been willing to be defined by it. Every time we ask so what do you do? It usually means what have you achieved? challenging self and financial worth. It also questions, what are you willing to keep doing? and what is your relationship with failure? Much of this endless loop is fueled by inadequacy, not feeling good enough no matter how much we succeed in the material world, or imposter syndrome. Success may also be underscored by perfection, especially for women leaders, and can leave us feeling exhausted and undervalued when all we are looking for is to be seen. Paradoxically however, humility and contribution are valued more than success itself (as is collaboration). We hear don’t let success go to your head, and so we play down accomplishments and we don’t own our successes, because if we do, we run the risk of becoming too big, exhibiting behaviours that are labelled overbearing, arrogant and controlling, at home and at work. Denying success has the opposite effect, of making us a bit smaller than we really are, showing up in contracted/guarded bodies, lowered/distant eyes, uncertain/limp gestures or aloof/unapproachable styles. Both only keep us distant from connecting with ourselves and others, compromising our ability to feel our emotions and bodies. It often feels like we don’t know how to own success as a positive idea without compromising on our values and needs of humility, collaboration, contribution, belonging and acceptance, or attracting envy and a “bad eye” and so it remains in these two polar opposites. It doesn’t have to. If any of these feel familiar to you, consider these practices:
Ground your success by sharing it with others in appreciative inquiry. Your experience will teach and inspire others.
Receive appreciation fully and notice how it shifts the landscape of your emotions, thoughts and body. The more it supports you filling out, the more you’ll feel your right size.
Acknowledge your specific role in a successful venture, assignment, project, relationship; self-talk is a powerful tool for presence.
Lean on your experiences fully to include success and failure; both will bring in a measure of authentic and heartfelt humility, gratitude and kindness.
Celebrate yourself, on your own and with others when appropriate. Success brings a measure of joy that we spend too much time pushing away. Enjoy it.
Choose to feel your success; much like emotions, once we acknowledge it, we can let it go. It’s done the work it needs to do to make us whole.
Success is the way we seek to be fully seen. As David Whyte says To be human is to become visible while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others. When we are able to offer that gift to ourselves, we meet ourselves in a good way and the world sees us as we really are, whole and complete.