I think it’s difficult to find real success unless you prioritize fulfillment.
Sure. You can get rich. Gain status. And win the praise of others. But if you’re unfulfilled, does it even matter?
When I think about my own life and how I’ve defined success over the years one thing seems constant – the goal posts always move.
Each achievement challenges further achievement. Incomes goals, career goals, status goal…you name it. Anytime I’ve been prioritized “success” over fulfillment, I’ve found it fleeting.
On the flip side, when I’ve prioritized fulfillment, I’ve found something altogether different to be true – an ability to be content without sacrificing future ambition.
A Personal Tale
When I graduated college I set a pretty ambitious goal for myself: double my income every year.
It was easy at first. Year one. Year two. Even year three. But as you can imagine it became more difficult in time. Through my first five years in the real world, I almost succeeded too. But then I discovered something I didn’t anticipate. More money did not make me happier.
As obvious as this might sound to you, it was actually difficult for me to understand. Because I had a wrong notion about success. I believed success was a function of keeping score.
That belief really led me astray for quite some time. It had me looking out into the world at what others were doing. Comparing myself. And then beating myself up over all that I had not yet accomplished by my age. Which honestly got pretty exhausting after awhile.
Two Steps Back, One Leap Forward
A few years back I left an awesome job at a company I loved. I’d been there awhile. I’d climbed the ranks. And I was making great money.
But something had gone missing. I’d lost the fire for my work.
For awhile I tried to rediscover it. I tried working harder. I tried working less. I tried journaling. I tried therapy. I tried changing up my schedule. I tried changing up what I was working on.
But the more I searched the less vigor I felt for my work.
After months of battling with this, I found a new outlet – an opportunity to go work on something entirely different. To leave behind one opportunity and pursue the next. A new challenge, if you will.
It scared me. But (thankfully) after some prodding from a friend, I made the leap.
I went from big fish in big pond to a small pond where status had no bearing. I took a +40% pay cut. I left a team where I’d been around longer than almost everybody to a team where I was very much the new guy. I went from a role where I knew exactly what it took to succeed to a role that I was larger learning everything on the fly.
And a surprising thing happened – I rediscovered my fire for my work.
Somehow my status and income had both declined but my happiness increased. Who knew, right?
How To Find Fulfilling Work
Roman Krznarick has an awesome book on this topic you should check out. It’s called How To Find Fulfilling Work.
In the book he highlights five dimensions of fulfilling work. Here they are:
- Earning Money (Extrinsic)
- Achieving Status (Extrinsic)
- Making a Difference (Intrinsic)
- Following Your Passions (Intrinsic)
- Using Your Talents (Intrinsic)
Basically, we all have our own motives for doing what we do. Krznarick explains how some of those motives originate by watching people – see also mimetic desire. Krznarick called these extrinsic motives. These are the things we all usually think about when we define success – like money, titles, where we work, who we know, etc.
But in the stories Krznarick researched, in most cases, people who pursued extrinsic factors actually ended up less happy. They were missing something.
Krznarick argued that the motives that come from within – which he calls intrinsic factors – are actually the key to unlocking fulfillment in our work and lives.
He tells stories about people who left 6-figure consulting jobs to work in non-profits. Or left their high-status jobs to pursue their art. And a whole collection of other examples where people “traded down” (lower income and status) to become happier.
People became happier as the moved closer to roles that used their talents, made them feel like they were making a difference, and stuff they were passionate about. In most cases, they made less money and did less glamorous-sounding work (at least at first).
As surprising as it might sound, Krznarick’s theory suggests it’s actually not the money or status that makes us happy. Rather, it’s the stuff that makes us come alive that leads to real success – success from fulfillment.
Searching For Your Own Answers
It’s nothing new for people to be searching for answers. What’s the meaning of life? How can I be successful? How can I live a happy life?
Questions like this have challenged people centuries. Thankfully a lot of people have kept good notes. And there’s so much we can learn from exploring other people’s struggles on these same topics.
I’m very much still on my own journey of personal development. But I’ve found a lot of answers – and a ton more questions – by digging deep into how other people have approached questions like these in their own lives and careers.
Here are a few resources I’ve found useful throughout the years:
How to Find Fulfilling Work By Roman Krznarick
How Will You Measure Your Life? By Clayton Christensen
Outwitting the Devil By Napolean Hill
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World By René Girard
Start with Why By Simon Sinek
Do What You Are By Paul & Kelly Tieger & Barbara Barron
The War of Art By Steven Pressfield
You Don’t Need a Job – You Need Guts By Ash Ambirge
There are countless other good resources out there for exploring questions about success, happiness, fulfillment and the like. It’s a personal journey. And these are tough questions to wrestle with. But it’s worth it.