What does career success look like?

Image of a successful business-woman, with her arms in the airI had an interesting philosophical experience recently, working on my website. As someone whose vocation is to help others find their ideal career, I was looking for upbeat, positive images which would say ‘this person really enjoys their job’.

In case you don’t know, there are vast internet sites out there, with photographs for exactly this purpose; a whole world of images for every design need. So I started my search, typing in ‘career success’. Up popped hundreds of images of people in suits, writing on white boards, jumping in the air and generally looking rapturous.

This wasn’t quite what I had in mind, so I tried again. ‘Career; happy’ gave me more business people punching the air. ‘Work; smile’ – shots of high-fiving corporate teams.  I won’t tell you how long I spent doing this, but it certainly reinforced something key: in our society, apparently success wears a suit.

This is clearly absurd – there are hundreds of occupations and thousands of jobs out there, and I know from my work that none has the monopoly on success – but it did get me thinking about image, and the concept of career success itself.

As every marketer knows, image is key; the way things look is a powerful influence on our choices. If you’re buying breakfast cereal or choosing new socks, then it probably doesn’t matter if the reality turns out to be a bit disappointing; realistically, neither was ever going to change your life. If, on the other hand, you’re looking to choose or change your career, then the stakes are a lot higher.

When it comes to careers, you cannot go on looks.

For a start, there’s always a gap between the public perception of a job, and the day-to-day reality – and for some careers, that gap can be huge; common examples are law, teaching and medicine. All great careers, if you road-test and know what’s involved… but until it’s the norm to reality check, I’ll keep hearing ‘it’s just not what I expected’.

But even if you do your due diligence, it’s possible to ‘fail’ in your career. You can ace the grades, nail the job and – like many of my clients – look genuinely successful to the people around you. But if the work doesn’t feed you, if it’s not personally meaningful or engaging, then those wins are likely to feel very hollow. It can cost you dearly, learning that living someone else’s dreams doesn’t bring you lasting satisfaction.

To have a truly successful career, you need to know what success means to you. If business strategy and bottom lines fire you, then maybe you’ll see your ideal in those corporate photos. But your success might just as easily wear gumboots and rescue wildlife… or lie in cracking genetic code, seeing blueprints come to life or writing a perfect line of poetry / policy / law / HTML. Success is in the things you value. For me, it’s in those light-bulb moments, when a client shifts perspective and sees things afresh.

Finding your success takes reflection, self-knowledge and courage; your version may look very different to the ‘success’ of your parents, partner or peers. If you can pinpoint what truly matters to you, now and as you evolve, the reward is succeeding on your own terms, and building a career that engages, energises and fulfills you.

And that’s real career success.


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