During one of my college internships, I was lucky enough to work with a manager who took the time to ask me about my career aspirations.
I was 21 years old, a year shy of my college graduation, with less than one year of “working” experience under my belt. Still, I knew exactly what to say. I practically read him a script—one that my parents had helped me write the moment I voiced an interest in pursuing a career in business.
“I’d like to get a few years of work experience at a large, well-known corporation, then go back to school for my MBA. After graduating, I’d like to either rejoin that firm or pursue new opportunities, and eventually work my way up to the CMO level.”
He nodded and kept his expression neutral. He then asked me what I planned on using my MBA for.
I realize now that he wasn’t trying to make me question my decision, just get me thinking. He followed it up by telling me that his path to the CMO role had been completely different. No high-ranked college or MBA—he had started at community college and gained a wide variety of work experiences that had led to his current position.
And it worked. His story did get me thinking: how much of my perception of success had been influenced by what other people had told me over the years?
The answer, truthfully, was all of it.
That was the first time I began to realize that I needed to separate what I wanted for myself from what I had been told to want my whole life. Thus began my personal journey to get to know myself better and understand what I wanted out of my career, and ultimately, my life.
So if you’re wondering why hitting the milestones you’ve laid out for yourself doesn’t feel as great as you thought it would, you might need to reevaluate what you’re doing and why.
Here’s how to get started:
Recognize that your aspirations are entirely your own.
All career advice should be taken with a grain of salt because the advice you’re getting is always colored by the life experiences of the person offering it.
But that’s the thing about success—it’s subject to the innermost wants and desires of each individual. For some people, it may be about making a certain amount of money each year or having a prestigious title and a corner office. For others, it may be about finding a stable job and pursuing interests outside of work. The truth is, it really only matters what you want for yourself, so why do we waste so much time wondering how we stack up to others?
Your hopes and dreams for yourself and your career will always be your own, but no one else can figure them out for you. So take some time to really dig into what would make you feel happy and accomplished. Ask yourself, “What am I trying to achieve? Are there different routes to get there? Do I have a plan in place to make it happen? What could I be doing differently right now?”
Once you’ve found your own, personal definition of success, you can start to work toward achieving it.
Set goals that will keep you moving in the right direction.
Knowing what you want is a great first step, but on its own, it isn’t enough. You have to set goals that will keep you moving down that path, day by day.
Make those goals attainable, but always keep pushing yourself so that you never reach a point where you feel as though you’ve topped out. There’s always more room to learn and grow.
And try to avoid getting so caught up in pre-planning your future that you dismiss certain opportunities as “not being part of the plan.” Life is constantly changing, and there’s no harm in deviating from a plan if circumstances—or your own personal goals—begin to shift.
For example, when I made the decision to leave the corporate world and join a startup, I was wracked by indecision because it was counterintuitive to what I’d been told my whole life. Walking away from the stability and prestige associated with a long-standing and established company was scary, but I saw a real opportunity to learn, grow, and push myself creatively that I couldn’t pass up. Looking back, I realize that it was the first time I was making a decision that was completely driven by what I wanted for myself. I would’ve been doing myself a bigger disservice by saying “no” just because I was scared of what others might think of my decision.
Goals keep you moving, growing, and grinding. But they should never trap you into believing there’s only one path to the life you want.
Don’t let anyone else influence your sense of worth.
Trust me, I know how easy it is to get sucked into the vortex of comparison. I once found myself searching everyone from my high school yearbook on LinkedIn, just to see how I measured up.
But the truth is, someone else’s perceived success has no impact on your own. Finding out that someone is between jobs doesn’t elevate your level of success. And discovering that someone you know has your “dream job” doesn’t diminish your accomplishments either.
Comparing yourself to others is a waste of time. One of the most liberating days of your life will be the day you start caring more about making yourself happy than you do about impressing other people.
Remember, you don’t have to defend your decisions to anyone else. Once you stop worrying about what other people think of your life and start living in a way that makes you happy, you’re already well on your way to success.