The meaning of success

January 25, 2014

“A magnificent career comes from being a magnificent woman first. It’s a flipped-up, upside down paradigm of success.” – Emily Bennington

Living in New York City, it’s tough not to fall for the traditional US version of success: a good job, lots of money, the right title, address, and so on. Time and again in recent years, as I’ve diverged from a traditional career path, I’ve berated myself for not being successful enough. Some friends my age have titles with ‘VP’ or ‘partner’ in them. They seem to have all sorts of secret knowledge about the business world. They earn very well and have plenty of nice clothes. Yet I don’t want those jobs myself, so why am I beating myself up? I genuinely love what I do, even if I find myself wondering if it’s as ‘grown-up’ as what some of my friends do. We all compare ourselves to others – it’s a common career/life curse – but also, the society I live in tells me those outward trappings constitute success.

So it was refreshing to talk to Emily Bennington recently. She’ll be appearing in the next episode of The Broad Experience, along with Kathy Caprino. The topic is success – the traditional definition of it, why some people seem to think it’s achievable overnight, and re-framing the whole idea of success.

Emily teaches mindful or ‘conscious’ leadership to women. You’ll hear more in the show about how she came to that. She was such a mass of anxiety and ambition (or fear, as she later described it) during her early career that she finally burned out. This is a woman whose boss told her during her first ever performance review that he couldn’t promote her “because no one on this team respects you.” More on that during the episode.

She contends – and I, ever the cynic, listen hopefully – that you can achieve a leadership role at work by pursuing your career in a mindful way – taking others along with you rather than stepping on them to get where you want to go.

One of the interesting things Emily told me that I couldn’t fit into the finished show was that when she was researching her latest book, Who Says It’s a Man’s World, she found that most of the women she was surveying wanted very different things from their work life than she had when she was in the corporate world.

“Just coming from my own career, I was thinking everyone wanted to climb to the top of the ladder and have that corner office…and it was super interesting to find what they wanted was to be happier in their own lives.

It wasn’t that they weren’t ambitious, she says, but to them, success wasn’t ‘getting to the top’, it was being more content in their current situations. I think a lot of people feel the exact same way. We don’t all have the drive and energy to get to the top, but we do want to have more influence and to make our current work lives more meaningful than they are.

Tune in next week to find out about Emily’s prescription for a happier work life, which includes re-defining 'success'. For a more traditional view of what it is to be successful, and on why some groups in America do better than others, here's a piece from Sunday's New York Times by the controversial 'tiger mother' Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rosenfeld.