Go ahead. Ask someone close to you about their biggest success in the past year. I’ve done it several times out of mere curiousity, and roughtly three quarters of the responses instantly point toward a professional accomplishment – a promotion, a pay raise, meeting a particular project milestone or deliverable. The other quarter typically mention their kids and something about their role as a parent.
An unscientific method to be sure, but the results provides some anecdotal relevance to my above estimate. Interestingly (and perhaps amusingly), of the 15 who initially stated a professional success, 9 are parents and 6 of those quickly changed their answers as soon as any mention of parenthood was made. 🙂
Now, I’m not suggesting that any are wrong in their choices, or that these successes were not of great individual importance and pride to each one of them. Indeed, many were impressive accomplishments! What was interesting, however, was that for many, their careers jumped to the forefront when asked about success. It’s how we’ve become indoctrinated by a society that increasingly focuses on “what you do” as a proxy for “who you are.” And what a backward presumption that is, wouldn’t you agree?
Think about it…what’s the question we ask our kids as they grow up? “What do you want to be when you grow up?” When did you last hear an adult ask, “What role would you like to have when you grow up?” And similarly, most children’s answers are equally geared toward defining themselves by the professional roles they hope to someday occupy. Is there something inherently wrong with that thinking?
No, not necessary. After all, the lowest levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are those of survival, and one of the most direct lines to survival (at its most primitive level) includes being able to secure food, water, and shelter. In ancient times, that may have meant, “I hunt and gather.” And in modern times, that typically means, “I get a job.” So, no, it’s not incorrect thinking when the child (or an adult) focuses his answer on a professional identity.
The knee-jerk reaction to tout professional successes may be indicative of several puzzling (and possibly problematic) issues in society, though. It’s really in how we define “success” and how we gear our own self-worth and happiness in light of that definition.
First, do such reactions point toward the overly financial aspects of perceptions of success? If so, as more individuals (and families) struggle to keep pace with higher costs of living, lower economic opportunities (in recent years), and tightening fiscal belts in most corners of society, will we see a growing frustration or malaise around one’s self-perceptions of success?
Second, this focus may indirectly exacerbate the ongoing tension in the “work-life balance” debate. The natural suggestion in immediately highlighting professional accomplishments may strain our perceptions of value held by the non-professional aspects of our life. In the long-run, the implications of so doing are quite risky, it seems. Would you agree?
So, take some time to think about how you might answer this question….What has been your greatest success in the past year? More importantly, take some time to ponder “why” you would answer the way you would. The answer to that question may indeed be the most important…..