When I was in college, I was heavily influenced by what my parents wanted me to do for a career. Nonetheless I was eventually able to forge a path.
Now one of my favorite parts in my role as a lecturer at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., is to help students write their own definition of success.
My very awkward journey involved a series of experiments that in retrospect did bring me closer to my ultimate destination.
When I entered college, my ambition – to the terror of my parents – was to be a poet. After a semester of studies, it dawned on me that this would not work. I shifted my attention to architecture, which made me feel like I had a solid direction to go in for about two years.
Then I took a summer career-discovery course at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Mass. After doing that, I realized that while I liked architecture, I lacked the talent to succeed in that field.
Eventually I picked a career that has worked for me ever since: strategic consulting for high-technology companies.
This career choice drove me to complete a degree in electrical engineering, do graduate work in computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, contribute to a consulting firm founded by a group of the university’s professors and ultimately work for Harvard Business School strategy guru Michael Porter.
From there, it did not take too long for me to start my own consulting firm and invest in technology startups that provided me for the last several decades the wherewithal to work on exactly what I’ve wanted to do.
All this reminds me of a conversation that I had with a student last week.
Like most people, he believes that success is measured by the amount of money you have and how much money you make.
But I think that the pursuit of the highest annual income is success only if you keep winning every year. Otherwise, you’re going to spend time trying to figure out how you can become #1 rather than taking pleasure in what you have already achieved.
Simply put, unless you’re top dog, the unpleasant view never changes.
Yet somewhere along the way I figured out a different definition of success: controlling how you spend your time. And this idea blew the mind of my student.
Just to be clear: I’m not advocating taking a vow of poverty. In fact, I believe that for many people, controlling how they spend their time is the kind of success they can achieve only after earning enough money to ward off any worry about paying the bills.
Many people never achieve that level of financial security. But I don’t believe that Bill Gates’ net worth of $82 billion is necessary to arrive at the point where you can cover your likely future obligations.
If you can get there by doing what you want to be doing and it makes you happy, then I would consider you successful.
But if you get there by working a grueling job that pays well but makes you miserable, then you need to stop and ask yourself whether you should get off the hamster wheel and figure out what you really want to do with your life.
As I know from my own experience, this is hard to do. But here are six steps for achieving your own definition of success:
Related: Chart Goals to Create a Road Map to Your Success
1. Think about likes and dislikes.
My advice to the student was to think about what he has enjoyed doing in the past and what has been of less interest. I suggested that based on that self-assessment, he should make some guesses about what he would like to do.
He should then apply three tests to those hypotheses:
Am I passionate about the work?
Am I one of the world’s best at doing this work?
Will the market compensate me well enough for it?
These steps apply to anyone seeking a new career path.
2. Research different careers, companies and jobs.
There’s a good chance that your prior work reflects your interests. Read about different careers and go the Glassdoor career site and other similar venues to learn about what employees are saying about working in specific companies that interest you.
This should give you a sense of jobs that might appeal to you. In recent weeks, my students have mentioned that work in investment banking, consulting or asset management or running a startup might satisfy the three tests for them.
3. Develop a list of people who are doing those jobs.
I advise college students and other career changers to next seek out informational interviews with people in desired fields. Develop a list of names and email addresses by searching alumni databases and LinkedIn or asking friends and family members for introductions to prospects for informational interviews.
4. Conduct interviews with identified people.
Students and job seekers should then try to arrange telephone interviews. In-person meetings are better but also more time-consuming and thus more difficult to arrange. Since such networking skills will likely be valuable in the future, the practice gained from trying to set up these interviews will almost certainly be beneficial.
I advise conducting 10 to 15 such interviews and asking three key questions:
In your company, are there people who are really passionate about their work? What do they do differently than those who are mostly there to pay their bills?
In your field, what are the key things that the most talented people do that’s different from the approach taken by those who are merely competent?
Is the compensation that people receive in this field satisfying? What’s the difference between people in your company who feel fairly compensated and the rest?
5. Follow up some conversations with internship inquiries.
Ultimately, students (or career changers) should try to approach their informational interview contacts for internship opportunities so they can become immersed more fully in those fields.
If they can land internships in the two fields that interest them the most, they may be able to make an educated choice about their own path to success.
6. Review these experiences to choose the right direction.
In my view, my students will achieve success only when they are happy in their work. And to do that, they must be passionate about it, excel in their field and receive positive recognition in the marketplace.