Updated May 25, 2021
When I got to Ottawa, I found that everyone had ideas about how to be successful. Friends told me that I should get a job as a policy advisor in a cabinet minister’s office or else work for the Privy Council Office (one of the Canadian government’s most powerful central offices). In some ways, these jobs would be perfect for me. I thrive on relationships, I’m quick on my feet and intelligent, and—best of all—I can schmooze a bit.
Friends would tell me, “You’d be perfect for those jobs. You’re great with people and your career would shoot through the roof.”
But there’s a catch. These jobs mean working in downtown Ottawa for 60 hours a week, long hours overtime spent in the office clarifying a policy position or checking a speech. They’re cut-throat races to the top, and usually the ones who spend the most time in the office win.
I have three amazing daughters at home. I’m not interested in missing their childhoods. They are the most important thing to me, and I make my career decisions based on whether it fits with my kids. When I quit the government, I promised them that now I’d be there to drop them off at the school bus and to pick them up as often as I could.
I never miss.
Success means a lot of different things to different people. And sometimes we wake up in life and realize that the success we’re chasing isn’t ours. And sometimes we need to learn how to be successful no matter what life throws at us, because it will throw us some curve balls.
I’m a good policy analyst and a great researcher. But I also love social media marketing and design. I disappear into writing a blog post or editing a video. These are my joys.
One day, working at the government, my colleague needed a slide done for a presentation she was working on. We had some branded graphics she was trying to reproduce, and she didn’t have the time for the communications dept. (comms.) to do it. I offered to try, with the limited government computer programs and no access to Adobe Creative Suite (my favorite set of programs in the world).
I opened up PowerPoint and made a fantastic graphic.
Halfway through, a fellow policy analyst came and watched. She saw the smile on my face. “What are you doing?” she asked.
I looked sheepish. “I’m designing a slide for Kate. Comms doesn’t have time.”
She laughed, “you actually look like you’re enjoying yourself.”
I thought for a minute, as it dawned on me. “I am. This is actually something I love to do.”
“Really? I always thought comms was for people who weren’t good enough to do policy.”
I thought about what she said. That week I’d spent time advising high-level members of a foreign government on refugee policy. I’d written another document that was in the process of being signed by foreign cabinet ministers.
And yet the happiest thing I did that week was making that slide.
So with that in mind, here are life lessons that I’m learning–and haven’t completely learned yet–about how to be successful.
1. Don’t chase other people’s definitions of success
I’m an oldest child. I care way too much what people think about me. And part of this has always been doing work that is seen as impressive by those around me. I want to be respected.
But part of my personality is also that, in order to do work that impresses other people, I will do things that make me miserable. I hate it, but it’s the way I’m wired. Or, even more dangerous, I will do things that I don’t mind rather than things that I love.
Over the past months, I’ve been writing blog posts for Roostervane in my spare time, disappearing into the language and the stories. I’d cry happy tears when someone sent me a message saying that it had been helpful to them. I was waking up at 5 in the morning to write before I went to work.
You want to know how to be successful? Sometimes, you have to ignore the map written on your resume or CV and follow the map written on your soul.
I don’t know how to tell people that I’m a blogger. I told someone in an interview once and he said, “Oh that’s nice. We all need a hobby.” Doing this work fits nobody’s definition of success (nobody I know anyways). Yet this blog has been the most powerful thing I’ve done post-Phd. It brings me more joy and meaning than anything.
The bravest thing that you can do is be true to your own calling and own up to who you really are, so before you break your neck trying to either become a tenure-track professor, a CEO of a start up, or a government employee with a great pension, you owe it to yourself to ask yourself whether you are chasing your own definition of success or someone else’s. (And yes, this also means pushing through a fear of failure.)
2. Keep improving Plan B until its better than Plan A
We all have to go through disappointments in life. I thought I would be a professional musician when I was 17. Some kids want to be famous athletes.
Life is full of broken dreams.
Put that on a bumper sticker.
Most people don’t just have one broken dream. They have a trail of things that didn’t work out.
Letting go of my dream of being a professor was the last in a long line of things that didn’t work out. I came to realize that I was chasing that tenure-track job for reasons that are not healthy or proper. (Not that this is the case for everyone.)
I’m not particularly religious, and if you asked me—a very serious academic who studied religion as an anthropological and sociological discipline—whether destiny or fate is real, I would probably get tongue tied.
How the heck should I know?
But whether you believe that God, or the universe, or whatever directs you towards your calling, or whether you just instinctively know that sometimes humans end up where they never expected to be and that’s okay, sometimes there’s beauty in turning your Plan B into Plan A.
Or, to put it better, keep making Plan B better until it’s more attractive than Plan A.
Grow plan B. Nourish it. Make it more audacious.
As a PhD student, the tenure-track job beckoned. It seemed so good. And the temptation I faced was to see any other life as a let down. As settling.
The reality I’ve found is that your dreams can expand rather than shrink. So don’t fixate on one dream. Keep building bigger and better ones. And make Plan B so great that Plan A pales by comparison. That’s how to be successful.
3. Know what you really want
Why did I want to be a professor? Truth be told, I wanted to travel around the world. It’s what I’ve always wanted. I’ve got a wanderer’s soul. When I was 17, I played in a heavy metal band and I wanted to tour, living in the back of a van with seven other sweaty, smelly teenage dudes. It never (really) happened.
At the heart of this was my desire to have adventures. I’m the small-town kid, raised poor in the woods in Northern Canada, who always saw the outside world as some untouchable—yet exciting—place.
And when I met my doctoral supervisor, he flitted off to Israel, New York, or Belgium every other week for an important conference. I thought I had found my calling.
I enjoyed the work and the research. But I loved the travel. (I wrote a bit about it in this post.)
And once I had lived in Nice, Berlin, and Athens for my PhD work, I realized what I was really chasing. It wasn’t the tenure track. It was an adventure.
What about you? What does your internal voice tell you? What is pushing you towards your dream? Do you stop to think about it?
Maybe for you success is being the first in your family to earn a degree—as I was. Maybe success is the ability to teach and shape young minds. Maybe success is having the money to travel, or to stay home and dig a garden. Maybe it’s more time with your kids or partner, or maybe it’s a big important job that keeps you crazy busy and pays you big bucks. I don’t care what it is, but take the time to look inside and be honest with yourself about what you want.
4. Analyze the values behind your goals
Analyze yourself and try to figure out what drives you. What really drives you. Are you bring driven by your healthy dreams or by your poisonous fears of inadequacy? Is your life on autopilot, or are you still driving?
These are important things to ask.
Try this. Sit down with a piece of paper today and write down some things that you think success is for you. YOU, mind you. Not other people. If it’s helpful, you can even write a list of things you are doing to appear successful for other people that are NOT EVEN THINGS YOU WANT.
I’ve been there. I see you.
Get specific about what you want, and why you want it. Then try to identify a career goal that connects to what you want.
Here’s my list:
- I want to spend as much time with my spouse and my kids as possible. Functionally, with my kids, this means picking them up off the school bus, reading them stories every night, and going on adventures with them. This is my definition of how to be successful as a dad. Career Goal—Flexibility
- I want to be a writer and speaker who reshapes the way we think about education and who teaches people how to build amazing lives with the degrees they have. This means interacting with government and policy leaders on a regular basis to drive better education policies forward. But more specifically, it means becoming a thought leader who speaks to students and helps them build amazing lives. Why? Because this makes me come alive, and because I felt there was no one to help me turn my degree into a career. Career Goal—Impact
- I want to be a world explorer, living in different countries and learning languages as I can. I’ve lived in Greece, Germany, and France (and speak those languages). Next, I want to spend at least six months living in Italy with my wife and kids. These family adventures have been the best part of life. Career Goal—Adventure
- I want to build a house for my family that’s not too big, but that’s in the woods somewhere. I was raised with access to the wilderness, and I miss it. It nourishes my soul. Career Goal—Inspiration
These are just a few of my many goals. But take a look at the words I’ve written next to them. Each of these career goals represents things that I once thought academia would give me. I was attracted to academia because of the flexibility—I loved being able to work mostly from home and to come to the university when necessary. I imagined doing this for life and only coming in to teach courses and hold office hours. I was also attracted by the impact. I felt like having top publications in my field and doing great work would given me a sense of impact that I craved and leave something for posterity. I thought academia would give me adventure, as I used research grants to jet off to libraries and archaeological sites around the world. And I wanted to be in places that inspire me.
If I’m honest, these are the things I’ve been chasing my whole life. They brought me into academia. And at the end of the darkness, as hope begins to dawn again, there they are again. They’ve never left me, and my desire to achieve them has never had to diminish.
The mind-blowing thing about seeing my goals through this lens is that there actually is no Plan B. I’m still chasing the things that were Plan A all along. I just didn’t know what they were. I thought a tenure-track professor job was going to give these to me, but I’m finding them another way.
Whatever your goals are, take the time to get down on paper what you want and why you want it. Be as specific as possible. Why do you want the tenure-track job? Is it because you want to be significant? Do you crave discovering new things? Are you hoping to be a trailblazer as someone who is underrepresented in your field? Or are you excited about teaching, and want to pass along knowledge to the next generation?
That’s all okay and great, but make sure–as you think about how to be successful–that you’re doing it for you. What do you think being successful means? I’d love to hear it.