Launching Your Personal Search for Success

 “No one can tell you how to succeed,” says G. Richard Shell, Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics and Management at The Wharton School. “No one can tell you what success is. It’s your journey, your definition, and your capabilities that are the secret”

So, then, how do you define career success? According to Shell, not knowing how to think about success can take you “further away from what you love to do. So many people have the answer for you, but really the most important thing is to ask the [what’s next?] question, and then learn a little about how to answer—not what the answer is.”

During his visit to Microsoft, Shell explained how we can answer this question throughout our lives—and avoid “promoting [ourselves] away from satisfaction.”

The problem with the success we grew up with

The two ways Shell recommends we think about success is asking, “what, for me, is success?” and “how will I achieve it?”

“The I is very important because everyone will achieve whatever their goals are in many different ways,” he says. “We pick up most of our messages about what success is from outside ourselves…. Waking up, essentially, from the dream of your parents, of the media, of your culture to define this word for yourself is not easy. It’s almost as if you feel obsessively compelled to keep performing on metrics that you’ve been handed and that in a Pavlovian sort of way, you’ve been rewarded for achieving for a long time.”

But, if you’re thinking, “success means being happy,” Shell cautions it carries the same uncertainty. “Happiness is just as hard to define as success. It doesn’t really solve the problem by saying happiness is the answer. You’ve just introduced a new puzzle.” Plus, he says, “to succeed, isn’t it important to be unhappy and dissatisfied sometimes? Use it as motivation. Find out why you’re unhappy.” 

Balancing the two dimensions of success

As Shell explains, there are two dimensions of success: external and internal, or achievement versus satisfaction. Sometimes, we are rewarded for something we have a talent for, but don’t enjoy. Essentially, we’re paid to do something we hate.

To break the cycle of this ingrained definition of success, Shell recommends talking about it out loud; sometimes you’ll hear yourself say something you didn’t realize you were thinking. “If you want to know who you are, look at what you do every day. That’s who you are. You can choose to do something different. And then you will be someone else.”

What’s your metaphor?

No one can tell you what success is. It’s your journey, your definition, and your capabilities that are the secret.

“What’s your metaphor for the type of achievement you need to be doing?” asks Shell. The usual metaphor for success, he says, is a ladder. And you climb the ladder one rung at a time. 

“This is the problem with school. You go through high school; get into the great college. Go to college; get into the great grad school. Go to the grad school; get into a great firm. Get into a firm; become partner at the firm—then what?  You may have realized after a while that what you’ve been in is a pie eating contest, and every time you win the contest, the prize is just more pie.”

Shell’s personal metaphor is that success is a drop in a pond, with the ripples representing the positive influences you’ve had on people, and the influences they’ve, in turn, passed on to others. “Go to the core,” says Shell. Don’t try to finesse your goals, or fake them. “Figure it out for real.” He recommends going all in and facing the uncertainty that comes with it. “Right behind the door of uncertainty is a little pool of fear. And people close the door again. They don’t want to go to the fear part.”

It’s not easy and, often, it’s scary to go outside what’s widely accepted as “success.” The reward, however, is the ability to set your own goals and measures. After all, it’s easy to follow others up the ladder—it’s much more difficult to pave your own course.

This post is part of our ongoing coverage of Microsoft Research and its Visiting Speaker Series. Microsoft Research supports its mission to educate and foster innovation and growth through inviting authors and speakers that inspire big ideas, spark new ways of doing things, or help people see things from a new perspective.