Two of my nieces graduated from college in May. Both are bright young women and both found jobs, each in an organization that she is passionate about. I beam when I see their Facebook posts. I sense that clinching a perfect job feels like success for them.
The month they graduated and left their alma maters, I returned to mine to attend graduation/reunion. Forty years had passed since the day in 1976 when I graduated from a women’s college in Massachusetts. Because I’d been a Trustee of the college, I’d been asked if I’d like to wear a robe and sit on the podium at the 2016 commencement. Earlier in my life, sitting on the podium would have felt like success.
Graduation season makes me think about aspirations and success; my nieces and their futures; my life and the past 40 years. Although the definition of success should be personal, I often let culture define it for me.
Let me turn back the clock to 1972. When I entered college, I’d never met a woman physician, banker or scientist. Julie Andrews was the professional woman I saw the most….whether portraying Maria Von Trapp or Mary Poppins.
Attending a women’s college changed that. Gloria Steinem spoke on campus and I met her after the speech. I took courses in women’s studies and all of us were encouraged to pursue advanced degrees or careers in Fortune 100 companies. By graduation, aspirations were high. Our generation felt primed to break all barriers.
I was recruited to join a management class of primarily MBAs. I liked the work but I didn’t know how to measure myself. Was my success a function of my paycheck, being promoted, wearing a skirted suit with a floppy bow tie, carrying a briefcase or being chosen as a Trustee? All of those things buoyed me up. And breaking a few barriers felt heady.
The problem was that I had no idea how I defined success. I’d taken my cues on success from others. Friends, colleagues, and even society tied “being successful” to a metric or an action; something measurable like rank, compensation, degree, or for some the desire was marriage and starting a family. Others seemed to know what they wanted out of life. I wanted those things too and was content, but I didn’t see those things as markers of success.
Years passed and I somehow managed to grow professionally (albeit no longer in a major corporation) and juggle small kids in a city where most moms didn’t work. I hardly felt successful. I’d leave town for a meeting with dried graham crackers on my suit and pray that my husband remembered toddler instructions. Without cell phones, I couldn’t text him. At home, I’d give my 3 year old a jar of peanut butter to keep him quiet while I spoke to clients from my home phone (wired to a wall in the kitchen).
I felt like an imposter, a common feeling for women underscored by Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In.
A Harvard Business School study said that women and men are equally able to attain high-level leadership positions, but men want power more than women do. It went on to say that women often have more overall life goals than men. That resonated.
I had many life goals and my approach was to just stay busy and live in overdrive. Because I was doing so much, I felt that I never did anything well.
Business travel and the necessity of a Saturday night stay in another city gave me uninterrupted time to do some soul searching on this topic. Writing has always been a way for me to clear my head. I had written journals and lists for years. So, I wrote down what mattered to me professionally and personally. Then I brainstormed about where I wanted to be in 10-15 years. I used some visioning worksheets from a book called The Path, which I’ve subsequently used when mentoring and coaching executive women. I took the risk of describing my professional goals in concrete terms; I even described what my home office would look like.
- To build my executive recruiting practice, closing 12-15 placements/year from my office at home decorated with my children’s artwork.
- To have fun with my children and laugh more. (No doubt inspired by Julie Andrews.)
There were many days where I struggled to work from home, particularly when the fax machine broke and I wished for an IT department. But a decade later when I looked at my journal statement, I was amazed. I’d accomplished what I’d written.
In the old days, I might have looked sideways at other’s achievements and felt inferior (and that was before Facebook!). Or, I could have focused on what I did not do. The written statement, my personal mission statement, validated that I’d done what I set out to do.
A panel of the Professional Woman’s Network and IBM’s Women Network researched women of a variety of age groups and demographics. They concluded (not surprisingly) that when it comes to success, there is no one size fits all. But what everyone agreed upon was that fundamentally success is having the freedom to live by your values. What my nieces may define as success differs from what I might want for my life now.
Another finding was that one’s idea of success changes with time and circumstance. It is time to reevaluate my goals for the next chapter of my life. Now relationships, mentoring, and coaching are center stage.
And that brings me back to my 40th college reunion. Returning to campus allowed me to reconnect with classmates as well as with my 21 year old self. I’d not done what that 21 year old thought she might do, nor had any of my friends. We all had interesting lives, but none of us had changed the world. That no longer seemed to matter. Instead we were eager to learn about one another’s lives, and appreciative of the wisdom that comes with 40 years.
And whereas when I was 21, I might have been thrilled to sit on the podium, this year I was much happier sitting among my classmates.