You went to a top high school, where you took the hardest courses, overloaded on extracurriculars, and starred in three varsity sports. You were admitted to a top college, where you double majored and again binged on clubs and competitions. You landed a top job, then went on to a top graduate school and you’re now at the most elite firm in the industry.
And you’re wondering why you’re not fulfilled.
It’s because you don’t understand what fulfillment is… and you’re also confused about what true success is as well.
Have you ever stopped to think about what you want from life? The answer is relatively simple. We want to be successful and we want to be fulfilled. Said differently, we want to matter and we want to feel good about it. We want to make an impact and we want to be happy. So why don’t we ever stop to consider what that would take?
Success, at its core, is not about making money, it’s about making things better. It’s about creating value. It’s about helping people.
Associated with success are certain rewards, like compensation, titles and awards. As you’ve steamrolled your way to the top, have you been chasing true success – making things better – or rewards like a big paycheck? The hypercompetitive, type-A climber often finds herself trapped in a grueling, less than fulfilling career because she always took the most impressive, highest-paid next step, rather than the step that would enable her to help the most people or become the most valuable in the long term. If you can maximize how valuable you become over the course of your lifetime, making enough money is not going to be a problem. Peter Diamandis, whose book Bold explores the strategies of revolution-sparking billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, says “Want to become a billionaire? Then help a billion people.”
But what about fulfillment? Based on research in the field of positive psychology, we know that having a high degree of life satisfaction is about experience, not accomplishment. The process trumps the outcome. There are three key types of experience that make up the fulfilling life:
Mood: Do you have frequent experiences of positive emotion like happiness, pleasure, excitement and comfort? Do you infrequently experience negative emotions like unhappiness, stress, anxiety and boredom? Many people who stumble while seeking fulfillment make the mistake of only seeking to maximize their mood.
Engagement: How often do you experience flow or feel like you’re in the zone? Flow is the state where you get completely absorbed by what you are doing. Your notion of time abstracts, your actions feel automatic and the self-critical voice in your head quiets down. Many people experience this state while reading, playing a favorite sport, creating art or during certain tasks while working. Flow is about using your strengths against a comparable challenge.
Meaning: Do you feel like you are a part of something bigger and more important than yourself, like your family, a company or organization, a religious group or a culture? Are you working towards any goals that intrinsically matter to you? Often Type-A success rats are doing extremely valuable work that they find utterly meaningless. When you’re working 70 hours a week on something that doesn’t matter to you, of course you’ll obsess about work/life balance and eagerly await the weekend, your next vacation and your retirement.
If you really want to be successful, you can’t optimize for the rewards of success in the near term. That’s a path to burnout and capped impact. Instead, search for a Purpose that can direct you throughout your career that will enable you to help a lot of people and experience a pleasant mood, deep engagement and powerful meaning. If you can identify work like that, the fulfilling nature of creating an impact will create a virtuous cycle. You’ll be intrinsically motivated by working on something you find meaningful and you’ll be extremely powerful as you work in a state of deep engagement.
The reason people don’t find work like this is because it takes effort to find and it sometimes needs to be invented. But is staying in a grueling, unfulfilling job truly better than putting in the effort to find a Purpose that will lead to exponential success and fulfillment? You don’t have to do it tomorrow, but is this a goal you could accomplish in the next few years?
Question: How do you feel most compelled to help others?