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What to Do When Success Leaves You Empty

When we are caught up in achieving a goal, we can forget to enjoy the process. Here’s how to change that. 

For many leaders, a sense of meaning at work is elusive. As a leadership coach and business advisor, what I find most interesting about the gap between what leaders expect to feel once they reach a career milestone and what they actually feel is that it often comes as a surprise. The cause of the confusion? What leaders thought was meaningful purpose was merely their pursuit of success — and these are two very different things.

One client, a rising star in the consulting world, explained it this way:

“I got promoted a year earlier than my peers. It was a specific goal I set and I worked incredibly hard to achieve it. Along the way, I packed it full of assumptions about what it would mean for me and how it would make me feel, but honestly, I don’t really feel anything. I just wake up asking myself, ‘What’s next?’”

Another client, a global technology specialist, said:

“In my group, it’s rare to lead a project from start to finish, but I convinced my bosses to hand me the reins. I traveled and collaborated with a variety of experts, which I thought would broaden my perspective and stimulate my creativity. But I was so stressed throughout the project all I wanted to do was finish. The work was a success, but in hindsight, that was the easy part. Staying in the moment and enjoying the experience was another story.”

These candid reflections from successful leaders illustrate two important things. First, they show the way in which we subtly intertwine our pursuit of success with an unconfirmed expectation that it will deliver a meaningful experience. And second, they validate the ways in which our focus on external achievements can distract us from the day-to-day experiences that could provide us with a more intrinsic sense of meaning.

If you want to advance in your career and grow as a leader while experiencing greater personal meaning in your everyday work, consider these strategies to disentangle the pursuit of purpose and your drive for success.

Start with your Purpose — and your purpose. It is useful to think about purpose in two dimensions. The first one is that overarching, poignant orientation to what matters most — let’s call it (big P) Purpose. The other is a smaller, more specific connection to everyday experiences that are meaningful in some way — I refer to that as (little p) purpose.

For a variety of reasons, leaders are encouraged to focus more on defining their Purpose, which isn’t always helpful. And although the big questions leaders are given to define it sound great, their weight can create unnecessary pressure. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What’s your passionate life pursuit? Have you defined your why?

What leaders thought was meaningful purpose was only their pursuit of success – and these are two very different things.

When answers to these questions are indefinable, focusing on (little p) purpose can relieve the pressure and move you closer to something significant, even if smaller in scope. Having a purpose is many things, but first and foremost it is a choice. It is the conscious decision to draw personal relevance from the quality of your experience, not only from the critical moments — a significant milestone, a career-defining event, or the professional equivalent of a summit on Mt. Everest — but from the routine events of the day.

I appreciate the way the Energy Project, an organizational consulting firm focused on using employee resources wisely to boost productivity, talks about the kind of vigor we can derive from a personally defined sense of meaning and purpose at work. Feeling passion for what you’re doing, devoting more time to the things you enjoy, and making a positive difference to others are just a few examples that represent the small but energizing things that can boost your capacity for a more meaningful experience.

Separate meaning from achievement. When we narrowly define meaning or purpose as a set, singular “thing” to pursue, it becomes separate from us, and we thus alienate ourselves from the everyday experiences that deliver the very meaning we seek.

To separate these factors, try a simple thought experiment. On the right-hand side of a page, title a column “Achievements” (e.g., getting promoted early) and name a column on the left-hand side “Meaningful Experiences” (e.g., challenging yourself to go beyond expectations). Start listing items on the right-hand side first, including the important accomplishments, milestones, and tangible achievements that are important to you in both the short and long term. Once that column is completed, consider what is personally meaningful to you about that specific achievement, and document it on the left-hand side.

You may find that these experiences will show up on the way to, or entirely outside of, the achievement itself. This means you can allow yourself to enjoy them sooner; you can also renegotiate some of your commitments that may be more about the achievement and less about the meaning behind it.

Look inward for the answers. In the same way your personal values offer a framework for finding your authentic leadership voice, your choices about what matters and your definition of significance combine to shape a path of purpose. Nobody else can do this for you; you must define it for yourself.

The challenge is that we naturally learn from, and subtly emulate, the behaviors of those around us. Culture is learned, shared, and transmitted behavior, so it’s safe to say that in organizational life we’re as much a product of the people around us as we are the force that shapes them. However, your own sense of purpose is too important to casually adopt from others.

For example, if you admire your boss for her passion to help others and want to emulate her commitment to mentoring emerging professionals, that’s great — but only when you’re consciously borrowing those behaviors, attitudes, and aspirations to blend into your own signature version.

This is especially pertinent for emerging leaders and leaders in transition. In these instances, defining one’s leadership presence and personal brand can become an exercise of naming the admirable qualities of others. Instead, it should be a process of curating your own attributes, skills, and value-added capabilities that combine to make you who you are.

To find out what matters to you, ask yourself this question: What do I do at work that both adds value to my team/organization and gives me the greatest sense of meaning, fulfillment, and purpose? This inquiry allows you to map the personally relevant intersection of individual and organizational success.

When you act on these three strategies simultaneously — starting with purpose, separating meaning from achievement, and looking inward for answers — something shifts. It’s not about the relentless search for a Purpose epiphany, which may sound good and satisfy the world around you; it’s a progression of clearing out the clutter and silencing the noise so that your true core is more tangible for the world and for yourself. This shift will allow you to find purpose and experience meaning along the journey, not just when the destination is reached.

Jesse Sostrin

Jesse Sostrin is a director at PwC’s U.S. Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence. He is the author of The Manager’s Dilemma (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success.

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