What does it mean to have a successful career? A successful life?
I’ve been thinking about these questions of late, prompted in part by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement, and partly by my inclusion as a mentor in our local business journal’s first Bizwomen’s Mentoring Monday event.
Does my inclusion as a mentor mean that I am a success? Does it mean I “leaned in”? You might be surprised to know that I didn’t feel like I achieved any meaningful career success until I quit “leaning in” and reassessed what it means to succeed. Career success, as it was defined in my 20s and most of my 30s, is not what I define it to be now.
A little background– I was your pretty typical young lawyer. Went straight to law school from undergrad, did well, and got a job in the largest law firm in the state. At that point in my career, I had a traditional definition of lawyer success. Hang in there. Work lots of hours. Make partner in 7 years. Make lots of money. So I tried doing just that, and succeeded to a certain extent. I worked hard. Proved myself. Worked lots of hours. Made partner. Made a good salary.
Life should have been good, right? I had achieved success as it was defined, in fact, in the way Sheryl Sandberg has defined it. I leaned in, and got my partnership. Life was as it should be.
Problem is, life sucked. I was less fulfilled being a partner and making more money than I ever had been in my whole career. Other people seemed happy, but a bare majority seemed as miserable as me. Why was that so if we had achieved career success?
As I was struggling with trying to balance all that supposedly wonderful and fulfilling career success with the increasing feeling that I was failing at my career as well as at my other vocation, that of being a mother, I finally realized I had never sat back to determine what I, deep down, would view as success, both in life and in my career.
Once I took a deep, hard look at what I was doing, both with my life and career, it was obvious something had to give, and the “success” I’d convinced myself I had to have was anything but that. In leaning in, in chasing conventional success, I’d lost myself and any feeling that I was contributing to the world. I’m not necessarily knocking “conventional success” — some people find fulfillment through that kind of success, and I don’t begrudge them that. I clearly wasn’t finding it, and something had to change.
This process was harder than waking up one day and saying to myself, “Hey, I don’t care if I’m not a big firm partner any more.” When you’ve been committed to that goal for years, even having achieved a measure of that goal, it can be hard to admit to yourself that it wasn’t right.
I initially decided that I needed a total career change, one that would let me in the short run devote more time to my family, especially my young daughter. I set out to apply to graduate school to become a licensed clinical social worker, thinking the short-term break for schooling would give me the time I craved with my family but would still set me up for a measure of success after as a full-time LCSW and therapist.
See the flaw? I was still buying into the lean in, conventional success concept. I thought I still needed to chase a title, a career to matter. Funny thing though, how life works out. In starting to move toward that flawed goal, I gave up my firm partnership and took a part-time job in a much smaller law firm just to keep some income coming in while I sorted the grad school thing out. When I took this job, I fully expected it to be temporary, just a way to keep our family afloat since I had been the majority of our income.
It turns out having that job, rather than a career or chasing a partnership, was exactly what I needed. Six months into my new job, I realized that I actually liked practicing law, now that the pressure of attaining the trappings of partnership success were gone. I even stopped thinking about a new career , suddenly satisfied with my new identity as a mom-lawyer-employee.
I’m three years into “leaning sideways” into my new “career,” and things have never been better. I’m there for my daughter and husband, so that overwhelming sense of guilt that I’m letting them down has lifted. I’ve come into my own as a lawyer — I’ve even had my first jury trial as first chair attorney, and I’ve been elected to the state bar association’s board of governors. I have a fair number of speaking gigs, and may even teach a class at the local law school this fall. The funny thing is, I would have never felt comfortable being a trial lawyer, speaking in front of large groups (sometimes bigger than 1000 people), or running for an elective office if I hadn’t leaned sideways and given up what was supposed to be the big success– my partnership.
Is everything easy for me now? Of course not. It would be nice to have my old salary back. I won’t pretend that I don’t miss that sometimes. I’ve had to go back to full-time work to pay for my daughter’s school, but now instead of working full time for the glory and money, I’m working full time for my daughter’s benefit. That I can stomach, and when I go home tired, I feel like it’s been for a worthier goal than just success as the Lean In types would define it.
So getting back to the Bizwomen Mentoring Monday, sitting there, at the long tables on the “mentor” side, I’m sure there were people who were a little perplexed as to why I was there. I’m not a partner in a law firm; I’m not wealthy. The thing is, I feel like more of a success right now than at any other time in my life, whether others see me that way or not. At this point it doesn’t matter to me what they think — I feel like I belonged on that mentor panel. I’ve forged my own way, and found a life that matters to me. That is how I define success, and that’s what I told women who talked to me. It’s not about leaning in, or meeting societal expectations. It’s deciding what matters to you, and trying to be true to that.
And when my daughter gets old enough and asks for my advice on success, I will pull this out, and explain to her that for a long time I was caught up in what others defined as success, instead of trying to figure it out for myself. I will encourage her to dig deep, and think about what she wants her own life to look like. I will encourage her to pay attention to her vision rather than what people around her tell her success looks like. If she can do that, she will find it. And be fulfilled in the process.