The questions you should ask yourself as early in your career as possible.
I met a Young woman at a cafe the other day. She had spent four years of college — and dedicated hundreds of hours to networking — in hopes of landing her dream job at a top consulting firm. After her college graduation, she landed the job! And, on top of that, after only one year with the firm, they gave her a promotion and a raise to a six-figure salary.
Two weeks after her promotion, she quit her job to travel the world.
Why did she quit? The work was unfulfilling. Her colleagues were old and burnt out. And when she saw her future-self in her colleagues tired eyes, she realized that her dream job was not the dream she thought it was.
When she told me this, it didn’t surprise me. I have this type of conversation with people all the time.
Living and working in Vietnam, I usually meet these Corporate Runaways at cafes or bars as they are traveling through the country on a Southeast Asian tour. They have jumped from the edge of a precipice: on the cliff-edge above them is the life they had worked tirelessly to obtain; below them the dark unknown.
And yet, none of them ever regrets taking the leap and leaving it all behind.
The stories of Corporate Runaways tend to be remarkably similar. They tell me how they achieved the professional successes they always dreamed of, but they found their achievements to be…empty. Their life didn’t undergo the sweeping changes they expected success to bring. The money or prestige was nice, but the long hours, the stress, the pace of life, the lack of freedom, and the added responsibility made success feel…well, not like success.
I say all this because I know there are still young people who chase superficial markers of success only because they have not taken the time to define “success” for themselves.
Rather than think deeply on what success means to them, they define success by the lives of others. They chase a Master’s degree because their parents have one. They have to be a lawyer because their older brother is. They study business in hopes of a flashy lifestyle.
And this sets them down a path that, often, results in disappointment. Like the Wizard of Oz, what they thought was their dream life is mostly smoke and mirrors. Behind the curtain, things are far less idyllic. The excitement over a fancy title or more money quickly wears off, but the stress that come with the new title never does.
This is why when you are young, it is critical to take the time to define for yourself what a successful life looks like and what your motivation is for striving for it. Young people must ask themselves:
What life would I pursue if no one was watching? If the eyes of my parents, the perception of my peers, and the expectations of my partner were removed, what type of life would I live? And, most importantly, is that the life I am pursuing now?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, especially when you are young. Sometimes, it takes people, like Sara, through their first job to define success for themselves. And when they finally do, it can flip their world upside down.
But the earlier you begin posing these questions to yourself, the earlier you can align your ambition with a life that you find satisfying.
A great example of aligned ambition is a guy I met a few weeks ago at breakfast. We will call him Dan. Dan is a 30-year old software developer who has exchanged career advancement (and a pay-cut) to work remotely from Bali, Indonesia. He is single, lives on less than he would in the US, doesn’t own a car or house, and owns a simple wardrobe of t-shirts and board shorts.
Dan lacks some of the Superficial Markers of success. But that isn’t the whole story. He also wakes up every morning to surf the waves of Bali, works for a few hours poolside, and spends the rest of his day working on passion projects. He also spends no time commuting to work, doing chores, playing politics with colleagues or surviving soul-crushing corporate monotony.
Is Dan successful? Suburban-ites might say he needs to “grow up.” To me, Dan has chosen health and life-satisfaction over superficial trophies. And that demonstrates wisdom most people don’t have, no matter their age.
Some people need to reach the (perceived) mountain top before they realize their life isn’t what they want it to be. But if they took the time when they were younger to consider the type of life that they, deep down, want to live, they could potential save time and effort pursuing a life that is ultimately unfulfilling.
You only get one shot at life. If you hope to live a life that is engaging and satisfying, you must invest the time to deeply consider how you want to spend it.
Otherwise, you risk your life one day stepping out from behind the curtain and revealing itself as something far less satisfying than you imagined.
Aaron Horwath is a Millennial expat currently living and working in Da Nang, Vietnam and is the creator of the Medium publication Letters to a Young Professional.
The Danger of Never Defining “Success” for Yourself was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.