What Does Success Look Like?

‘It’s time to live while you are alive’ – Mac Macartney

I was walking through one of the the two villages I grew up in earlier this week. In my mind there is the village of my early childhood, which we left when I was 9, and there is this one where we lived until I left home at 21. Walking though this village, where I have delivered newspapers on every street at one time or another during that second half of my childhood, I often remember how it used to be. Houses that used to be a garage, a swimming pool that used to be an old lady’s house, a housing estate where a large garden used to be. I watch a woman unloading the kids and shopping and dogs from a 4×4 and begin to think about that life.

In management-speak there is a question often asked:

‘What does success look like?’

When implementing a new process or system we need to know what success looks like in order to measure it. Usually there is never a single answer to this question. The senior executive sponsoring the project will have their own version of success in mind which will ultimately be making more money by creating efficiencies ie less people doing more or making the same thing for less cost. For the project manager, success is implementing the new process or system, for the operations manager success is their workers still achieving the same results despite the management interference, for the workers success is learning how to use the new equipment or still getting the same amount of work done with less people or successfully avoiding using the new system or process altogether. Success is not a fixed ideal, it is a variable dependant on the wants and needs and whims and foibles of the one holding the view of what success looks like.

My own father, a man who had his ups and downs in the attaining and maintaining success, often used to rib me about how ‘rich’ I was. I was certainly playing the part, with the big house, the sports car, the gym membership and nice clothes. These were the markers of success to me but the irony is it was costing me so much to live the rich life that I never had any money to spare.

‘From the moment we’re born we start to die.’ – attributed to Donald Stewart

It’s taken me a long time to change what my idea of success is, and I’m still working on it. I know my thinking has started to change as when I saw the woman with her big house and 4×4 full of dogs and kids I knew there was also a husband somewhere else. He’d probably got up at 5am in order to be in the office in London by 9 and would be back by 7pm, perhaps 8pm or 9pm before doing it all over again tomorrow. His success is played out somewhere else, in the office, in court, on the golf course, at the gym.

What is also true is that everything we think and say and see and do is perceived through the filter of our own reality. The story I am relating is influenced by my story, it may well bear no resemblance to what is actually happening for those people I am describing but it fits the narrative for the place that I am in at the moment.

When we are young we think we will live forever, and as we age we find out this is not true, the classmates who didn’t get to graduate remind us that tragedy is always out there. Through watching the passing of our elder generations we learn that life is finite. Then we begin to discover that there is no guarantee of even reaching elderhood, as fate has cruel tricks in store for those in their 40’s and 50’s too.

So, again, I ask myself ‘what does success look like?’

‘What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?’ – Mary Oliver

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