The ugly truth about how society is conditioned to view success — in degrees, dollars, promotions, likes, and favs — is that much of it is external and out of our control.
With hard work and some luck, for example, you might land the prestigious job of your dreams. But what if the industry changes or you end up with a terrible new boss?
This radical dose of reality is exactly what happened to Anthony Tjan. As he details in his book Good People, in the late 1990s, the entrepreneur worked tirelessly to build ZEFER, an internet services company that was poised to earn him tens of millions of dollars when the company went public.
But things didn’t turn out that way. “The day ZEFER intended to go public was the largest NASDAQ drop in its history to date,” he writes, “a slide that would only continue over the next few months.” Not only were his dreams shattered, but because his sense of fulfillment and self-value were so deeply tied up in the job, the disaster cut down to his core. Tjan explains:
In the short term, our disappointment came from not going through with the IPO. Even more deeply dismaying was our understanding that our perspective was fundamentally flawed. We’d defined our success by what an initial public offering could bring us, rather than by any of the meaningful roles or innovations we had created, or their impact on the world. We had deviated from our purpose and focused more on growth than on what we were growing.
In other words, while disappointment is an inevitable part of anyone’s life, be it personal or professional, when it happens, it will have less of an impact on your self-worth if your work and your relationships have been meaningful to you. This doesn’t mean you have to save the world. Instead, start small by trying to redefine success in fulfilling ways that you can control: Forge new connections, mentor someone, or challenge yourself to learn new skills.
Tjan eventually helped create a business that improves conditions for low-wage workers in the beauty industry. The mission was a direct result of the soul-searching that followed his first major failure. As he put it, “The final lesson was the most important: to maintain perspective and gain clarity on the people who really matter around you.”
When the meaning is missing
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