An author and PWC leadership expert explains why success leaves so many people feeling empty — and what to do about it.
In your work with senior leaders you have found that success often leaves people feeling empty. Why is that?
In many cases, what people thought was a ‘meaningful purpose’ was merely their pursuit of success — and these are two very different things. Once we reach a career milestone, the gap between what we expect to feel and what we actually feel can come as a surprise. Emerging leaders often make basic assumptions early in their careers about what is driving them, but these drivers aren’t well defined and they are often prescriptive in nature: ‘land that job’; ‘snag a promotion’; ‘make a name for myself ’, etc. As a result, milestones achieved along the way — which you assumed would be intrinsically valuable and personally motivating — turn out to be empty successes.
The role of purpose in organizational life is receiving a lot more attention these days, and for good reason. Whether it’s from an enterprise-wide perspective or from an individual vantage point, aligning values and purpose to create results
with integrity is squarely on the minds of today’s leaders. Of course, achievement still matters, but the impact of any achievement will only be one dimensional if it is disconnected from a personally-relevant reason as to why it matters. A focus on external achievements alone tends to leave us asking, ‘What’s next?’
What is involved in separating meaning from achievement, and why is it important to do that?
Our focus on external achievements can distract us from the day-to-day experiences that could provide us with a deeper sense of meaning. When we narrowly define meaning or purpose as a singular ‘thing’ to pursue, it becomes separate from us, and we alienate ourselves from the everyday experiences that can deliver the very meaning we seek.
I advise people to write down the ‘thing’ that they’re pursuing. What exactly is it? Then, ask yourself, ‘Why do I care? What is meaningful about that?’ This will enable you to tease out your motivations — and possibly realign them. If you focus only on the external side of things, achievements will elevate you, but they won’t necessarily evolve you. There’s a big difference between the two.
What is the difference between ‘big P’ and ‘little p’ purpose?
It’s useful to think about purpose in two dimensions. The first is that over-arching orientation to what matters most — I call it (big P) Purpose. The other is a smaller, more specific connection to everyday experiences that are meaningful in some way, and I refer to that as (little p) purpose.
As a leadership coach, I am constantly working with people who feel pressured to have their big P purpose defined — that epiphany that ‘gets you up in the morning’ and has the gravitas to build your life around it. Those are wonderful when they happen, but if that’s all you’re trying to pursue, you will miss out on a lot of little-p opportunities. These are things that provide a day-to-day sense of connection with people and the world around you and have relevance and meaning to you. Think about some of the routine events that are meaningful to you, such as devoting time to things you enjoy and making a positive difference for others.
In my case, I feel totally renewed when I am able to get out into nature and go for a run on a trail or along the coast. That is one thing that achieves my little-p purpose on a regular basis. It doesn’t set my life on a new course, but it allows me to connect with something meaningful.
For readers who don’t know how to articulate their purpose, what is your advice?
This may sound counterintuitive, but one of the most effective ways to start is to stop reading, listening to podcasts, and looking for answers from external sources. Instead, look within. Nobody else can define your purpose for you. You must do it for yourself.
First, select the scale you want to focus on. If it’s little p’s, try a simple thought experiment. On the right-hand side of a sheet of paper, have a column called ‘Achievements’ and on the left, ‘Meaningful Experiences’. 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 complete, consider what is personally meaningful to you about each achievement, and document that on the left-hand side.
If it’s big-p purpose that you want to focus on, I suggest committing to a question. Not a simple question to be answered through some analytical process, but a deeper question that is intended to provoke your reflection and inner debate. For example: In my life and work, what is the one thing I can’t go without and why does that matter? Whether it’s this kind of ‘bottom line’ question or another one, write it down and look at it from different perspectives. Set it aside,
A focus on external achievements alone tends to leave us asking, ‘What’s next?’
and then return to it to see how your thinking evolves. Deep personal reflection and meaning-making are essential elements of moving closer to your purpose.
What is the role of self-awareness in all of this?
If you can be a student of your own experience and selectively apply what you learn to future situations, you will exponentially raise the ‘ceiling’ of your potential impact. Without this, we tend to develop blindspots and avoidance zones that make us inflexible and less likely to notice and act upon areas of potential growth. But, with transparency and a growth mindset, you can learn from anyone, anywhere, anytime — which is the path to great leadership. For me, self-awareness is the glue that holds all of this together. It is a critical differentiator between leaders who are effective in a particular environment and leaders who are effective in any situation.
What does it look like when a person is able to ‘curate’ their attributes, skills and capabilities?
It looks a lot like curiosity in motion, and self awareness is the key to achieving it. For example, you might notice that some people linger around after a meeting for five or ten minutes longer, because they want to follow up with people, ask questions and make connections. And when there are opportunities for self-directed learning, such as new training or certification, their hand is the first to go up, because that curiosity and willingness to invest is part of their path to becoming more capable. These people don’t wait for permission to grow and they don’t need to be told; they naturally look for ways to go beyond the job description and keep themselves relevant.
Talk a bit about how our personal values provide a framework for finding our authentic leadership voice.
You can’t be true to yourself if you don’t know what you care about. The way a leader communicates and interacts with others is the evidence of what matters to him or her. By increasing the alignment between your values and behaviours, you strengthen your integrity, and that translates into a more consistent, authentic expression of who you are in the moments that matter. It also gives people a reason to follow you.
If you’ve never clarified your values — or if you haven’t refreshed them lately — try this simple exercise: Write down the five to 10 words or phrases that reflect the internal cares, concerns and priorities that drive you in life. I recommend creating a first draft, taking some time to reflect, and then writing a second draft to validate that the list is really your truth, and not what others expect or value.
You may find a few of your top values are pretty universal — for example, honesty, transparency and integrity. However, you may find that this process leads to novel concepts and simple-but-powerful principles such as making a meaningful contribution to others; doing my best work, every time; or making someone’s day a little bit better. There is no right or wrong answer. In the end, the real measure of success is the clarity you have around what matters to you, as well as the capacity to express those things in all of your tasks and relationships.
Dr. Jesse Sostrin is a Director in the U.S. Leadership Coaching Centre of Excellence at Pricewaterhousecoopers and an adjunct faculty member at California Polytechnic University’s College of Business. He is the author of The Manager’s Dilemma (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and Beyond the Job Description (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
You can’t be true to yourself if you don’t know what you care about.