Success, significance and my modern life.
I live by brands. I’ve made a career in an inarguably consumerist field, and I’ve done it unapologetically. I’ve never worked for or with a company that raises particular ire, meaning no tobacco, politicians, or known child-labor/environmental/social violators. It’s crucial to note that I’m not 100% behind the structures, the corporate and capitalist framework, at which I’ve built my career and focused so much time, effort and energy. It’s certainly not unheard of among advertising/marketing professionals, but it lends itself to a persistent internal tug of war. My life had become a state of living duality, jumping from my excitement and success in growing a top-of-the-line agency to looking at my life (in the existential sense) philosophically and sociologically, and it was (is) exhausting.
The past year has been one of challenges and struggles for me. From the outside, it appears to be a great 12 months, and based on outwardly observable measures, it wasn’t a terrible year at all. I live in a beautiful part of a beautiful part of the country. I no longer live paycheck to paycheck. My health is good, I have an amazing partner in my husband and I’ve seen a great deal of professional accomplishments. On the surface, my success is obvious. Yet inside, I felt a void, even with awareness and great appreciation for my external success. This is not a story of ingratitude, and I won’t feign hubris to say my achievements weren’t without hard ass work and sacrifice. With apparent success, I was still so lacking. And after months of confusion and frustration, I discovered I wasn’t trying to fill a hole with success. It wasn’t a case of emotional Peter to pay Paul. The success satiates a real need, not just one created by the society we live in, but something I needed, me.
But the success created another need. One that exists outside of commercial success, for damn sure, but that grows as the former does. I didn’t know for what, just that it was growing and pervasive and like a weed of longing for something else to make the fruits of my labor and effort sweet. Recently, I put a name to this. Significance. I had success, but I wasn’t building significance to balance it. Like a vine on a trellis, my career only has personal value in the sense that there’s something bigger to cling onto. Growing the vine of traditional American success (money, money, recognition, money) without a framework of significance to the world and yourself is living shallowly at best. I needed to refocus on my KPIs, my measures of significance in addition to those of success I inhierited by being in this part of the world at this point in time. And as someone who doesn’t believe that more is more or that bigger is better or in keeping up the Jones or Kardashians, I have to seek significance outside my career as well as success in it.
This is by no means an indictment on those who find significance in the capitalistic success. If it works for you, then I am happy for you. But it doesn’t work for me. I’ll never get off on a paycheck; I am proud of mine and what it means in terms of expertise and use (practical and discretionary). But the number will never be my end-all goal. A certain title won’t cut it either. I’m still motivated to continue on my career success within those traditional parameters, but I’m also looking for what other box needs checked to add significance to the mix. I don’t know what it is right now, but I do know it’s contributing to something bigger than my own ego, the GDP or anyone else’s expectations of me. I know I’m not alone in this. Check the rise of entrepreneurs, start-ups, social good initiatives. There’s a lot of people wanting more.
Part of it is in fighting the system from within, from rebelling against what I think is irresponsible or destructive or (potentially even more dangerous) unknowingly superficial. Part of it is embracing the complexities involved with being really good at what I do and not necessarily agreeing in some of the principles that allowed my field to even exist. And a lot of it is just being aware that I shape my own happiness based on my actions and reactions. It’s balancing watching Millionaire Matchmaker with reading Kierkegaard, and reconciling that both have a right to entertain me and to exist in our cultural mindscapes. It’s living with an appreciation for nice things, but without a need for things to be anyone else’s definition of nice. And maybe that’s where significance lies for me: living a life mired in dualities that is unapologetically me.
A logical next paragraph will share with you what I’m doing now, what the next move is. I can’t do that. I don’t know what that is. But I do have a strong list of what it isn’t, and I’m letting that anchor me as I navigate for the first time without a clear plan or a road map. I read a lot. I’ve been writing. I observe. The job space is weird right now, so many blurred lines and buzzwords and inflated valuations and interesting innovations. I’ve been looking at who has it right, those people who are loving every minute and living what’s right for them right now. And I’ve been observing those who might not. I’m learning. I’m listening. I’m spending time being a person and not a job or a role. I’m trying to figure things out. Being able to figure things out led me to this point, and it’s not one of no return. It’s one where I can be really good at connecting people and business and stay connected to being a person. To being me.
To anyone who feels this way, good at the game but knowing there’s so much more, take leaps. Take small steps. Look within and around. The easy answer is staying in the game. We aren’t the kind of people who take the easy way. Find your right way. The systems are big, bigger than we probably even grasp. We can change them, but it won’t be overnight or in weeks or even months or years. We can change them, but not if we keep pretending that we can find all our meaning in them. We’ll change things by building meaning outside, creating and cultivating and living what gives us meaning. Weeds of alternatives, growing right next to the carefully planted roses. But it starts with finding that seed of significance. It might replace the traditional success, and it might grow on par and it might play a secondary role. They’re all right answers. Living with significance comes from the sowing, the looking. Start there.