If you were in a business setting and heard that a really successful person was about to enter the room, who would come to mind? Most likely you would think of a person who has attained a senior level position, maybe a CEO or Board member. This thinking is not unusual, especially for anyone who has spent his or her career in a corporate environment.

But in many ways, this thinking focuses on a very narrow definition of human achievement and is at the root of what we consider to be a crisis in 21st century careers.  Why a crisis? Because my friend and co-researcher Jamie Anderson and I believe that many people in business reach a level of high professional achievement only to realize that the commitments and tradeoffs that this requires are excessive.

In the words of Alain de Botton,

It is one thing for people to not achieve their dreams – but it is another for them to reach their professional goals and then to realize that the wider outcome is not what they want at all.”

Jamie and I share the belief that this realization has become an epidemic amongst many senior managers and leaders around the world.

One of the most topical themes in the debate on future careers is the impact of Generation Y who are now starting to enter many middle-management positions within organizations.  In our interactions with Gen Y, and increasingly with human resources professionals and senior managers themselves, Jamie and I have been continually told that Gen Y is more interested in “work-life balance.”

Gen Y has witnessed the generation before them commit a very large part of their lives to career and company, and many of these young people have started to question the trade-offs that are required to make it to the top. Many have also witnessed their parents and grandparents made redundant, sometimes after decades of service to an employer. In such an environment, it is not surprising that many within Gen Y have started to question a world in which organizational loyalty is expected but not always returned.

But we think that this debate misses something – it is not just Gen Y that is grappling with a more holistic appreciation of success. Another trend that is emerging at work that is significant but does not get as much attention as the millennial generation is the shift that is taking place in employees in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Indeed, the aspiration to be recognized as a multi-faceted and purposeful human being is powerfully present across even the upper echelons of senior management. But in so many cases these high- achievers hide their wider dreams and aspirations, and suffer in high-paid silence. There was a total of US$54 billion dollars in unpaid vacation pay reported in the U.S. alone in 2013, reflecting upon the true scope of the problem in many countries.

While many talk about millenials, most don’t realize a bigger shift that is happening. We are no longer experiencing mid-life crises. Our needs and wants are starting to shift from possessions to experiences. More and more people at all ages are craving more connection and community. Those in their 40s, 50s and 60s who have been on the “high potential” and “high achiever” tracks are starting to ask; “This is it? This is why I gave away my evenings and weekends for work and pursued the myth of work-life balance?”

Lifeworking in Abundance

How do you define success?

There are many who have been conditioned by the success trap – the manner in which so many career professionals find themselves on a path towards promotion responsibility and accountability that slowly but surely absorbs energy from other meaningful life activities. And then success was defined by finding the holy grail of work-life balance.

Some people define themselves by and through their work, and therefore have no sense of the conflicts that we are talking about. Their work is their life, and we wish such people every happiness in the way that they define success. I will focus in my discussion on the people who come to define happiness in a wider sense and experience 21st century abundance of opportunity. They move away from the 20th century scarcity mindset of fear and competition into our current world of abundance of collaboration and co-creation. They want to see their lifework in abundance and collaborate in trusted communities. They may decide to be a free agent (as 50 per cent of the U.S. workforce will be by 2020) but they very much see success as collaborating and partnering with others.

Work-life balance is an unattainable myth because the very definition of this term is part of the problem, and offer an alternative philosophy to purposeful living – what my co-researcher Jamie Anderson and I call lifeworking. This is an approach that does not try to separate life and work into two distinct and seemingly incompatible spheres, but instead meshes both into a new way of thinking about a life journey in the 21st century.

Is it time to redefine success? What’s your lifework?

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