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The Ampersand June 2018 – What Success Looks Like

June 1, 2018

I used to have a preconceived notion of what a successful career (and life) looked like. Back then, the equation for success seemed simple. Get good grades in school, go to university for something practical, get a good job, and work hard to climb that career ladder.

 

That plan served me well for most of my life. Lucky for me, I was a natural-born nerd, so I had the grades thing down pat. And since being a lawyer seemed like a pretty noteworthy thing to become, I decided at age eight that I would become one.

 

I was also a pretty pragmatic teenager. I figured getting into law school wasn’t a sure thing, so I went after a degree in finance as a back-up plan. Plus, I was weirdly good at math, so that would probably help with the grades thing, which would help with getting into law school, right?

 

My plan worked. I got into a great law school, which is certainty one of the top schools in Canada, at least in terms of cost of tuition. And despite being scared to death for most of first year, I ended up with one of those coveted “big law” jobs at a national corporate law firm. I thought I had landed my dream job.

 

 

Obviously, my plan backfired. Unbeknownst to me, I hated practicing law – I found it dreadfully boring. And I didn’t appreciate how much of a dainty flower I was until I was asked to work into the wee hours of the night on a regular basis. Apparently, I’m one of those people that needs eight hours of sleep to function.

 

I made the decision to leave the law, and took actual steps to do so, after I started having a recurring nightmare about a disclosure letter chasing me. You know when paper is chasing you in your dreams that things have gotten bad.

 

Surprisingly, the hardest part of leaving the law for me was dealing with a wide range of negative reactions, which I believe reflect some societal beliefs about the meaning of success.

“You’re the leaving the law?? But you went to school for seven years!”

“How can you not love being a lawyer – it’s such a good job!”

“What is a recruiter – is that even a real job?”

“You can’t waste your brain – you need to do something intellectually challenging like law!”

Or best yet, was my parents’, “we’re very concerned about your life choices” comment. Oh mom…

 

Since leaving the law, I now regularly muse over the definition of career (and correspondingly, life) success. I most recently revisited this line of thought when my 22-year-old brother casually told me he had bought an acreage. WHAT?

 

Now, for this story to make sense, I have to tell you a little bit about my brother. He’s significantly younger than me, and we’ve always been drastically different. When I was inside the house reading a book, he was outside building jumps he could ride his dirt bike off of. When I left home to go to university, he struggled through school, finding his best classes to be shop and welding. And while I was studying to be a lawyer, he opted to forgo post-secondary. Instead, he chose to join my dad on the family farm in the summer and worked in the oil & gas industry in the winter months.

 

My brother is the perfect example of success. He’s 22 and he owns an acreage (albeit one that needs a lot of TLC), works in a field that he loves (pun intended), and he has the hands-on skills to dabble in a wide variety of roles during the growing off-season. He’s living out his version of success.

 

 

When I was studying business at the University of Saskatchewan, I became good friends with a group of girls, and we all pursued different career paths. I have always marvelled at the path of one friend in particular, who chose to move back to her hometown of 200 people after obtaining her marketing degree. As you can imagine, there aren’t a lot of career options in a 200-person town in Saskatchewan, so she took a job working at her local grocery store.

 

My friend always makes self-disparaging comments about her career path, perhaps because she feels a pressure from the world to have done something different after university. But she is the epitome of success, and one of the hardest working people I know. She has poured her heart into her local grocery store for more than 10 years, and she now plays a significant leadership role in the organization. They would be lost without her.

 

My friend also has a lot going on in her life outside of her work. She is the mother of two beautiful children, and the things she does for those kids are endless. She lives in a community that she loves, and she is incredibly active in that community. Whether she is performing in her community theatre, organizing ladies’ nights, planning fundraisers for the local rink, going above and beyond to promote local businesses, making crafts or helping her son to launch his own social media cooking show, my friend is working tirelessly for her family, her town, her friends, her community, her home.

 

Even this week, I was impressed with her latest accomplishments. I shared that I was proud of having made it to the gym several days in a row. She shared that she was proud of how her garden was coming along. She is LITERALLY the only millennial I know with a full-fledged backyard garden…

 

 

 

My friend and my brother alike highlight the notion that success can take many forms, and those versions should be celebrated.

 

 

And in the world of recruiting, that means that one job does not fit all, nor do candidates and clients have the same conception of what makes a “top job” or a “top company” to work for.

 

Stephen Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, agrees that the definition of success is categorically individual. “If you carefully consider what you want to be said of you in the funeral experience”, he told the New York Times, “you will find your definition of success”.

 

Of course, for some people, success does mean money and power. Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary, until recently, defined success as “the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect or fame”. Candidates with this definition of success will look for roles with top salaries and significant responsibilities.

 

However, I would argue that candidates, particularly those in my generation, are increasingly motivated by factors other than money. Indeed, research done by 80,000 Hours, a career advisement organization affiliated with the University of Oxford, showed that income is not one of the key ingredients to a “dream job” for a candidate.

 

Instead, their research (intuitively) found that individuals are happier when:

 

 

On top of that, the research revealed that people are also happy when they find a role that fits with the rest of their life, even if they don’t love the work. Yes, a candidate can find success in a career they don’t necessarily love if that career provides them with time to pursue things outside of work.

 

So, what do these musings on the definition of success mean in practical terms? Well, for us recruiters here at Pekarsky & Co, it means we have to be diligent in figuring out what makes a candidate tick. Even if a candidate professes to be motivated by power and money, might there be other things going on in his or her life that need to be taken into consideration? No one wins if we place a candidate into a high paying and prestigious role if, only months later, that candidate has to resign because the role does not allow for needed family time, or involves a gruelling commute, or bores the candidate to tears.

 

And for clients, understanding the many definitions of success means understanding that not everyone will want to work for you. It means finding creative ways to make roles more flexible, to better fit into the lives of the otherwise great candidates that could contribute to an organization. It means evolving and adapting work environments and roles to continually attract a wide variety of candidates.

 

Which brings us back to me. I now have a job that I love, that affords me the opportunity to pursue passions outside of work and, if you must know, that pays the bills, too. Leaving the law was not easy, but having left I can’t imagine going back.  But that’s just me. Only you can figure out you.

 

Erin Dand is an Associate at Pekarsky & Co. Though she started her career as a lawyer at one of Canada’s top national law firms, she has embraced the virtues of working less, earning more and having a life as a superstar search professional at Canada’s best little boutique executive search firm.