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Success That Lasts

HBS’s Howard Stevenson on why diversification matters when it comes to measuring success

Here’s a scenario: A 55-year-old, highly successful venture capitalist is thinking about his next investment. He’s not certain he has the energy to start another seven-year round of intense financing and consulting activity. “I just can’t imagine enjoying that pace again, and frankly, it’s time I paid attention to my family,” he says to himself. “But I’d really feel like a loser if I didn’t play the game as hard as everyone else. I guess I should retire.”

Survey after survey shows a high degree of job dissatisfaction and burnout among the general working population. Pursuing success is like shooting at a series of moving targets. Every time you hit one, five more pop up from another direction. Just when we’ve achieved one goal, we feel pressured to work harder to achieve another. Standards and examples of “making it” constantly shift, while a fast-paced world of technological and social change constantly poses new obstacles to overcome.

The Four Components of Success

Some of the most successful people have gotten where they are precisely because they have a greater understanding of what success is really about and the versatility to make good on their ideals. No one, however, has unreserved success, not even the most obvious winner. It is important for each person to understand and develop his or her unique definition of success over time.For me, research for my book Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life uncovered four irreducible components of enduring success:

Happiness: Feeling pleasure or contentment in and about your life.
Achievement: Making accomplishments that compare favorably against similar goals of others.
Significance: Making a positive impact on people you care about.
Legacy: Establishing your values or accomplishments in ways that help others find future success.

These four categories form the basic structure of what people try to gain through the pursuit and enjoyment of success. Take away any one component, and it no longer feels like “real” success. Just as a steady diet of the same four foods would hardly be satisfying over the long term, the four components of success cannot be satisfied by the presence of a single flavor in each category.

The Kaleidoscope Strategy

We compare an effective success strategy to a kaleidoscope. Although the patterns in a kaleidoscope are inherently unstable, changed by your own movements or by outside forces, the pieces provide ongoing satisfaction as they take their places within new patterns.

Now imagine a slightly different kind of kaleidoscope, one that is your own vision of a successful life. Your kaleidoscope has four chambers, like a typical one—happiness, achievement, significance, and legacy—and you can add brilliant glass pieces (goals sought and fulfilled) over a lifetime, making your unique pattern increasingly richer. In this metaphor, success is about choice, movement, pattern, and a structure that holds together all the separate activities. And, just like a kaleidoscope, you have to hold this pattern up to the light. By regularly assessing the picture you are creating in all four chambers, you can quickly spot places you feel require more attention and act accordingly.

The kaleidoscope view will show the burned-out venture capitalist that scaling back his achievement goals is part of a larger picture of expansion in other categories, rather than a paralyzing prospect of loss and “doing nothing,” allowing him to cultivate the emotional relationships he craves with his family. That doesn’t mean he should give up all forms of achievement; he simple needs to readjust the level of energy he puts into that category and pursue success in other categories.

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