Success: what is it and how do you achieve it?


If only I'd realised that success could come so cheaply!

Are you successful in your career?

How do you know?

Traditionally, there are two ways of measuring career success:

  • objective success — externally measurable things such as salary level, number of promotions, etc.
  • subjective success — internal, psychological factors, such as level of career satisfaction, happiness, etc.

These two types of success can sometimes be related, i.e. the more objective success you achieve, the more subjective success you experience. However, they can also be unrelated. So, other people might perceive you as being successful, but you don’t feel it, or you might be really happy in your work even though other people might think you haven’t had much of a career.

Is there a way of predicting what factors lead to objective or subjective career success? Well, lots of researchers have tried to answer that question. Vast numbers of researchers have tried to examine the link between a range of attributes and the likelihood of a good career outcome. That’s far too much reading for me! I’d like someone else to do it for me…

Thank goodness for Ng et al. (2005). These helpful people have trawled through lots of research on career success and attempted to summarise the results in one big analysis.

The X factors

The first thing they did was to list the various factors that had been used in other studies. This on its own is quite a helpful task. They grouped the predictors under four main headings

Human capital

  • Hours worked
  • Work centrality (i.e. how important the job is in your life)
  • Job tenure
  • Organization tenure
  • Work experience (i.e. number of years worked)
  • Willingness to transfer
  • International experience
  • Education level
  • Career planning
  • Political knowledge & skills
  • Social capital (i.e. quantity and quality of accumulated contacts)

Organisational sponsorship

  • Career sponsorship (i.e. amount of mentoring, etc.)
  • Supervisor support
  • Training & skill development opportunities
  • Organisational resources (i.e. size of organisation as an indicator of how much support they might give)


  • Gender
  • Race
  • Marital status
  • Age

Stable individual differences

Ng et al. found that, in general, objective career success had a stronger relationship with human capital and socio-demographic factors, whereas subjective success was more closely related to organisational sponsorship and stable individual differences.

So, if you want objective success, be born in the right family and build up lots of experience, and if you want to be happy, have a positive personality and find an organisation that will nurture you.

Simple huh?

Further reading

Ng, T., Eby, L., Sorensen, K. & Feldman, D. (2005). Predictors of objective and subjective career success: a meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 58(2), 367-408. DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-6570.2005.00515.x

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  1. #1 by Lorna Dargan on 16 March 2011 - 10:35

    Interesting! I read an article by Jonah Lehrer yesterday on success, which he says is down to ‘grit’: success comes from the ability to plug away at something even when you don’t feel like it.

    I wondered how this meshed with Myers-Briggs. Am I, as an INFJ, dommed to failure because I tend to do things when I feel in the right mood?

    • #2 by David Winter on 18 March 2011 - 12:46

      Hi Lorna

      Thanks for that interesting link.

      What Jonah Lehrer is talking about is yet another distinct aspect of success: job performance.

      Objective success, subjective success and performance are often related but not always.

      The closest thing to the concept of ‘grit’ mentioned in Johah’s article is probably the personality trait of Conscientiousness. Interestingly, this had a weak correlation with salary and promotion and a slightly stronger correlation with career satisfaction.

      The other possible factor that could correspond to ‘grit’ might be ‘hours worked’ which had a reasonably good correlation with salary. However, do you earn lots of money by working long hours or do you work long hours because you are being paid a lot?

      So, you might be doomed never to be an expert, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have lots of money and a rewarding career…

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