More success


...or not

Do we need more sophisticated definitions of career success?

Although I have got a lot of mileage out of the journal article I wrote about in my last post —  I’ve dropped snippets from it into a few talks and workshops lately — there is something very limiting about the ideas of career success used within it.

Meta-analyses are good for getting a broad overview of  a subject but they tend to erode the subtle distinctions that are present in an issue as complex as career success.

Are pay, promotion and job satisfaction the only ways of measuring career success?

Lorna Dargan’s comment highlighted another aspect of success and this led me to hunt out other definitions and conceptualisations.

So, let us attempt to restore some granularity to our understanding of this topic. Our first stop is an article published in the same year as Ng et al.

Peter Heslin (2005) has asked some searching questions about the measures that researchers use to evaluate career success. In addition, he has applied social comparison theory to broaden the simple objective–subjective dichotomy.

Objective variety

Every career has its own objective, measurable outcomes that could provide an indication of career success. And these are not necessarily linked to pay and promotion.

…both school teachers and academic mentors often frame their career success in terms of hard data on the learning and other attainments of their students and proteges. Similarly, bus and taxi drivers conceivably base their career success on their years of driving without an accident, industrial designers on e-mails of peer recognition for their creativity, and doctors on the proportion of emergency patients’ lives they save.

Obviously, the problem with these objective measures is that they vary from occupation to occupation, which makes it hard to compare success between different sectors. But that lack of comparability also applies to pay and promotions. Different occupations have different career and salary structures. Many modern career routes do not easily map on to a traditional hierarchical career ladder.

Subjective subtlety

In the same way, there are other ways of assessing someone’s satisfaction with their career than just asking how happy they are with their job. Career satisfaction is more than just how you feel about your job in the present. It also includes an evaluation of your career  journey  so far and an anticipation of your future prospects.

Individuals may consider that they have a successful and satisfying career even if they don’t enjoy their job. Perhaps their job allows them to provide for their family or allows them to spend time doing something else they love. Perhaps they don’t enjoy the job itself but value the contribution that it makes to something they consider important.

Subjective career success thus includes reactions to actual and anticipated career-related attainments across (a) a broader time frame than one’s immediate job satisfaction, as well as (b) a wider range of outcomes, such as a sense of identity, purpose, and work-life balance.

Success, compared to what?

Heslin proposes that success is not an absolute measure. One can only evaluate one’s level of success as relative to something else. For some people this something else will be an internal aspiration — how your actual progress compares to your expectations for yourself. For other people, it is more about how you are doing compared to others.

Adding this dimension of self-referent vs other-referent comparison to the objective vs subjective dimension, produces a few more subtleties.

Objective Subjective
Self-referent e.g. my financial and promotional aspirations e.g. my goals for work-life balance and fulfilment
Other-referent e.g. my pay and social standing relative to my peer group e.g. my stimulation and fun relative to my peers

Some questions

  • What are the objective measures of success that apply to your career?
  • Is your subjective evaluation of your career influenced most by the past, the present or the future?
  • What comparison do you use when evaluating your career success: your own expectations or the experiences of your peers?
  • Do you project your own assumptions of what career success means onto your clients?
  • How often do you get clients to explore the issue of what success means for them?

Further reading

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  1. #1 by Andrew Manson on 29 March 2011 - 13:35

    I think the role of making comparisons is key and feel that people’s thinking around models of success need to broaden to incorporate questions about society; how values are transmitted, their impact on how these models are formed, and the role both narrative and technology have to play in changing outcomes, most especially for young people. Obviously these models change through life but it is a critical issue to help young people explore these social constructs at a sufficiently early age, as part of careers education, and also the guidance that follows as they underpin how society recreates itself, sometimes in a fairly unsophisticated and restrictive way. I think this has direct relevance in the UK as the new All Age Careers Service is being remodelled, but sadly doubt that the new body can ever achieve its goal ‘social transformation’ without this kind of insight being factored into how the service operates in the future.

    • #2 by David Winter on 30 March 2011 - 15:31


      I work with quite a number of clients who are unhappy in their careers because they have bought into a particular idea or model of career success without really asking whether it was appropriate for them.

      Other people have failed to notice that they have changed and, therefore, the idea of success that they started out with is no longer appropriate.

      In both cases, these people would have benefited from learning earlier in life how to question themselves and reflect on their motivations. Maybe they wouldn’t have been ready to listen at the time, but if they had heard stories about how people had worked out their own individual definitions of success, that might have stuck with them and resonated at some point.

  2. #3 by Jill Elswick on 30 March 2011 - 14:48

    Career success answers the question, “What am I good for?”

    Take me — an individual whose personality traits are more or less fixed and haven’t changed since childhood — and put me in a role that fits what I have to offer and in which I contribute to the success of a larger purpose that makes me proud.

    That would be it for me.

    My definition of career success includes finding not only the right product or cause to support but also finding the right people to work with. Who I work with is a success measure. If the boss and my co-workers are great, I have succeeded. If the boss and my co-workers are terrible, I have failed.

    Just as employers seek the best people, so should workers seek them. That may be a tall order in today’s market, but success depends on building the best teams in which the sum is greater than the parts.

    • #4 by David Winter on 30 March 2011 - 15:34

      Thanks Jill

      You’ve actually given me two good success questions:

      What am I good for?
      Am I working with the right people?

      I suspect there are others, e.g.

      Will there always be exciting opportunities for me?
      Am I having fun?
      Do I feel secure?

      I feel a tweet series coming on.

      Look out for the #successquestions hashtag!

  3. #5 by Jill Elswick on 30 March 2011 - 15:48


    Great. I enjoy the question series!

    I like the two additional questions you outlined here.

    I agree that security is a huge factor. Employee benefits play a big role in that. I have been happiest at companies that offer health benefits and retirement investing plans. That should sound like a “no brainer,” but it’s worth saying. Starbucks (where I work now) offers those benefits, and it enhances my feelings toward the job and the company. To be investing in a 401(k) again, as I did when I worked for a large media company, make me feel great. It is future-oriented and makes me feel not only valued by the company (which provides a match on my savings) but also empowered to prepare for my future.


  4. #6 by Vinny on 31 March 2011 - 13:37

    Fortunately I think I pretty much fit in to one definition of success. To quote Bob Dylan:
    “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.”

    • #7 by David Winter on 31 March 2011 - 14:00

      Hmmm. What if what you want to do is stay in bed?

      • #8 by Vinny on 31 March 2011 - 14:32

        I actually think that’s a very interesting question. I would say that success has to involve something positive – in return for some kind of ACTIVITY on your part.

        (i.e. working hard over many years to become rich is success. winning the lottery is just luck)

        So If I stayed in bed I wouldn’t see myself as a success.

        The exception would be if I had worked hard enough and done things well enough that I could deserve a day off. But in this case, staying in bed all day would be a measure of success rather than in itself being successful.

      • #9 by Jill Elswick on 7 April 2011 - 19:09

        Reply to Vinny, David, and Bob Dylan

        Sometimes, getting out of bed is a success all by itself. Even better, in some cases, is getting out of bed and doing what you *don’t* want to do. Today is a beautiful day in Roanoke, Virginia. I would rather drive around on the Blue Ridge Parkway and listen to Bob Dylan than do my psychology homework. However, if I get my assignments done on time, that will bring greater satisfaction than having spent the day avoiding responsibility.

        On a related note, I just learned in one of my classes about a phenomenon called the “overjustification effect.” Activities that are intrinsically appealing to a person are likely to become less appealing when attached to a reward. In one study, children who were rewarded for producing drawings tended to create less creative drawings than those who were simply given the chance to draw (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973).

        What an idea. In practical terms, this means it may be important to focus on work as a reward in itself (assuming one generally likes the work to begin with). If I remind myself that I *like* to study psychology, it may have a stronger effect on my behavior, and on the quality of my work, than if I try to motivate myself by the desire to make good grades or enhance my resume.

        Therefore, hm. Bob Dylan is right. 🙂


  5. #10 by David Winter on 14 April 2011 - 12:41

    Hi Jill

    I like the ‘overjustification effect’. You might be interested in this video based on Daniel Pink’s book Drive which tackles similar ideas.

  6. #11 by cv bank on 14 September 2011 - 13:19


    What about: Do I get acknowledgement and/ or respect from my peers?

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