Monday, September 22, 2014

The measure of success

As I drove to work today I listened to a debate raging on talkback radio about the ''haves and have nots''. It was a developing conversation that had started with the question of whether or not there is poverty in New Zealand, and if so, why that is - but had moved to more general concepts of why certain people might end up in certain situations yet others don't.

A man called in who had grown up in a poor Maori community, with little education, but he described himself as having 'made a decision to better himself'' and was now employed,  a home owner, and had many of the other markers our society sees as success.

The host asked - what made the difference? How do people turn their lives around? The man answered, it's about making good choices.  Deciding what you want from life and going for it.  The host asked, but how do you do that? How do you know to do that? The caller was, in fact a bit non plussed. He suggested education as key. And possibly the support of a family or community as another.

I haven't phoned in (yet!), but I think I'd both agree and disagree with that.  In my business coaching career I have worked with people who were incredibly well educated - some even had PhDs or multiple qualifications, and yet they were still unable to run a business. I know people with early childhood qualifications who are no better (or worse ) parents than any of us.  I know people who have had absolutely shocking family lives that have gone on to be amazing parents, spouses, employees and friends.  And a few who had a fantastic upbringing but have been less of a success themselves.

So here's what I think:

There are two main differences between people who are ''successful'' or not (and it doesn't really matter how you specifically define, or even measure, that success) Firstly, those who are successful understand cause and effect.  They get consequence. They think beyond the here and now.  And secondly, they understand their place in the world and  how they can contribute to it.  Successful people appreciate the impact they can have on both their immediate surroundings and also the more distant future.

I grew up in a fairly typical  working class family with plenty of challenges and adversity of it's own. I was not necessarily encouraged to have ''big hairy audacious goals'' but I was certainly expected to achieve the usual social markers - a job, a house, a good family life. And there was plenty of support for going the extra mile if that was what I wanted to do - which led me to have a great career and travel extensively.  There was also a big emphasis on social responsibility on both a micro and macro level (the micro was possibly too much so in that I heard ''what will the neighbours think'' rather a lot!) But that did contribute to me being incredibly mindful of how my actions. or the actions of others, could impact on life, often for years to come.  

There are many things in my life that I could argue have contributed to my success, or lack thereof. I am fairly smart (something I only came to realise and appreciate in later years),  but I am not particularly well educated.  I make bad decisions just like everyone else.  I try to take responsibility for those. I know I have a habit of speaking before I think - sometimes my consideration of the short term is a bit skewed!  But I would like to think that in the bigger scheme of things, I am quite good at understanding how my every day, here and now, decision making might impact on my future.  It means I can take a while to make a decision - whether it be about a social, emotional, or economic issue.  It can take me a long time to achieve things - but I'd rather take the slow road, the conservative road, not least because I am sure those ''little steps'' would be easier to undo than big leaps of faith and more hasty far reaching decisions.  I suppose it could be loftily described as self control - and although I am the first person to say that I don't always exercise it as well as I might, I do think this is a big part of it.  So often there are things I really want to do...but I don't because I think (...worry...panic) about the impact those things might have on people around me, or on my future.

I like excitement and I like to be challenged, but the conservative me is always considering the ''what if''.  That probably makes me a bit boring to some, and it is true that in the main, risk is not my friend. With the right support team I am prepared to take risks for sure, but that too is about weighing up consequences - and feeling safe with the people offering to catch me if I fail! As a result there are probably opportunities that have passed me by, and may not come my way again. But I do think that this attunement to cause and effect, to forever considering how my decisions will impact on my long term future - be that my job, my home, my relationships - will ultimately allow me to look back on my life and say ''yes, you were a success''.

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