How Do We Measure Progress in Our Careers?

“I wonder if you’d help me,” you wrote. “How do you measure progress in a person’s career?” you asked. You feel “that time is running out” and you’ve not achieved as much as you would have liked to. You’re successful enough in your career, working at a hot pre-IPO company, and yet you work nearly nonstop and most weekends at a place that seems to be churning through people rather than bringing out the best in people. Including yourself. And you wanted advice.

Your question struck me, because I’ve been pondering something similar.

I wrote you right back, to remind you that, first, life is long. At 29 years old, you are just getting started. You are not out of time. Despite stories of 19-year-old startup founders like Mark Zuckerberg, the fact is that the average age of a successful entrepreneur is 45. And while you likely recognize a certain “Hallelujah” song, you might not know that at your age, its creator, Leonard Cohen, didn’t imagine he would be a singer; he started that career at age 33. And while Beyoncé started her career earlier than you, we can collectively see her craft advancing and her genius shining brighter than before in both Lemonade and Homecoming. Your time is not running out; you’re just getting started.

I pointed out the obvious: You’re being way too hard on yourself by telling yourself a story that is not that useful. I sent you a clipping of a Harvard Business Review article I had written six years ago on the first step to being powerful. In it, I said the way we talk about ourselves and to ourselves grants power — narrative power — to what happens next.

But you know what I didn’t tell you?

That I am struggling right alongside you.

I don’t like to admit it, but for most of 2019, I earned very little money. As in, far less than Starbucks barista money. Count expenses to do the work, and it became negative cash flow. I first realized it the week after I gave the opening keynote at TEDxUniversityofNevada. I had been so focused on that commitment that I didn’t notice that a bunch of proposed work hadn’t closed. I felt ashamed when I told my husband, because it meant we had to cancel plans, look at every expense, and even jigger his 401(k) deposits to fix cash flow. With no one hiring me, I started to question my worth. Despite knowing that I’ve given a main-stage TED Talk with a viral idea (it’s been mentioned on nearly every media outlet around the globe) I wondered if my lack of speaking gigs signaled unworthiness. I seriously considered quitting the research and related writing that I’ve been doing for seven years, asking friends if maybe I should get a “regular” job. Unbeknownst to them, I was exploring to see if they would even hire me. I was lost in anxiety.

You might have tried to compare your life achievements to others, perhaps looking at the famous “30 Under 30” list and wondering if your absence on said list means you’ll never amount to anything.

It wasn’t until someone I trust asked me, “Why are you defining the merit of your work by what you are earning?” that I could even name the issue that was keeping me up at night. My response was, “A girl has gotta eat.” And while that was the easy answer, the harder truth I was afraid to say was: “That’s the only way I know how to measure success.” For decades, I had worked and earned. How much I earned was a way of signaling progress, to see if I was successful. First, it measured if I could survive on my own and put myself through college, because I was disowned by my family. Later, to strive and strut, to externally validate myself as worthy by what I could buy. This friend’s question challenged me to think more about how one measures progress.

You can probably see why money is a shitty metric for work — about as helpful as an artificial timeline for your career.

But what is a good metric?

That I also don’t know.

In fact, no one knows. You ask me to help you know how to measure progress in one’s career. And you’ve likely asked others, too. You have likely looked for the answer in books and magazines and even Google searches. You might have tried to compare your life achievements to others’, perhaps looking at the famous “30 Under 30” list and wondering if your absence on said list means you’ll never amount to anything. Now, since you have asked me, and you’ve said you’ve wanted my advice, I beg you to stop doing this kind of thing. You are looking outside of yourself and that is what you need to stop doing as fast as possible.

You see, you can’t ask other people to decide how you will measure progress in your life. Because no one gets to define what matters to you. That’s your job and yours alone. Because, after all, only you have lived the life you’ve lived thus far; only you have the dreams you have. Each of us is standing in a spot only we can stand in; it’s a function of our history and experiences, as well as our visions and hopes. Until you center this spot — your onlyness — in the world, you will never stand in your place, your own power. Without it, you cannot celebrate who you are. And who you are becoming. Instead, you will always be chasing expectations of others, and seeking praise as a way of validating your own worth. But your worthiness is not in question with onlyness. You don’t need to please or pretend or prove your worth to anyone. You are perfectly perfect, even as you are imperfectly yourself.

I know this runs counter to just about everything you’ve been taught so far. Too often our teachers don’t reward the love of learning, but ask us to perform to a standardized test. Too often our parents don’t encourage us to tap our onlyness, but to conform to what seems acceptable and safe. And quite often, we look to our education, title, rank, and even our bosses’ approval to characterize who we are in the world, and even signal our place in it. All of this can lead us to measure our worth by how much we earn. Or wonder if we’re running out of time. Or measure our worth by the recognition of others. Most of the yardsticks we’ve been taught about “progress” are so ridiculously unhelpful.

If you want to know how to measure progress, then you must first choose what it is you’re measuring for. Or, what matters. And this is the important part. What is it that is worthy of your time? What is it “only” you can do? You do that by sinking into the roots of your history and experience to name what you value. See how that fills you and even fuels what you want to do with your work. You do that by filling yourself up with the ideas of what you would do if you could do anything to change or transform or uplift the world or work or whatever. You ask yourself in the most private way possible: Are you willing to give yourself over to this work? And, as you decide on all of this, then you can start to see how to measure progress.

The measure follows the meaning. Yours.

I will share that coming up with better metrics than what you and I have been taught isn’t easy. I’ve read all the stuff of “own the process, not the outcome,” but it’s just not as easy as that sounds. And certainly not specific enough to be helpful. So, in the past few months, I have shared some thoughts in some Instagram threads about the metrics that matter for the work I’m doing. It was me processing out loud. Struggling. Tussling. Someone commented that I wasn’t allowed to share what was inside her brain. Another sent me a note that she cried for me. She didn’t know I was shaking as I wrote.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s this: This question is the quest. To define success on your own terms, yes. Because it is how you define what matters, to claim your onlyness, instead of being defined by others. I will tell you that most of us don’t know how to design our own metrics, yet it’s probably the one thing that’s worth tussling with. Figuring out one’s own answer… I sense that can change everything. We can end the comparative angst, even our own loneliness. We can maybe do more meaningful work. We can finally find and be in the community where we really belong.

Which is why your note struck me as being so important. I wish I knew the answer for you, just as I wish I had a clear, crisp answer for me. But all I know is THIS is the right question to be asking. Not just because of this time of year (even the ending of a decade), but because when we define the metric that matters, we can track the progression and activation of our onlyness.

This piece originally appeared on Marker by Medium.

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