When we think of the word “success,” it’s easy to think of money and fame. Reaching the top of the career ladder, having a lot of wealth, or perhaps holding power in some other way—these are all things that our culture readily accepts as signs of “success.”
But what happens if you scrape and claw and climb your way to the top of that mountain, only to look around and realize you’re utterly miserable? Is that true success? If not, then what is success? And what should it look like for you?
A journey to questionable success
I started my practice with small goals. All I wanted was to have more freedom, flexibility, and autonomy at work. I just wanted to make more money than I was currently bringing home. I saw starting my own practice as the best way to reach my goals.
But then, about a year in, things took off beyond my wildest dreams. What started as a small house call practice with a solo provider (me!) turned into a full-fledged integrated (primary and psychiatric care) healthcare company with numerous Providers, support staff, and operations throughout the state of Texas. I brought on a Co-Founder, and Chief Operating Officer and we developed plans to expand to other states. I was making more money than I had ever imagined possible as an NP, and I had colleagues wanting to pick my brain about how to start their own business.
My business was providing healthcare to a community whose needs were previously unmet, I was making great money, and I was respected in my community. I was on top of the world…or was I?
You see, my patients and my employees weren’t the only ones depending on me. I also had a husband, a young son, and was pregnant with my second child. Like many women, I was in charge of all things domestic – house, kids, dogs…
But there are only so many hours in the day.
When you’re working 12h and 14h days, that doesn’t leave room for much else. I was doing my best to single-handedly juggle any number of sharp knives in the air all at once without dropping any.
But the truth is, I was dropping knives. I wasn’t taking care of myself – not even the basics like proper sleep, food, and exercise. My relationship with my husband was strained. I tried to tell myself that my son didn’t suffer, but if I’m being really honest, how could he not have? You can’t really be present and interactive with a 2 year old with a computer in your lap. And what about all the areas of my mind that were constantly occupied by business?
My wake-up call was a family ‘vacation’ to Northern California. It was going to be great – we’d escape the heat of the Texas summer, tour our favorite wineries, and eat at fantastic restaurants.
Reality was much different. My phone started ringing at 6am every morning – the start of business hours back in Texas. I’d then take my son to daycare, and rush back to our airbnb so I could scramble to my computer before I got too behind on my emails. Afternoons were even worse. Every day felt like a sprint, and I never seem to get everything done. Worse yet, I found myself staying back from family excursions because I had “too much work to do”.
The icing on the cake was a sinus infection – my first, and the only time I’ve had to take antibiotics as an adult. Not a lot of fun when you’re 7 months pregnant. I was sick, I was tired, and I realized that despite having exceeded measures of “success”, I wasn’t just unhappy, I was miserable.
This entire experience was a wake-up call.
I realized I was unhappy because I was trying to live up to someone else’s definition of success. I don’t know whose definition it was. It wasn’t mine. It certainly wasn’t my husband’s. Perhaps it’s what I thought everyone else expected of me. So for once, instead of looking outward, I finally turned inward and asked myself – “what makes me happy?” and “what does my ideal life look like?”
Different Ways to Define Your Success
Like many, I grew up equating money and power with success, that framed my definition. Yet, as I’ve stumbled, been knocked down, and matured, I’ve learned that this is most certainly not the only way to define success.
That definition is outdated, and far too rigid.
The truth is, how we define “success” and how we define living a “successful” life varies from person to person.
While money may still be part of the equation (after all, you can’t stay in business if you aren’t profitable), it is often a much smaller piece than you might have imagined.
Success can also take the form of:
- Autonomy. What would it be like to set your own hours and make your own schedule?
- Flexibility. Do you have family? Children perhaps? What if you never had to miss a soccer game, or didn’t need to ask for vacation time in order to travel with your significant other? What if you could choose to leave the office at noon to have lunch with a friend? Or take an hour break in the middle of the day for a workout?
- Freedom. Do the four walls of your office ever feel oppressive? What if you had the freedom to decide when, where, and how you worked? What kind of value would you place on that?
- Providing value. How does it feel when you something you do provides value or creates a positive impact in someone else’s life?
- Enjoying your work. How many people wake up with a smile on their face, excited for what the day holds? What would it mean for that to be you?
How To Define Success in Your Life
1. Look at your happiest moments.
Grab a piece of paper and a pen, and write down the five happiest moments in your life.
Maybe that’s, “Went on a vacation to Fiji,” “Spent the afternoon playing soccer”,” or “Left my job and started my own business.”
After you’ve got your five happiest moments, try to identify a common thread or two. Did all of your accomplishments require courage? Selflessness? Persistence? Intelligence? Caring? Did they involve particular people?
The common themes tell you what defines your long-term vision of success. For example, one of my common themes was “creativity”—when I figure out an unexpected or innovative way of solving a problem, I feel really successful.
2. Challenge your assumptions.
On the other side of the paper, make a list of things that have proved to be less satisfying than you’d thought they be.
I’ll give you one of mine. For years, I coveted a purse by a particular designer. I decided that, after I hit a certain revenue milestone, I’d buy the purse.
Well, I’m still very proud of reaching the milestone—but wearing the purse doesn’t give me the thrill I thought it would.
By acknowledging the “successes” that didn’t make you happy, you can start to replace society’s definitions with your own.
3. Put it on paper
Now that you know the type of activities that bring you joy and – more importantly – those that do not, write down your definition of success.
Who do you want to be? What do you want to do? What does your life look like and who do you spend it with? Being true to who you are will create happiness and fulfillment within your life’s purpose. Don’t worry about how crazy it sounds.
4. Align your day-to-day life with your vision of success
Success usually implies a goal that took weeks, months, or even years to make happen.
And it’s true, while some goals take time (like reaching $1MM in annual revenue), success is really achieved in the million little actions of your day-to-day life.
It takes planning and conscious intention to ensure that your day-to-day activities are aligned with your personal definition of success.
For example, if you define success by “spending more times with friends and family”, you want to make sure that you schedule aligned activities on your calendar. To me, that looks like a weekly Tuesday lunch with friends, Wednesday date night with my husband, and nightly dinners with my family.
If you don’t proactively schedule these events, they won’t happen.
In summary, success (and happiness) is a natural byproduct of aligning your work with what brings you joy in your life.
For some Nurse Owners, that may equate to money, power, visibility, or fame. And that’s perfectly fine.
But for others, metrics like autonomy, flexibility, freedom, and providing value may be better measures of success.
What’s most important is that your definition of success is your own, and no one else’s.
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” – Maya Angelou
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