As a former Goldman Sachs banker, I’ve been accustomed to thinking in dollars and cents. But as I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve realized that making more and more money wasn’t exactly what I considered success. The financial upside of a job, without a sense of pride and achievement in the work, can feel hollow, and my career in private equity the better part of a decade ago had left me feeling unfulfilled. So I left.
Folk wisdom has long held that money can’t buy happiness, but it’s more complicated than that. Recent research shows that while higher incomes are correlated with longer life expectancies and greater satisfaction, there’s a tipping point: Once our immediate material needs and desires are met financially, making more money doesn’t produce more joy. I’d reached the point when I wanted to create something tangible that combined my passions for wellness with my desire to improve people’s lives.
My first successful endeavor as an entrepreneur did that by offering nutritional supplements that would fulfill that purpose. Even after a few more business successes, I still have time to see my family, travel the world a couple of times a year, and generally do the things that contribute to my happiness. It started with a simple realization: I was lying to myself about what success is. I became less interested in how much money I could make and more interested in how much impact, time and happiness I could create with that money.
Don’t let happiness be the cost of success.
Once I realized that my personal metrics for success were happiness and fulfillment, it dawned on me how much time I had wasted chasing the wrong goals. Now, I help my employees and other entrepreneurs discover what defines their own success—aside from money—with these three strategies:
1. Align your current trajectory with your life purpose.
Ultimately, we all seek to find meaning in our lives, and it’s fundamentally different for all of us. For some, life means raising children or giving back to the community. For others, it means getting to introduce the coolest new piece of tech to the world. There’s no right or wrong answer for everyone—but there is a correct and incorrect one for you. That’s why your first step must be determining what gives your life meaning and assessing whether your current path will let you realize those outcomes.
If your life’s purpose isn’t to be at the top of your current field, then you’re at odds with whatever’s most important to you. When I really took stock of my life, I asked myself whether sitting in my boss’s boss’s chair 10 or 20 years from now would make me happy. The answer was a resounding no. That’s not to say I might never return to finance; it’s impossible to know what purpose will define my life for the next 30 years. Finance was misaligned with my individual purpose for this stage of my life, but it may well realign in the next. To that end, try to think in five-year increments. Your goals and aspirations can—and almost certainly will—change over time.
My real desire—the ways I would know I was successful—was knowing I was having a positive impact on people’s lives, the feeling of accomplishment from building a self-sustaining and profitable business, and the satisfaction of bringing together a team to have fun while doing something worthwhile. Clearly, I had the entrepreneurial bug. Not scratching that itch would have left me wondering “what if?” for the rest of my life.
2. Assign economic worth to your values.
Your values guide the series of decisions and trade-offs you make between life and your career. The best way to decide what’s worth trading is to assign an economic value to each decision. If comfort and time at home give your life meaning, you might value wearing jeans to work or working remotely. Ask yourself: Is it important enough that I’m willing to lose a few thousand dollars of annual comp to keep it? Give those benefits a value so you can determine whether casual dress is the ultimate comfort or is one you would sacrifice for a higher salary that could provide you with more home comforts. When you’re comparing cash to benefits, give the benefits a comparable value.
At the same time, determine which values are non-negotiable, meaning no amount of money is worth sacrificing them. For most major decisions, even several minor ones, I make comparative lists. When I first decided to work in finance, being in New York (where I felt I was meant to be) and walking to work were worth more to me than a higher salary in a different city. When I realized I could do that and still have a career I found meaningful, the choice was clear.
3. Make moderate changes first.
Once you’ve listed your values and assigned them a relative economic worth, force rank them and seek opportunities to maximize your time spent on the top few. Before you make any drastic changes, first figure out whether subtler shifts will do the trick. If you want to work remotely, ask your boss if it’s possible. If not, then consider whether finding a remote position would be worth taking a pay cut. You may be trading some values unnecessarily, in which case, happiness and success may be closer than you think. Ranking your values will clearly show you what changes you need to make in order to align with them.
You may be able to achieve the most important, high-value goals on your list in your current career, something worth exploring before you hare off onto a new career path. These explorations will also lay the foundation for your next moves. For example, I took nutrition courses and advised a friend’s early-stage startup while still in my role at a private equity fund. Getting a preview of the entrepreneurial path while building expertise in a new field were the steppingstones to my passion projects.
Being successful (by most of society’s standards) and feeling successful (by your own metrics) don’t always overlap. But you can choose your own adventure and chart your own course. The one thing that I know doesn’t work is lying to yourself. If your metrics for success include the values that are important and meaningful to you, then true success will always feel just out of your grasp, no matter how much money you make. But it’s funny: When you do work you love that’s meaningful to you, financial success tends to follow—you may end up maximizing your bank account alongside your happiness.
This article was published in December 2019 and has been updated for freshness and accuracy.
Image by @DimaBerlin/Twenty20