How do you define success?
It’s a personal question. When asked, most of us would probably cobble together something similar to the dictionary definition: "the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.“
I loathe this definition.
Namely because success is an inherently personal endeavor. To place a standard definition on it is reducing its complexity. In business, there are metrics – key performance indicators – that determine whether or not an organization is a success. But for individual leaders, a blanket measurement simply doesn’t apply. Why? Because at a certain point, people stop being motivated by the classic definition of success.
To learn more about motivation, I spoke to Dr. Ali Mattu, a clinical psychologist at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders. Mattu works with individuals of all ages to help them to overcome obstacles and pursue success. He explained an idea called "habituation,” which is the process of becoming used to our circumstances. Sounds simple, but when applied to motivation, it was a profoundly new idea to me.
Consider wealth, a key component in the standard definition of success.
According to Mattu, “There’s been a lot of research into how important wealth is, and to generalize across all these studies, money is important. It helps you pay the bills, get better education and healthcare. It’s important for all of that, but after overcoming that point, there are large diminishing returns, and the quality of your life actually might go down. We get used to things as they stay the same or as we get more of it. As you earn more wealth, you get used to that, and it stops becoming a source of motivation, and that motivation has to shift somewhere.“
The point of habituation is another personal measurement, but in regard to wealth specifically, two researchers at Princeton University were able to quantify it in a study published in 2010. According to their analysis of more than 450,000 U.S. residents, the tipping point for happiness was an income of $75,000 annually.
In other words, up to that figure, people associated more money with more happiness as their basic human needs were cared for. After $75,000, an increase in salary did not mean an increase in happiness. Though interestingly, it was associated with an increased perception of personal success.
There’s a disconnect between how we perceive success and how we experience the feeling of success. Solving for this disconnect is the key to motivating smart leaders of the future while creating a greater sense of personal achievement and happiness.
We in the business community spend a lot of time discussing how to motivate teams without addressing the need to motivate ourselves. But without working on our own motivation and happiness, we cannot possibly be effective leaders. Here are three keys to motivating yourself, and in turn, motivating the teams that look to you as an example:
1. Pursue challenges
Another prominent psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has pioneered the concept of flow.
Flow is the experience of living totally in the moment, utterly absorbed in your present activity. Time is passing, but you don’t realize it. This is an idea that can only be achieved when the challenge matches experience level.
As leaders, we have to challenge ourselves and our teams constantly to achieve flow, where we can get lost in our work in a positive way. Otherwise, work can become tedious and less-fulfilling, and our productivity and vision weakens substantially. Having monthly or quarterly check-ins, identifying and shedding tasks that no longer provide value or challenge is one way of accomplishing this goal.
Complacency will ruin motivation and success – both personally and professionally.
2. Search for meaning
In previous generations, meaning could come from family, friends, hobbies or other interests. Work was simply a way to provide for yourself and loved ones.
Today, young leaders and students entering the workforce are looking for meaning inside of the workplace as well. In fact, according to a 2012 study conducted by Rutgers and Net Impact, 72 percent of students reported that having a job "where I can make an impact” was very important to them. More than ever, people are thinking about the impact that their efforts have on the world around them.
By pursuing work that fulfills your need for meaning, you’ll be happier and realize a more consistent motivation. This doesn’t mean that everything you do on the job has to make the world a better place. But by instilling real policies that give back to the community at large, you’ll feel better about your efforts and your teams will be more likely to buy into the broader vision.
3. Define and re-define your own success
This is perhaps the most important key to sustaining self-motivation.
There are business goals that must be reached, and investors and employees will need them to recognize whether or not performance is where it needs to be. But business goals aren’t going to motivate yourself and your team.
Spend time reflecting intrinsically – and do it regularly – to understand what’s important to you and what will make you feel most successful. Then set up your systems in a way that helps you pursue those goals. Allow your teams to do the same.
The good news is that if you constantly pursue challenges, search for meaning and define your own success, the classic measurements of success are sure to find you as well.