“Having It All” at Work: Is It Possible Both to Be Successful and to Make a Difference?

May 10, 2012 / General /

By Schon Beechler

How can we be happy, successful, and make a positive difference in the world? My parents were two major forces in my development as a child, with two very different philosophies. My father focused on urging me to develop and use my intellect to get an advanced degree and pursue a prestigious position in society. My mother urged me to do something good in the world and, even more important, to be happy.

In graduate school, I found it easy to pursue those multiple objectives and naively thought that I could “have it all.” Then reality hit me when I entered the work force and realized that success, prestige, making a contribution to society, and being happy were often at odds with one another. So I sacrificed happiness in the short-term, believing that if I got the other things, happiness would follow.

Like everyone, I had my share of ups and downs.  I wasn’t successful in the one metric that those in my profession often use to measure our worth—getting tenure.  I had one major problem: I felt no joy in conducting research and writing articles that only a few of my peers would read and use, even if they did get published in the best academic journals of my field.  Success, as defined by my peers, seemed out of synch both with my desire to make a true contribution to society and my wish to experience the joy of making a difference.

At the same time, I began to search for other avenues and was given the opportunity to develop my interest and skills in designing and delivering executive education programs. There, I experienced a number of successes, and even more important, I could witness how I could make a difference in the lives of our participants, and hopefully their organizations and communities.

In the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to work with two groups of amazing individuals. First, I was in Belgrade to work with 26 high-potential leaders of a global NGO to help them discover ways to both be the best they can be and to help impoverished countries thrive.  This week, I am in Sydney with a major global financial services firm with another 26 senior leaders who are striving to be their best in an increasingly hostile environment.  Not only do they need to lead their teams and their organizations, but they also need to lead themselves.

Reflecting on my own experiences, the challenges of finding success and happiness, of feeling that I was fulfilling my potential, as well as making an important contribution in this world, I spent the final moments of my time with each group of executives focusing on one simple idea: The importance of finding that unique place where our intrinsic motivations and our competencies meet. It is there where we can be at our best and derive true joy from what we do.