What is success in life? More to the point, what does it mean to YOU to be successful in YOUR life? This is a question many of my clients grapple with when we work together to define their career goals. Most people develop a definition of personal success early in life. Often we are influenced in our ideas of success by our parents and other relations, the people in our communities, our teachers, and our national culture. For many people the goal of being a high-powered professional seems to be the road to success. Striving to achieve this goal sets many of us up to work hard and can motivate us to overcome life’s challenges. For some, that works just fine. But for many people, the effort to satisfy the expectations of overly demanding workplaces can set us up for trouble. These days the effort to be the high-powered professional can be a double-edged sword.

Over and over again when my clients articulate the building blocks of personal happiness and define the life they truly want, there are remarkably consistent, even universal themes. People want work that they find personally interesting and engaging and that adds some value in the world. People want to be trusted to do the work but get guidance when they ask for it. People want bosses who are emotionally mature, who do not yell at them or micromanage them, and provide constructive feedback and support. People want co-workers who are collegial, helpful, and team players. They want the chance to get ahead and become more expert over time. They want enough money to feel secure.

happy familyAnd almost everyone yearns for a job that allows them time for a full, vibrant life outside of work so that they can enjoy friends, family, and experiences that enrich their lives such as travel, classes, sports events, working with a not-for-profit, and physical fitness. This is the fairly consistent profile of a life that works, or would work, if only people could find a way to get it. For many professionals, that goal has been elusive or unattainable lately.

In our country and particularly since the downturn in the economy starting around 2008, with the loss of so many jobs, the priority for many workplaces has been productivity, namely, getting more hours out of the people who are in the workplace. And let’s face it, many people are afraid to lose their jobs and feel they have to suck it up or risk being fired. Overworked professionals often lose out on good times with friends and family, and sometimes damage relationships with the people closest to them even though spending time with friends and family is usually one of their highest priorities. Workplaces have become more than jealous mistresses – they have become demanding dictators that overrule our better instincts about what we need in our lives.

Many professionals who feel overworked and burned out are ambivalent about leaving their high powered jobs. They tell me they feel trapped. And a big part of the trap has to do with their strong beliefs about what constitutes success in life. When they finally come for career counseling it is often because the pressure is overwhelming. When the balance of work and life outside of work is so seriously tilted towards work, many cannot get their inner gyroscope upright anymore. To make matters worse, pressure can come not only from unremitting overwork, it can also come from life’s curve balls and problems that overload an already fragile system in uncertain balance. Added stresses can be sudden or subtle: the loss of someone you love kick-starting a depression; a child with a serious mental or physical challenge, deteriorating parents, a personal injury, or the loss of a job. These and many other problems can and do befall most people at one time or another as they go through life. They add to the stress of the already over-stressed professional.

However, it is at these times of great difficulty and pressure that many people are capable of changing their minds. The high-powered job that seemed to be the shiny trophy may suddenly look more like a gaudy trinket. The real prize may suddenly be recognized to be a simpler, low-key life that works.

When I hear a client say, “What good is it to have a job that pays six figures when I never have time to enjoy my life?” or: “They can’t pay me enough to have a life that makes me this miserable,” I feel pretty hopeful. These are the words of someone who is ready to rethink old beliefs, reframe his definition of success and might actually be motivated to reshape his career.