by John Coleman, Harvard Business Review
In 1995, Bob Buford wrote the bestselling book Halftime, which popularized the concept of “moving from success to significance” in the second half of life. Buford realized that many businesspeople work their whole lives to achieve material success only to find their happiness and sense of purpose wanting when that success comes. And he rightly encouraged those people to seek out meaning and impact in their later years.
That “success to significance” framing is well-intended, but it has become misused. The point was to encourage people who have spent a career accumulating resources — money, power, status, and achievement — to redeploy their time and talents in service of others. But this also implies that professional “success” and a happy, meaningful life are mutually exclusive. In reality, there is no success without significance.
If you read Bronnie Ware’s brilliant “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” the Harvard Grant study, the pioneering work of Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton on happiness and income, or the teachings of nearly every ancient religion or philosophy, you’ll discover that very few people, at the end of their lives, care about money, fame, or power as much as they think they will. And almost everyone regrets a deficit of meaningful relationships or a lack of meaning in their work and life. A proper view of success is targeted toward human flourishing — what the Greeks referred to as eudaimonia — which proposes a richer definition of a successful life that may be prosperous but is also purposeful.
I’ve spent the last decade writing on leadership and personal development, particularly the topic of purpose, and one of the key insights from that work is the hollow nature of material success when it is absent of meaning. Success without significance — which I define as purpose, service, and meaningful relationships — is not really success at all. And waiting until you’re in the latter half of your life to achieve true success is a waste.
Few of us have thoughtfully considered the mainstream conception of success before we have pursued it. We may be thoughtful about selecting a job or career by thinking about what we’re good at or the paths of those we admire, but over time, that job may dominate other meaningful parts of our lives (we all can relate to the struggles of work-life balance) or we may lose sight of what makes that career purposeful in the first place. Our default, then, is often to chase material progress without truly asking why.
Instead, it’s important to properly reflect on how you can live a life imbued intensely not just with the superficial trappings of “success” but with deep purpose and joy in all we do. As psychologist Martin Seligman has framed it, true flourishing involves some element of accomplishment, certainly, but also involves meaning, positive emotions, engagement, and relationships. Reflecting on this more profound definition of success challenges us to adopt a fundamentally different path than the one championed in popular culture. And doing it early — and often — allows us to craft a life that is more consistently filled with meaning.
In my new book, the HBR Guide to Crafting Your Purpose, I propose that a flourishing life is full of purpose — including meaningful love (positive relationships), avocations, beauty, occupation (good work), religious or philosophical beliefs, and service to others. The best time to conduct these reflections is often in the midst of a life transition, like graduation; considering a new job; a big life change like marriage, kids, or divorce; or (yes) retirement from one’s primary profession. Though the process can also be used to rejuvenate an existing career or set of activities when things have gotten stale.
As you get started thinking about a deeper vision for significant success, ask yourself a few questions:
- What is the core purpose of my work and the ways in which it makes the world better, and how can I lean into that purpose or craft my day-to-day work to emphasize it?
- Who are the key relationships in my life, both inside and outside of work, and how can I deepen and enrich them?
- Who am I serving in my work and outside of it, and what more can I do at work, at home, and in my community to serve others?
- How am I becoming better each day? How can I pursue meaningful craft in my personal or professional life?
Many people who wait until the second half of their lives to consider these questions find their ability to experience true success has been diminished by several decades of following an emptier course. And while it’s never too late to turn to a life of significance, it’s better to have lived one all along. That’s imminently possible in your life today. It may involve changing the way you view your work, or investing more meaningful positive relationships. You may choose to deepen your service to others or your pursuit of new and meaningful avocations, or make a bigger change, in profession, location, or lifestyle. But whatever it looks like, it will include you stopping right now to take serious stock of your current life and reflecting deeply on whether the path you’re on truly leads you to where you want to go.
Don’t wait until you’re at the top of your field or late in life to live a flourishing, more meaningful life. Instead, start now — whether you are 15, 25, or 55 — and put serious thought into what will make your life meaningful, joyful, and fulfilled.