Well-Being is More Important Than Achievement

Most retired people I know are happy. Many had careers they found satisfying. And when I ask, “Are you happier now?” They all say yes.

Certainly part of that happiness comes from the lack of career stress and the freedom to do what they want each day. But there’s another element of freedom that retired people enjoy: freedom from the need to achieve.

As an executive coach, I work with high achievers. They take great joy in repeated promotions and stunning moments of career success. But there comes a time, often in their forties or early fifties, when I hear them say, “I’m not sure I’m enjoying myself any more. I work all the time. Maybe I should try something else.” COVID has brought this into sharper focus: it has pushed all of us to revisit our core values and ask if our lives align with them. 

Research by Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence recently found that nearly 70% of C-level executives are seriously considering leaving their jobs for one that’s better for their well-being. Yes, that’s right—a strong majority of them are thinking about leaving, right now. These sentiments are echoed by many senior executives I know.

If you find yourself questioning the cost of your career ambitions—or you’re unsure if your former ambitions even apply anymore—clearly you’re not alone. To assess how well your life aligns with who you are today, consider these five simple strategies. 

Get grounded in your core values. Core values are the life principles you hold most dear. They provide a compass—a true north, if you will—to navigate complex challenges and decisions. To connect with your values, set aside your current ambitions for a moment, and delve into what’s most deeply important to you. Reflect on questions like, “What do I value most?” Articulate your philosophy of life and leadership by writing a leadership credo, a short missive giving principled advice to an imagined leader who will replace you for a year. Finally, as another path to tapping what’s most important to you, get advice from your ‘future self’—a version of you some decades hence—by asking what an older, wiser you would advise.

There’s another element of freedom that retired people enjoy: freedom from the need to achieve.

Conduct a core values audit of your activities and goals. To determine whether there’s a gap between your core values and how you’re living your life, try this: take a sheet of paper and draw a vertical line down the middle. Now, put a plus sign on the left and a minus sign on the right. Then list your main daily activities, placing the ones that align with your core values on the ‘plus’ side, and adding the rest on the minus side. When you’re done, take a look at the page. What do you see? As a next step, add your major goals and ambitions, writing those that align with your core values on the left, and those that don’t on the right. Again, what do you notice?

Conduct a well-being audit of your activities and goals. On the same page as the previous exercise, circle everything that truly supports your well-being, and underline things that don’t. Then, reflect: how does this picture fit, or not fit, your deepest hopes for yourself?

Be honest about misalignments, without judgment. If you’re like most humans, those previous two exercises will reveal some pesky inconsistencies between what you value and what you’re actually doing. If that happens, consider what you want to do about it. Misalignments may call for changes in your mindset or changes in your life. The key is to actually see—to examine what you’re doing with open eyes and a compassionate heart, rather than looking away or harshly judging yourself, both of which make change unlikely.

Ask yourself, “What’s driving my need to achieve?” Ambitions are good. But if they’re driven by feelings of inadequacy or emptiness—“I’m not good enough, I need achievements to compensate”—it’s time to examine them. I see this at times with leaders who are terrified by the idea of retiring: it exposes the uncomfortable feelings their achievements have covered for so long. If this sounds like you, ask yourself, “Who would I be without my achievements? And how much do I like that person?” Such reflections may not suddenly heal long-time wounds, but they can create conscious awareness that opens the door to new choices.

Atlantic columnist Arthur C. Brooks recently wrote in A Profession Is Not a Personality, “Americans tend to valorize being driven and ambitious, so letting work take over virtually every moment of your life is concerningly easy. I know many people who talk of almost nothing besides their work; who are saying, essentially, ‘I am my job.’” 

Don’t be one of those people. Instead, boldly chart your own course. Aspire to be the most authentic you that you can possibly be. By definition, that will mean a unique life pattern that doesn’t look like anyone else’s. Live that way now, and you won’t need to retire to be truly happy.