Are You Surviving or Succeeding?

Talent Management

August 2, 2012

by Marshall Goldsmith

I’d like to help you find out exactly where it is you’re living. I don’t mean get a map and pinpoint your street address. We all know where we sleep at night. But we may not be fully aware of where we live emotionally, especially in relation to the meaning and happiness we derive from work.

In analyzing our relationship to our work, consciously or not, we run everything through two filters: short-term satisfaction — happiness — and long-term benefit — meaning. Both have value.

When we ask ourselves “Does this activity make me happy?” we’re attempting to measure the short-term satisfaction we get from an activity. When we ask ourselves, “Are the results achieved from this activity worth my effort and will they pay off some day?” we’re trying to measure that activity’s long-term impact or meaning. There’s not much in our lives that isn’t overshadowed by a sense that the clock is ticking, and time is passing.

My daughter, Kelly Goldsmith, an assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and I developed the MOJO Survey to help us understand how respondents experience meaning and happiness. Participants were asked to describe elements of work and home life that scored high or low in meaning and happiness.

Surviving is our term for activities that score low on short-term satisfaction and low on long-term benefit — activities we do just to get by. When our survey respondents were asked to describe surviving activities, at work and home, the term chores was frequently used.

Stimulating describes activities that score high in short-term satisfaction but low in long-term bene?t. Non-business chatting with co-workers is one example: fun in the short term but not career-enhancing in the long term.

Sacrificing describes activities that score low in short-term satisfaction but high in long-term bene?t. At work, sacrificing might be spending extra hours on a project you don’t like to enhance your career prospects.

Sustaining is for activities that produce moderate amounts of short-term satisfaction and lead to moderate long-term benefits. Responding to professional emails might be a classic sustaining activity in the Internet age. At work, survey participants listed completing mid-level assignments or required reading as sustaining.

Succeeding describes activities that score high on both short-term satisfaction and long-term bene?ts. These are activities that we love to do and get great bene?t from doing. We simultaneously find happiness and meaning. At work, people who spend a lot of time in the succeeding box feel that they have the ideal job suited to their talents and that they achieve long-term benefits that matter to them.

Only we can say whether we are deriving personal satisfaction and benefit from an activity, and the differences in perception among individuals can be head-spinning. For example, an immigrant who leaves a poor country and comes to the United States where she works 18 hours a day at two minimum-wage jobs may cherish the opportunities to save for her children’s education. She may define her life as being largely in succeeding mode — filled with short-term happiness and long-term benefits. Someone else with more fortunate origins might regard such a life as bleak, surviving rather than succeeding.

At the other end of the scale, a CEO could resent her job and feel trapped because a sharp downturn has reduced her bonus and the value of her company’s stock, which means she will have to work another couple of years to have the nest egg she wants before retiring. Feeling forced to stay in the job, she might see herself in the surviving category. Another CEO in a similar situation might feel engaged and fulfilled at being given the chance to lead an organization through challenging times; it’s the perfect definition of succeeding for her.

It’s important to remember this as many of us face one of the most disruptive, turbulent work environments in decades. One person’s surviving is another’s succeeding and vice versa.