Don’t let others determine what the “top” means for you
When we hear of the “top”, we imagine money, success, and happiness. The negatives are never considered.
So, what are the negatives?
It’s usually one or more of the following; intense stress, less time with friends and family, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, umpteen-hour days, and sleepless nights.
One study found that 72% of those at the top have a mental health condition.
It’s why we have ominously titled articles like “Depression in the C-suite” and “Silicon Valley Has A Mental Health Crisis.”
Sadly, even high school students are impacted.
One Silicon Valley high school is nicknamed “the suicide school.”
When the negatives are seriously considered, the proverbial “top” can sound like a bottom.
Which begs the question, why are we letting others determine what the “top” means for us?
Is the “top” really a board room, a c-suite position, or running a billion-dollar startup?
That’s what provocative headlines on LinkedIn tell us: “Men are the leaders of 82% of all firms globally.”
These headlines provoke feelings of anger and resentment. But, instead of anger and resentment, maybe we should feel sympathy?
More importantly, just because a man leads a category, it doesn’t mean we should reflexively follow them, right?
Here are some other categories men are leaders in:
- Men die by suicide 3.56x more often than women
- 93% of prison populations are men -link
- Males constitute 87.9% of those arrested for robbery -link
- Males are most likely to be victims of gang-related homicides (94.6%)
- The most dangerous job in the US is logging in which 97.9% are male ($41,230 avg salary)
The point isn’t to compare prison populations to leaders of firms. The point is to question other people’s definitions of our success and happiness.
Instead of letting an HBR article define our success and happiness, let’s hear what the two biggest death bed regrets are:
#1 Death Bed Regret: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
This regret describes one of our problems above — we are strongly influenced to conform, but our satisfaction depends on our courage to withstand conformity.
#2 Death Bed Regret: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
Bronnie Ware, the author of this research, elaborates:
- “[I wish I hadn’t worked so hard] came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
This regret describes our other problem — when we conform to others’ definitions of success and happiness, we sacrifice many of the important things in life.
Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean in, desires to close the gap on men being leaders of 82% of all firms globally. She argues that we need to encourage women’s self-confidence and ambition for powerful leadership positions. And, that we need to improve the societal double standard of ambitious women being perceived as aggressive.
We should definitely keep making progress on these problems.
We should also question the underlying presumption: women should be ambitiously seeking positions of power atop the corporate ranks.
[To be fair, Sheryl does make a very minor caveat at the beginning of her book, “And while I believe that increasing the number of women in positions of power is a necessary element of true equality, I do not believe that there is one definition of success or happiness.”]
Instead of a minor caveat, I wish she had advocated for women to be ambitiously seeking positions of meaning, instead of positions of power.
Ambitiously seeking positions of power, I’m afraid, will only lead women to the same negative outcomes described above.
And, not just women, every identity should be seeking positions of meaning. Yes, even those 82% of men.
Therefore, maybe a better question is: What can we learn from people, of any identity, who instead of waiting for their death bed, have prudently chosen a meaningful career path?
Choosing positions of meaning instead of positions of power
Let’s take a look at Small Businesses. As I researched this area, I began to find more colorfully titled articles instead of the ominous ones from before. Titles like, “Why Micro Business Owners Are The Happiest At Work-link.”
Or, “87% of Small Business Employees say working for a small business is more fun than working at a large business. -link.”
And, I found the gap between men and women also began to deteriorate. For businesses that have 2–4 employees, 41% of women are owners. And, for businesses that are owned and operated by 1 person, women are a majority, at 51%.
Of course, small businesses aren’t the only places to find meaning in work. Meaning is dependent on our perception.
That’s why a young fast-food worker can be happy with a minimum wage.
It’s why 9 out of 10 people are willing to earn less money to do more meaningful work.
And, it may be why the top three most meaningful positions have an average salary of $42,600 and none of them are in a business-related field.
Therefore, we have to create our own definitions of the “top.”
In the book Man’s Search for Meaning, based on concentration camp survivor Viktor E. Frankl, he illustrated meaning can be found anywhere:
- “Terrible as it was, his experience in Auschwitz reinforced what was already one of his key ideas: Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure or a quest for power, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it.”
By creating our own definition we can find more meaning in everything we do.
This may be why Amish societies have exceedingly lower rates of depression.
Or, why Mexicans born in the United States are wealthier than Mexicans born in Mexico, but far more likely to suffer from depression.
Of course, all of this isn’t novel information. Many eastern philosophers have been trying to bring these truths to the West for centuries.
Maybe it’s time we start listening:
“No one is more fatuously impractical than the “successful” executive who spends his whole life absorbed in frantic paperwork with the objective of retiring in comfort at sixty-five, when it will all be too late. Only those who have cultivated the art of living completely in the present have any use for making plans for the future, for when the plans mature they will be able to enjoy the results.”