Feb 12, 1996

Everyone in the A/E/P and environmental consulting business wants to be more “successful,” but I don’t recall ever seeing “success” clearly defined. It’s one of those good-sounding words that architects, engineers, and environmental consultants use similarly to “best,” as in “ABC Associates will be the best engineering firm in the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Kentucky” (a typical firm mission). Likewise, we all want to be successful. Since our mission at ZW&A includes “making our clients more successful,” I’ve thought a lot about success for the principals of firms we work for. Here’s what “success” means to me. The following points are listed in order of priority in terms of how they contribute to success— see if you agree: You are in good health. Yeah, it’s a cliche. But try feeling successful without it. You have to have good health or nothing else I say about success will mean anything to you. And good health means more than a good cholesterol count and weight that falls within the range it’s supposed to be for someone your height. It also means that you are free from addictions of all kinds that control how you spend your time every day— including drinking and smoking— and that you are generally in a good state of mind. You have a good family life. You don’t have to be married to enjoy a good family life, but it helps. It has been proven that married people are less likely to suffer from depression, live longer, and are healthier than those who aren’t married. But what I’m talking about is a good relationship with all members of your family, including your parents if they’re still alive; your brothers and sisters; your children, no matter how old they are; and your spouse (it’s hard to be successful and be unhappily married). And I’m not so naïve as to think that in a good relationship, everything is perfect. It never will be. But I would define a good relationship with a family member as one of mutual respect, where the communication channels are open— and those are reasonable expectations. You’re doing what you want to do for a living. No job or career is perfect. But one thing I know for sure— no amount of money will make up for doing something you hate every day. You cannot dread going to work on a regular basis and be considered a “success” in my book. You won’t do your best work and you’ll never fulfill your highest potential. Fortunately, most of us who make it to principal level in a design or environmental firm really enjoy what we do. Very few ever leave this business once they get into it. You can be yourself. I don’t see how you could be successful if you have to put on some kind of a front or act like someone you’re not, just to fulfill someone else’s idea of how you are supposed to act. You don’t have to change yourself or act differently than what comes naturally to be a success. Your work and your personality should be completely aligned. You have just a little bit of time for yourself. It’s getting harder and harder to find this time— time to take a little walk, to lunch with a friend, to read the paper, to go see your kid’s ballet recital, to read a non-business book, to fix a shutter that’s falling off its hinges, and so on. But if you’re so busy that you never have this time, you can’t consider yourself a success. You make enough money that you don’t have to think about it. All too often, success is defined solely in terms of material rewards, and I think that’s unfortunate. But I don’t want to minimize the financial aspects of success, either. I think to be successful, you have to have enough money that you aren’t thinking about it. Of course, just how much that is varies from person to person. To me it means I can afford to save for my kids’ college education, have something for retirement at a reasonable age, live where I want (certainly within limits), drive what I want, buy clothes when I feel like it, go out to eat whenever I want, go on vacation when and where I want, and essentially buy anything I want, within reason. I don’t need a new 8,000 square-foot drywall monstrosity with a two-story-high porte-cochere in front where I can park a white S-class Mercedes with gold emblems to consider myself a success. On the other hand, I don’t want to worry about my kids leaving the lights on in the basement, a thermostat that’s turned up too high, or that my wife might buy the lean ground beef instead of the cheap stuff when she goes to the supermarket. Notice where money falls on the list of success ingredients? When I thought about the outline for this article, it was higher on the list. But as I worked through what success means to me, it kept falling further down. Just thinking about what success means to you can be a healthy exercise. Have you thought about it lately? Originally published 2/12/96

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