Success… we’re always talking about it but what does it really mean? If we take the middle school report approach: Merriam Webster defines success as “a favorable or desired outcome” and “the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.”
In the U.S., success is generally understood to mean the attainment of the American Dream, our national ethos which centers on concepts of freedom, social mobility, achievement, and personal happiness for all willing to work hard. In the world of tech, we’re often marveling at stories of unicorn startups and people from all walks of life breaking barriers, innovating, and partaking in all kinds of badassery.
But these are just the images of success. What does success feel like? Will we reach a moment when we’ve finally “arrived?” More importantly, what qualities should you be cultivating if you want to achieve success in today’s America, particularly in a tech career? Let’s dive into these questions and more as we explore the concept of success in tech.
Success & The American Dream
It’s difficult to have an objective conversation about success without bringing our own personal politics and American culture into the mix because success is deeply political. It’s influenced by the systems which govern our nation. So it’s almost impossible to have this discussion without examining the ways our identities and value under imperialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy are determined and influenced. Where we start on our journey towards success is impacted by those systems and where we stand within them.
I’ve had beef with the idea of the American Dream since I came of age. I spent my first postgraduate year teaching English in the South of France where success looked like weekday afternoons lounging on the beach and closing up shops on the weekends. It looked like rest and relaxation. It looked like lots of coffee and smoke breaks during the workday. It looked like family and friends communing on the sidewalks as street cats bathed in evening light and the fragrance of Provence’s flowers tickled the nose. It looked like time moving slower. It looked…well, different.
Prior to my stay in France, success was about career achievement and moving as fast as I could. It was about pushing to gain wealth despite living under systemic racism, classism, and capitalism while inhabiting a Black female body in the U.S. — pulling myself up by the bootstraps and getting shit done, sometimes at the cost of my mental and physical health. It was also about recognition and being told I was “good” at my job. Every story I wrote for the newspaper I then worked at presented a challenge: would people like it? In America, the affirmation became addictive. My stay in France opened me up to other ideas about success and prompted me to reevaluate my goals.
Our bootstrapping American Dream doesn’t always account for the fact that we don’t all get an equal start in life. It doesn’t account for things like discrimination, unequal access to resources, the rising cost of education, or inflation.
However, we are moving slowly as a nation for what is probably the first time (at least in my lifetime). It feels refreshing to some and like an assault on freedom for others. We are tending to our minds, beginning to heal the collective pain we’ve long been ignoring, and rising up against the systems oppressing ourselves and others. From this collective reflection, maybe we can redefine what the American Dream and success look like as a whole.
For now, it’s imperative we think critically about how we define success in regards to our Americanness. It’s essential to separate what we’re told by our wider national culture to want and what would actually bring us joy and fulfillment as individuals.
What is Success?
As mentioned above, the definition of success is a favorable outcome or the attainment of wealth or fame. It’s quite vague but that’s a damn good thing in our book because success is not one-size-fits-all. Your definition of success is going to look very different from even those you’re closest to. We do ourselves and others a huge disservice when we think of success as a monolith (which is another reason to separate our cultural ideals from our ideas about success).
In a 2015 Tedx Talk called What is Success?, Jamie Anderson summed up the concept perfectly. He said, “Success is great and shooting for the moon is great. But out there in the universe, there are a lot of moons. So just make sure the moon you are shooting for is your own.” Perhaps we should bypass the dictionary definition which tells us success is about attainment. Maybe success is instead about personal fulfillment, however you choose to define it.
Eugene Adu-Wusu, an IT Technical Support Engineer based in Ghana, shared some wisdom about defining success in a LinkedIn blog titled The Meaning of Success and How to Define Success in Life. “It is very important you know exactly how to define success in life,” Eugene wrote. “Make yourself aware what accomplishment, success, and prosperity in general means to you in your life. Some might define success as having luxurious cars and a huge mansion, whereas others consider a life full of joy and happiness with their family as the true meaning of success. Once you have figured out what is important for you personally you are able to focus on your visions and goals.”
A Picture of Success in Tech
Just as the American Dream has become a stereotype for success, a certain success story has emerged in tech in the last couple of decades — the unicorn startup. The founders of these companies are usually hailed as wunderkinds or underdogs. Maybe they dropped out of universities like Harvard (Hello, Zuckerberg) or immigrated to the U.S. as adults (Hey there, Elon). The one thing they have in common is their technological creations have “forever changed” the way people do something.
From Facebook to Apple to Uber to Tesla, these companies found success by being disruptors. One could gather from their stories that success in tech is about living out the underdog narrative, innovating in some way, using technology to meet a need on a mass scale, and then scaling up.
It’s hard not to be inspired by these stories and find hope in them. But it’s important to acknowledge we’re not all inclined to be CEOs and disruptors. Some may prefer being part of an organization but not necessarily leading one.
Because we’re not all striving to be underdogs-turned-big-dogs, we have to look at the concept of success on an individual level. Figuring out what you want and what would make you feel successful is important here. This is why making a success game plan can be helpful.
CRAFTING A CAREER SUCCESS GAME PLAN
Depending on where you are in your tech journey, it’s always a good idea to reevaluate your goals, celebrate the progress you’ve made, reflect on lessons learned, and look ahead to how you can keep improving. Here’s where your game plan comes in.
Your career success game plan is a personalized way to decide what action steps you can take to achieve your career goals. To begin, write down the answers to the following questions:
Where would I like to be in 5, 10, and 20 years?
What tasks would I like to do in my next job?
What tasks would I hate doing in my next job?
How do I feel about being in a leadership role?
How do I feel about being in a non-managerial, employee role?
Do I have the educational background and skills to be successful in my desired industry right now? If not, what steps need to be taken to be qualified for a role in this industry?
Once you’re clear on what you want and where you currently stand, you can begin a plan to get where you want to be. Writing out your goals and the action steps you need to take to achieve them will help you stay focused and encouraged to actually go after them. According to Forbes, people who can vividly describe their goals are 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to achieve them.
IMPLEMENTING CAREER DEVELOPMENT PRACTICES
Earlier this week, we discussed 4 career development practices to help you find success in the tech industry. These practices include:
Learning the art of soft skills
Staying up to date with new technologies
Finding a mentor
Becoming a specialist
Soft skills are in demand and likely always will be. LinkedIn’s 2019 Talent Trends study found 92% of respondents said soft skills were more important than technical skills in the workplace.
“LinkedIn research discovered the five most important soft skills in demand today: creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and time management,” Global Industry Analyst Josh Bersin wrote. “This is fully consistent with the new research that just came out that shows how design, business acumen, and a new generation of digital skills are rapidly differentiating the highest paying jobs of the future.”
According to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, soft skills such as emotional intelligence are the driving factor of success in a tech career.
“In past decades an engineer might work well alone, as an ‘individual contributor,’” Daniel wrote in an article titled The Surprising Secret to Success in Tech. “Huddled solo in a cubicle, the cognitive abilities of the engineer would make the biggest difference in his or her success. But the profession has changed. Today, especially in large firms, engineers work as team members, interact with clients, need to convince others of a given viewpoint, and in general deploy people skills, not just technical ones.”
In addition to working on your soft skills and deepening your emotional intelligence, you’ll also want to stay up to date with what’s going on in tech. Subscribe to a trusted newsletter, attend conferences, and look into what new technologies are coming out each quarter.
It can also be helpful to find a mentor or network with people in your industry who have gotten to where you want to be. You don’t want to become a carbon copy of someone else, but it can be motivating to hear what approaches others took or challenges they faced to get where they are today.
As we mentioned in our blog 4 Ways to Set Yourself Up for Success in Tech, becoming a specialist could help differentiate you from other job candidates. This is why many are skipping the traditional 4-year math degree in favor of shorter and more specialized programs like Kenzie Academy’s 12-month UX Engineering program.
Cultivating Successful Traits
In addition to working on your soft skills and regular career development practices, you’ll want to cultivate the following traits, as they can help breed success in any industry:
1. Growth Mindset
According to Psychologist Carol Dweck, there are two types of mindsets which influence human behavior. In her work, she’s found people tend to operate on either a fixed or growth mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset believes intelligence is static while someone with a growth mindset thinks intelligence can be developed. People with growth mindsets tend to give up less easily, embrace challenges, learn from criticism, and see effort as the path to mastery. No matter how you define success, having this mindset is essential if you want to achieve your goals.
Curiosity is what keeps you interested in life and work. A curious person will want to continue learning and growing long after they’ve left the classroom. Curious people also know how to stave off boredom and see their lives through the lens of adventure. They are the artists, innovators, and scholars whom we all admire in society. According to the Harvard Business Review’s 2018 study, curiosity also leads to more open communication and better team performance in office environments.
Patience is a virtue and, according to the Financial Times, it’s also vital to the success of a workplace. It’s becoming increasingly more important now that we’re living in an age of instantaneous email replies and the “always on” feeling of life in the digital age. Showing grace under fire takes practice but it can take you a long way.
Similar to cultivating a growth mindset, flexibility will be a big part of the journey to career success. As stated by Inc., Flexibility helps workers engage in the office with humor and emotional intelligence. Flexible people can multitask well and are able to think on their feet. Becoming comfortable with flexibility can prepare you for the changes and challenges you will undoubtedly encounter during your tech career.
It’s important not to blindly adopt someone else’s understanding of success. You need to create your own. So take time to think critically about what it means to you and how it influences the ways you decide to show up and take up space in the world. I won’t leave you with a brand new definition of success to slap into your subconscious mind. Instead, here are a few questions to get you started on your own journey of self-reflection and conceptualizing success:
What is success? How does my current understanding of success influence the way I move through the world?
If success were a photograph, what would I see in it?
Does my current definition of success make me feel excited or tired? If not, what emotions come up when I think about it?
What are some of my goals for being successful in tech?
And, arguably most important: What can I do right now to get started?