What to Do When Success Feels Empty

What to Do When Success Feels Empty

by Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams  |   8:00 AM June 12, 2014

Why do career “wins” often leave people feeling empty and dissatisfied? And — more important — how can you avoid that problem? We recently asked HBR readers to share their thoughts, and several of the responses call to mind Douglas T. Hall’s classic model of psychological success.

Hall’s model suggests a number of reasons that a success might feel like a failure:

Trade-offs between career and personal goals. This can be as dramatic as going against your deeply held beliefs in order to thrive politically at work or as simple as enduring a punishing work schedule that allows no time for relationships and self-care. Consider this (lightly edited) response to our earlier post, from Jess, who earned a degree in education while running her own business and juggling the demands of her family:

“During this time, my major motivator was the thought that when I was finished, I would have my degree and be more accomplished and successful. However, when I graduated, I felt rather empty. I had divided myself so much during my time in school that I felt I had cheated my family of being present, and though the degree gives me some bragging rights, the close relationships with my children and family are much more noteworthy.”

Lack of ownership. If you don’t believe you are responsible for your win (perhaps you attribute it to luck or other external factors), you won’t feel satisfied by it. It’s not enough to get the big promotion, Hall’s research has shown. You have to believe you’ve earned it.

Lack of validation by others. Others also have to believe you’ve earned your success. This is why many young managers, struggling to move past an “eager novice” image in the companies where they started their careers, end up pursuing growth and advancement elsewhere.

No time to learn. Once you’ve landed the account, gotten the promotion, or made partner, do you have a chance to reflect on what you’ve learned and how to approach your new responsibilities? Or do you start putting out fires right away? Whether your organization sets a manic pace or you do (or both), it’s common to tackle one big challenge after another without taking time for growth in between.

With so much tension between the professional and the personal, how can any of us hope to achieve real satisfaction? One way is what psychologists call generativity: passing along what you’ve learned over the years to help people in the next generation achieve their goals and dreams. As another HBR reader, P.G. Subramanian, put it, “You really succeed when the team succeeds.”

That mind-set is a strong undercurrent in our article “Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life.” Though our research sample of senior executives was diverse in many ways — we synthesized the insights of almost 4,000 men and women from a range of industries, job functions, and nationalities — the leaders in our data set had one important thing in common: They all took time from their busy lives to share what they’d learned with the MBA students who conducted the interviews.

The concept of generativity was first defined by Erik Erikson, who saw it primarily as a midlife concern: Do we succumb to thoughtless routines and selfish pursuits?  Or do we make lasting contributions by teaching, mentoring, participating in social systems, raising children, or creating things that will outlast us and benefit future generations?

Though the midlife years are indeed ripe territory for questions like these, even kindergarteners (some more than others) derive great enjoyment from helping and teaching. Highly generative people often note that as children, they became aware of the problems of others and felt moved to take action. Generativity encompasses both social concern and the competence and confidence to act on it. Dan P. McAdams, a major researcher in this field, suggests in his book The Redemptive Self  that generative adults are authoritative (not authoritarian), involved parents; that they are likely to be involved in the political process, organized religion, community and civic affairs; and that they have broad friendship and social-support networks. Unsurprisingly, generative people tend to report high levels of subjective well-being.

How generative are you? Take this assessment to see where you stand.



About bambooinnovator
KB Kee is the Managing Editor of the Moat Report Asia (, a research service focused exclusively on highlighting undervalued wide-moat businesses in Asia; subscribers from North America, Europe, the Oceania and Asia include professional value investors with over $20 billion in asset under management in equities, some of the world’s biggest secretive global hedge fund giants, and savvy private individual investors who are lifelong learners in the art of value investing. KB has been rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as an analyst in Asian capital markets. He was head of research and fund manager at a Singapore-based value investment firm. As a member of the investment committee, he helped the firm’s Asia-focused equity funds significantly outperform the benchmark index. He was previously the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. KB has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy, value investing, macroeconomic and industry trends, and detecting accounting frauds in Singapore, HK and China. KB was a faculty (accounting) at SMU teaching accounting courses. KB is currently the Chief Investment Officer at an ASX-listed investment holdings company since September 2015, helping to manage the listed Asian equities investments in the Hidden Champions Fund. Disclaimer: This article is for discussion purposes only and does not constitute an offer, recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any investments, securities, futures or options. All articles in the website reflect the personal opinions of the writer.

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