Successful… compared to what?

When my business partner and I sat down to write our book, The Boss of You, one of our most powerful incentives was the way most business books assumed they knew what success looked like. It seemed every book we picked up from the business section of the bookstore wanted to dictate what our lives would look like once we climbed to the peak of success. Franchising; rapid, perpetual growth; maximum profit; four-hour workweeks — and, if you were reading “women’s” business books, an endless stream of mani-pedis — awaited us. And boy howdy, were we not looking forward to that future.

Of course, every entrepreneur shapes her business in her own image, and we were no exceptions. We wanted what has been snidely labeled a “lifestyle business” (which I would love to wipe out of the lexicon… it conjures up images of lounging around on settees, sipping mint juleps while one’s employees do all the work – nice work if you can get it, but hardly the reality most small business owners face on an average day). Good clients, interesting work, comfortable profits so we could pay everyone well, and a strong sense of purpose: these were the elements of our definition of success, and we’ve built up a highly successful business by those standards.

But of course, the dominant paradigm comes crashing in fairly regularly, and I confess that despite having written a book that assures readers their versions of success are every bit as valid as the ones they see trotted out in the business pages every day, I still have my moments of self-doubt.

Like last week.

I came into the office one morning, after spending the previous evening enjoying a couple of beers with an old friend who runs his own small business. Emira and I got to chatting, and I began telling her about all the successes this fellow has had in recent months… and I could feel myself turning green with envy as I rattled off the list. Huge profits. Fascinating new technology in development. New geographical markets. And most jealousy-inducing of all, a forthcoming month-long vacation. Why, I whined, can’t we have all of these things? (It’s OK if you hate me right now – I hate myself for the whining, too.)

Emira, doll that she is, reminded me ever so gently that maybe I needed to revisit my definition of success.

Oh, right.

It’s insidious, the habit of comparing ourselves to others, particularly in the business world. We want to know that our revenues aren’t just sufficient for us, but impressive to others (especially, of course, if we have investors). Us designer types compete with each other on the basis of our portfolios: who has the most impressive client roster, and who’s done the most cutting-edge work? In technology, it’s all about building the newest, shiniest tool everyone aspires to use. And among the “lifestyle” entrepreneurs, there’s an undercurrent of competitiveness about who’s happiest, most relaxed, traveling the most, achieving the best – cough – work-life balance.

It’s all just comparisons that don’t mean much, unless you’re comparing the stuff that matters to you.

So do you know what your bottom lines are? What are your priorities, and how are you defining success? If you check in on them from time to time, you might be surprised how little it starts to matter what the Joneses are up to.