What ARE Your Priorities?

Note PadThis is the second in my series of Suit Yourself essays.

It’s all well and good for us to agree that a focus on personal satisfaction is necessary if you’re going to achieve the kind of career success that will actually make you happy, but if we’re going to prioritize, we’re going to have to have some priorities.

How do you define "personal satisfaction" for yourself and then identify and articulate your priorities? Where do worldly expectations intersect with your personal definition? How do you reliably tell the difference between what you really do care about and what you think you should care about or what other people care about or expect of you?

Remember the Bill of Rights? There’s an important clue in the phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." It’s not life, liberty and happiness, but rather life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is a great illustration of the difference between the kinds of goals you should be prioritizing and the kinds of results that are often mistaken for goals, but, when prioritized, don’t and won’t lead to satisfaction. We can be so focused on accomplishing these latter objectives – getting the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – that we mistake the pot of gold for the actual goal, the glitter for the gold.

Where satisfaction and identifying your priorities are concerned, it’s not the pot of gold that’s important. It’s following the rainbow. It’s the joy of the hunt and, if it happens, the successful outcome. Satisfaction is an ongoing thing, a process, a way of feeling, a pursuit. It’s not a means to an end. Satisfaction is the end. Accordingly, it is what must be prioritized.

You can’t be single-minded about the form your satisfaction will take. A former law partner of mine, for example, loves getting new clients for the law firm, but not for the reasons you – or he – might think. One morning, he was talking to a prospective client on the phone. He listened carefully, talked briefly about the firm, then suggested the prospect give the firm even a small piece of business. She evidently agreed, for he thanked her, hung up the phone, leaned back in his chair, grinned and said, "I love to get a piece of business in the morning!"

This is a man who loves the thrill of the hunt and the validation of bagging a piece of business. Sure, that led to prominence in the firm for him as well as revenue and all the other good outcomes of achieving a specific objective. What made him happy, though, was the deep sense of personal satisfaction emanating from the conversation and its successful outcome.

Do you see the difference? In this respect, my former partner is not someone who should prioritize making money for the firm or even doing legal work for the client. These things are all outcomes, things that will occur as byproducts. They are not goals worthy of prioritization if what he’s looking for is satisfaction.

My former partner should prioritize the hunt. The more time he spends seeking new clients and honing his hunting skills, the happier he will be and the more clients he will get. He might be just as satisfied hunting new customers for a business as new clients for his law firm. He might also find satisfaction in becoming a safari photographer or even an actual hunter (although I hope not!).

The point is to separate the elements of satisfaction (the thrill and validation of the successful hunt) from the form the pursuit takes at any given time (acquiring new law firm clients). Then and only then can you reliably prioritize what will satisfy you – and, thus, position yourself for success by suiting yourself.

If you want to suit yourself over the long haul, your framework can’t be something so specific and limited, something so tangible, as a pot of gold.  It's imperative to get under the tangible specifics - the things you think you want - to uncover the elements of satisfaction - why you want them, what it is about them that will satisfy you.

Here are some tricks for doing this that work for me:

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