My friend Troy is a serial entrepreneur, always on the hunt for sharp talent who can help him put legs on his breakthrough ideas. I wanted to know what his single favorite question was of the young people he was interviewing. He didn’t have to think. He responded immediately.

“I ask them, ‘Who do you want to be in five years?’” he said.

It’s not a normal question and probably not one you’ll find in your HR manuals. I’ve heard variations on this question before.

  • “What do you want to achieve in five years?”
  • “Where do you see yourself in the company in five years?”
  • “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Troy’s question puts the emphasis deeper. It shifts attention from resume-building to character-building. It befuddles most over-eager college graduates who have been trained to cultivate their resumes since 7th grade, to be on a path of advancement through achievement.  You can see the wheels turn in their heads. “Who I want to be? What does that have to do with anything? I want to have job and an apartment and a good start on paying off my college debt.” Most of them are stumped. But Troy finds the few who aren’t, hires them and then they begin exciting careers in his incubator firm or with someone in his network.

Recent college grads aren’t the only ones who wrestle with these questions. We live in a score-keeping culture. We grow up with a narrative that says we are our achievements and I believe this short circuits our development. I believe it keeps us from our biggest achievements.

  • Students track GPA’s and scores on standardized tests.
  • College applicants compare the rankings of the schools they’re accepted to.
  • New college graduates compare starting salaries or brands of their first jobs.
  • Salespeople compare revenues generated.
  • Partners compare books of business or end of year bonuses.
  • Executives compare comp packages or the number of employees on their fork of the org chart.
  • Social media users compare followers or likes or shares.
  • Job seekers compare LinkedIn profiles.

The funny thing is that if we thought about this long enough, we would all say it’s a bankrupt narrative, that it’s based on bad math of how you get the Good Life.  But we pursue it as though it alone holds the secret to happiness. Every time you arrive at the next ridgeline, you realize that it’s a false peak. Someone else is in front of you, higher than you.

My friend John faced this several years ago when he was contemplating a career shift. He was doing what most of us do, fixating on making the “right choice” for his career. He was anxious, feeling stuck, and a little hopeless. He wasn’t sleeping, because after six months of looking, the right thing to do, the right position and career move hadn’t shown up. He’d interviewed for the few rare positions that were right for him and came close, but he hadn’t gotten a good offer yet. He was miserable, worrying that he would have to do something that would look wrong on his resume. That his uninterrupted career trajectory – up and to the right – might suddenly go sideways.

What would that say about his career? What would that say about him?

In a moment of unintentional insight, I said to him, “What if who you’re becoming matters more than what you do?”

The question stopped him in his tracks. He realized for a second that maybe his focus was on a less important issue – what he was going to do – instead of a longer-term and more crucial concern – who he was becoming. He was a good and creative person, but he was becoming someone who was obsessed with status and scores. Security, the ephemeral condition sought by so many, kept clamoring for attention.

That moment opened up a few things that were otherwise closed off by the pressure of choosing the right score-keeping option:

  • It helped him broaden the definition of success from resume-building and income generation to something that lasts longer. The minute he retires, resume-building will be much less important. But who will he have spent his life becoming by that time? He’ll live with that for the rest of his life.
  • It helped him shift his attention to something more deeply important to him, something more integrated into the full sweep of his life. Career choices and resume-building matter, but they live in the career zone. Who you are becoming – a sharp-minded, kind-hearted, persistently positive and relentlessly realistic person that cuts across every part of your life. It affects your workplace, your family, your community. You know it won’t emerge magically when you retire after a 40-year habit of single-minded scorekeeping. It’s cultivated slowly, with great care.

What you achieve at work matters as long as you’re doing something worth your efforts. But who you’re becoming matters even more. No one was created to become more anxious or bitter or isolated. You were created to become more wise and positive and other-centered. In short, you were created to be a Giver even if those around you are Takers. Maybe especially if those around you are Takers.

Happily, this transformation has an impact on what you can achieve because becoming who you were created to be will likely increase your capacity to get important things done. Compassionate people are better at employee development and retention. Kind and brilliant managers are better at team building. Truth-telling people inspire trust in those with whom they do deals.

But even better than making you more successful, becoming who you were created to be directly impacts those closest to you – family, friends, colleagues. When combined with contentment, it helps you discover or rediscover joy. And joy beats simple accomplishment with a stick every day.

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