The Crooked Yardstick: Redefining Success
Stop using goals and measurements set by other people.
Take inventory of your successes. What comes to mind? The title of your position? How much money you make? The value of your home? An award you won? If you had to measure your success, would you place yourself in the top 10 percent? Top 5 percent? Did your organization or your team meet this quarter’s goals? Regardless of which success percentile you stand in, does the nagging sensation that something isn’t quite right tug at you? You’re not alone.
A recent Harris poll shows a downward trend in happiness in America. Only 35 percent of Americans say they’re happy—2 percent fewer than five years ago. A Gallup poll taken last year shows only 13 percent of employees in the world feel engaged and invested in their jobs.
Abraham Lincoln had a keen insight into happiness. He said, “I reckon most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” The same can be said of success.
Ruth McClain, a talented seamstress who grew up an orphan in Philadelphia, used to lose track of time standing at the metal racks in fabric stores that held wooden yardsticks. To the casual observer they all looked the same. Not to Ruth McClain. She examined them, observing a curve in one, a bow in another, a nick in another.
Asked about her fixation with the yardsticks she explained once, “If you measure garments with a crooked yardstick, the garment will look right when you finish making it. It will come out the right size, but the person who wears it will feel like something isn’t quite right. They won’t know what it is, but they’ll feel it. When you measure with a crooked yardstick the finished product never feels quite right.”
Goals and benchmarks others set for us create a similar effect as measuring garments with a crooked yardstick, because even if you hit the benchmarks something still won’t feel quite right. Eventually, like running into the wind, that feeling will fatigue you, overwhelm you—burn you out.
Career goals, income levels, and possessions never fully satisfy us when someone else sets them as a standard of success. Who said you had to become a multimillionaire? That the unemployment rate had to go down? If it wasn’t you, then stop using those data points as measurements. They’re crooked yardsticks. Sure, they reflect something, but they may not reflect what matters to you.
Here are four questions that will help straighten out your yardstick:
1. Who are you?
Not just your name or your logo but your essence. What are the essential things you want people to remember about you or your organization long after you’re gone? What do you stand for? What really matters? What makes you feel special and fulfilled?
2. Where are you, and how long have you been there?
That’s your present and your past. Know it and honor it. Make peace with it. Now stop letting it limit you. It’s just your starting point for the future. To get accurate directions you need to know a starting point and an ending point. Your starting point doesn’t define you.
3. Where are you going?
A lot of people and organizations can’t answer this. Stop until you can. If you don’t know where you want to go, how will you know if you’re on course or off course? You won’t. Instead, you’ll fall for the trap of using goals and measurements set by other people to define your success.
Imagine outcomes that feel true, authentic, that feel like wearing a perfect fitting jacket while you walk through the woods on a chilly fall afternoon. There’s no one else around to see you in that jacket. Just you. Does it feel tailored for your body, warm, just enough to keep you comfortable with your hands tucked into the pockets but not too much to bog you down? Someone made that jacket using a straight yardstick. That’s what success feels like. It can look like a thousand different things. That’s your choice. But make sure your vision of it feels right.
4. How will you get there?
Probably the same way Ruth McClain did: measuring everything with a straight yardstick. You will remain the product of a crooked yardstick until you have the courage to define success on your terms and measure it only by your terms. No matter how good everything looks, it won’t feel quite right, and achieving more won’t change that.
Answer those questions honestly at an individual level and you will quiet the noise caused by exterior expectations or crooked yardsticks. Answer them at an organizational level and you will unleash purpose and commitment beyond anything you have experienced before, because these answers come from a place deeper than the bottom line.
Ruth McClain had less than $500 in her checking account when she died at the young age of 58, but she died happy and she died fulfilled. She raised a good family, loved her husband and five children. She died knowing the shirts and blouses, the dress and the drapes she made brought beauty and joy to the lives of others. And she died knowing her life, like those garments, was measured using a yardstick she carefully selected.
Choose your yardstick carefully. Your success and happiness depend on it.
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