THE BLOG

Just Whose Life Is It? The Case of Silicon Valley

03/13/2015 06:16 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015

Go to school. Get a job. Get ahead. These are the echoes of a society that thrives on a narrow definition of success. We are encouraged to do, but rarely allowed to just be. Society measures success by the attainment of wealth, respect, honors, or fame. But is that all there is to success?

In watching the testimony unfold this week in Silicon Valley in the gender discrimination trial of Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins, it seems evident to me that there is at least one other big issue on trial here besides the one determining whether or not there was gender bias. In fact, gender bias, whether proved or not, just may be a canary in the coal mine of a bigger matter, an existential one.

Please hear me out. First, I must disclose that I am a woman who has never worked in Silicon Valley. I have, however, worked in the information technology field for very large companies in the oil industry, the investment industry, and automotive industry -- all of which are male dominated industries. I will also disclose that I never had a job that paid $500,000 per year, and I never expected to be promoted to a job that would pay me in excess of $2.6 million per year. Both of which were reported this week by USA Today as the salary and potential earnings for Ellen Pao, had she been promoted from a junior partner to senior partner at Kleiner Perkins.

Ellen Pao certainly has the pedigree for 'success' with three degrees including an electrical engineering degree from Princeton and a Law degree and MBA from Harvard. Pao would be considered successful by most people's standards with a juicy job as a junior partner in one of the most renowned venture capital firms in the world. Yet, Pao's climb up the ladder was abruptly cut short. Was the issue really Pao's performance, as described by Kleiner Perkins in testimony this week or was it something else? Regardless of the outcome of this question, which will be settled in court, Pao's case shows us that it is a mistake to place our faith in an external object or person to make us happy. While Pao's case is interesting, I believe the larger issues on trial this week in Silicon Valley are how we define success as a society and who we allow to control our lives.

Who is in charge of your success and happiness?
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How will our lives change when we arrive at this place called "success"? And how will success make us feel? Will we know it when we get there? And, what are we willing to give up to attain it?

The Pao v Kleiner Perkins trial has (perhaps inadvertently) provided some insight into the issue, and a warning sign. Billionaire John Doerr has been on the stand, testifying on behalf of his company, Kleiner Perkins. Doerr is one of the most highly regarded venture capitalists in the world with an estimated net worth of $3.5 billion. According to USA Today, Doerr testified that a "superstar" in his firm was someone who "does whatever I ask, without complaining." Doerr said, "The sacrifices could be both large and small." He cites the example of senior partner, Wen Hsieh, as an example of someone who "bleeds Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers." "He moved his family to China to help strengthen our business there. They didn't want to go," Doerr said. But "Wen picked them up and moved them for two or three years. Wen's a superstar."

I certainly won't debate the choices made by Wen Hsieh. It is unfortunate that his family's sacrifice is being put on public display as evidence of the expectations placed on venture capital employees to achieve success, or, at least John Doerr's version of it. Hsieh may be completely happy with his choice to focus on the material aspects of success and to overrule his family's wishes. One would hope that when Hsieh arrives at the end of his life, all of that money has made him happy, because he has apparently chosen to become a 'superstar' for an organization that cares little for him except for what he can do for them. If his family didn't want to go to China, would staying put have even been an option? Apparently not for Mr. Doerr. In his worldview, a 'superstar' would never choose his family's wishes over the good of the firm.

A bigger question might be why do we as a society allow individuals like John Doerr and firms like Kleiner Perkins to define our lives for us in the first place? Is it greed? Is it fear? Is it something else?

I would contend that the answer lies in the simple fact that most of us have failed to define for ourselves what will make us happy, and so we have allowed society and others, like Doerr, to try and define it for us.

And just a quick observation: Perhaps the reason Silicon Valley has few women in powerful positions is not due to gender discrimination at all, but is instead due to the different life choices made by women. I know very few women who would choose career over family, like Hsieh did. The deeper issue then is why is this expectation to sacrifice our lives for 'success' considered to be the norm in business today?

What is Your Ideal Life?
At the core of the problem is a simple but completely fixable issue: Most people never take the time to sit down and map out what they truly want for their life. We would not build a new house without a plan, yet everyday people build their lives without one. Careers take off and one day we look up and realize we have drifted into a life that does not bring us joy. We find ourselves in a 'successful' position with all the accompanying money and prestige, but still longing for something different. If this describes you, then please take the time right now to evaluate where you are and adjust your course, because, as the great novelist George Eliot once said, "It's not too late to be what you might have been."

Our goal should be to have a well-rounded and happy life. To do that we need to make conscious choices about how success fits within the broader scheme of what I call "your ideal life." Your ideal life consists of much more than just money or a career. It's a combination of your health, relationships, spirituality, time, service to others, and so much more.

We need to figure out the combination that works for us, and then make conscious and daily choices to have the life we desire to live, and not somebody else's narrow definition of it.

Designing Your Ideal Life is the first word in a broader conversation that needs take place in society about how we define success in the first place. It will help you discover what the ideal life means to you and help you create your personal blueprint for success and happiness. Designing Your Ideal Life provides a proven process to help you take control of your life and to chart a course to greater success and happiness. Visit DesigningYourIdealLife.com to learn more and to download the companion workbook. Get started today. Create your blueprint for success and happiness.