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Emilie Aries Headshot

Sustainable Success: Training for a Career Marathon, Not a Semester Sprint

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I talk a lot about sustainable success -- that elusive ability to continue learning and growing through your work and pursue a career with the passion it takes to maintain your drive and ambition for decades.

It's no easy feat.

Trust me, as a graduate who entered the workforce in the midst of the Great Recession, over and over I was told I was lucky to have any job at all. I watched as my highly-accredited peers were passed over, "too big to fail" firms collapsed and our entire generation learned a humbling lesson about the value of a hard day's work -- any work.

That narrative made me professionally risk-averse. I took the first job that was offered to me. Along with 93 percent of my female peers, I didn't attempt to negotiate my starting offer. I felt grateful, even indebted, to have any job whatsoever. Once I had the job, I struggled with feelings of inadequacy, wondering at every turn when someone would realize what a fraud I was.

These seemingly "safe" choices, however, set me up for rapid burnout. Two years in and I had gone from being a college athlete to not even having a gym membership. I was often working right through my lunch hour without a break, much less a meal. I lost touch with friends and didn't make time for fun other than schmoozing at political fundraisers and networking events in the evening. Complicating all of this, I found myself in an unhealthy romantic relationship that brought me down instead of lifting me up.

No one had prepared me for the realities of the workplace. No one told me that if I don't draw healthy boundaries for myself, I wouldn't have any at all. Hell, I didn't even think I needed any!

My life until then was about getting an A: pleasing, performing and perfecting. The workplace calls for a completely different approach, one I hadn't learned. And with women out-earning our male counterparts in academics, it's no wonder our tried-and-true strategies that help us excel in school are so hard to shake after we enter the workforce. Up until then, they worked!

I was burnt out before 25. Emotionally, physically, economically -- I was drained. Things came to a head with a dramatic end to my relationship, which had a ripple effect in the rest of my life and spurred me to relocate and seek out a new job opportunity in the city where I've always wanted to be: Washington, D.C. This was the beginning of my transformation to living life with the understanding that work, love and wellness are connected. To show up fully at work, things need to feel right at home.

So how do you live for the long game and not sprint through life like a semester? How did I ditch my old ways of thinking and set out to define my own version of sustainable success?

Here are three simple ways to start:

1. Discover Your Why

One of the best ways I've found to tap into our capacity for long-term professional sustainability is to start by searching within for that which intrinsically motivates you.

American Author and Civil Rights Leader Howard Thurman was on to something when he said, "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

OK, sure... but how?

Surprisingly, sometimes negative emotions can be helpful indicators. The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin asks people to consider questions like "When do you catch yourself feeling envy? What do you miss doing from your childhood? When you exaggerate (because really, we all do), what do you inflate about yourself?" These emotions can help indicate what you really want - those sometimes subconscious desires we don't even dare admit to ourselves out loud.

Working on your personal narrative -- what community organizers call your "Story of Self" - is another powerful path to purpose-driven living. I'll never forget Professor Marshall Ganz teaching a class at the Kennedy School called "Organizing: People, Power, and Change," as he asked a classmate of mine to tell her personal story. Each time she "finished" he asked her "why?" Again and again he pressed her to dig deep and identify the origins of her values - values that she drew from when faced with a choice moment throughout the course of her life.

It can be a painful process, and one that is surely never-ending, but the fine folks at the New Organizing Institute have a free training to help get you started on crafting your Story of Self here.

It's hard, but it's worth being able to articulate why you make the choices you do -- and will help you make informed, values-based choices down the road as well.

2. Identify Inertia

Often times I hear from people who are living for someone else. At one point in my life, I was living for my boyfriend, making choices about where I interviewed and taking a job I was grossly over-qualified for in an attempt to make him happy. But it's never so clear when you're the one limiting your own choices.

Maybe you're staying at that paralegal job because you already got your degree in criminal justice. Perhaps you feel like you just can't change course because others have deemed you "successful" doing what you're doing and any other road seems too full of risk and potential for failure. Maybe you just don't want to let down your mother/father/brother/sister/partner/cat/whatever.

It can be hard to identify inertia in your life: the forces that keep you moving in one direction for no other reason than you're already heading there. Practicing mindfulness can help. Ask yourself "who am I doing this for?" often. Reflect in a journal. Meditate. Take a breath while waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store and consciously choose how to interact with the world around you, as laid out in this brilliant video "This is Water" based on David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech.

Ask yourself, as Sheryl Sandberg reminds us in Lean In, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?"

All those feelings of fear, pressure, and inability to change course that may come up when you engage in this inquiry? What would happen if you indulged in the power of possibility instead and just let them go?

3. Make Room for Play

When I first moved down to DC and began living in a way that truly prioritized self-care, I found myself with quite a few Saturdays wide open with nothing to do. It was just me, my dog, and my quiet little apartment. "What do you want to do today?" became my default weekend question for myself and "play volleyball" was often my answer, once I discovered a mecca of beach courts down by the Lincoln Memorial.

For the first time in years, I was back in action with my old college sport -- and absolutely loved it. The undeniable sense of victory that comes with winning a game is so rare in adult life. I was literally crushing it, and it felt so good. Plus, feeling physical strength return to my body increased my sense of personal agency and capacity in a way that was distinct from feeling "thin" or working out to fit into a dress.

As it turns out, play is seriously important stuff for adults - vital for problem solving, creativity and relationships. Stuart Brown, MD and author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul compares play to oxygen: " ... it's all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing."

My favorite byproduct of play? It's a total inertia-buster because it gives us an emotional state to compare to mindlessly going through life on autopilot. Play is inherently engaging for the brain - and it helped me more easily recognize when I was cruising along without thinking in other aspects of life.

Engaging in play also reminds us of the value of not working all the time. It reminds us, perhaps, of the life we want to live outside of our careers. Experiencing the value of play helps broaden our own personal definition of success because it reminds us of what we enjoy beyond prestige, money, power, and all those stereotypical benchmarks.

Switching over to focus on sustainable success isn't just good for the individual - it's good for our society as a whole. From the Harvard Business Review:

When the economy's in terrible shape, when any of us is lucky to have a job--let alone one that's financially and intellectually rewarding--worrying about whether or not your employees are happy might seem a little over the top. But in our research into what makes for a consistently high-performing workforce, we've found good reason to care: Happy employees produce more than unhappy ones over the long term.

In a time where burnout appears to be effecting millennial women in particular, pursuing sustainable success is both good for us as individuals as well as our organizations and institutions on the whole.

So, what are you waiting for? Shake off that inertia, go out and play, and get clear on your definition of sustainable success starting right this moment.

I'd love to hear from you on how it's going via Twitter! Connect with me via my startup, @BossedUpOrg on Twitter.