#ExceptionalCareers Series: Giving You the Edge for Success

11/12/2014 06:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I've had the privilege of engaging with hundreds of remarkable undergraduates and graduate students while working at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. One thing that they all desire -- but struggle to attain -- is a clear understanding of what it takes to chart and sustain a successful career. And why shouldn't they want this? Careers are our livelihood. They usually consume more than half of our waking hours and all too often, what we do is how others have come to define who we are.

I still remember vividly, the anxiety and the tremendous sense of failure during my senior year in college. As we moved towards graduation, everyone around me seem so certain what their next steps were and what their vocations were sure to be. My best friends were going to medical school, law school, doctoral programs, and other friends were heading into investment banking, consulting, and top companies.

I felt rudderless. And I had no idea what the next steps were, knowing only that I aspire to a great career, to make my mark on the world and falling awfully short of it all.

So here's the secret that no one really ever tells you -- this career anxiety and feeling of falling short -- they never really go away....

In my work at the Fuqua/Coach K Leadership and Ethics Center (COLE)>, I've also had the privilege of engaging with leaders across industries, sectors, and domains -- from CEOs, generals, partners of major firms, champion athletes, directors of major initiatives, and homemakers who are partners to their spouses in building successful organizations.

They are all leading exceptional lives and careers. So what defines an exceptional career?

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I posed this question first to dear friend and mentor, Frances Hesselbein (pictured). Frances is the CEO and President of the Hesselbein Institute and former CEO of the Girl Scouts of USA. In her career, she had co-shaped the army's leader development model, was the first woman on the cover of BusinessWeek, turned down a cabinet position from President Ronald Reagan because the Girls Scouts needed her during their time of transformation and who, for half of her career was a "homemaker". This is her answer:

An exceptional career is one that provides an opportunity to serve. It is a satisfying career in which you can't wait to get up in the morning to begin! You have a sense of purpose and mission. You know why you do what you do. It is a response to a call to serve. Once we do that, everything flows positively. When I choose what I do, I ask, does it make a difference?

When I asked this question of others, a pattern began to emerge in their answers. The very best people -- the ones who move mountains and inspire confidence in you to do the same -- those leaders have all built exceptional careers.

But they are defined by an understanding of who they are and what they stand for, and by a purpose and desire to shape the world for the better in a consequential way.

And because the definitions for success transcend the checkboxes of dollars or titles earned, and is instead, about making a difference - the chase never ends.

So while that career anxiety never goes away, it is framed by a different meaning, shaped by a different sense of self, and propelled by a different purpose.

So this Exceptional Careers Series will give you actionable tips, insights and an edge for building an exceptional career. An exceptional career is not solely defined by the title or salary, but by a larger set of factors that lead to career satisfaction. It is one marked by service, growth, purpose, and meaning.

To this end, we will have short advice and how-to pieces, interviews with successful leaders, and reader Q&A. Many of the pieces will be co-shaped by my students and the leaders in our network. We also want this to be co-created with you -- so write in the comments, questions that you'd like to see answered or ideas. You can also tweet at me @SanyinSiang.

This is a series for all of us, by all of us.

If in reading or thinking about questions, this series should change the way you look at careers or success - great! I hope this series will help you develop an intrinsic definition of success rather than let success be defined by others.

There will be new content on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month. Different from the other pieces in my blog, each title in this series will begin with the words #ExceptionalCareers.

Let's start the conversation. #ExceptionalCareers

For other great resources, check out Live In the Grey, and The Daily Muse. Know of a great site that's talking about redefining success? Share it with us!