You have one month left in the decade. What have you accomplished?
That’s the question in a popular tweet that prompted people to share promotions, graduations and marriages as well as the ways they’ve survived the last decade.
This “What have you accomplished?” question falls within the larger trend of the #10yearchallenge, a hashtag people use on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to label comparisons of themselves today and 10 years ago. These then-and-now stories are almost always glow-ups, showing a person’s career or looks getting much better over time, or used as proof that they have miraculously not aged.
It is normal for the end of a decade to prompt reflection. But there is an implicit judgment in asking, “So, what have you done?” You no longer become the person you are, you are put into the box of a person who has or has not accomplished things. This is not to discourage anyone from reflecting on career growth. Remembering the professional you of 10 years ago can help you take pride in where you are now, and how your priorities have shifted.
But don’t shame yourself if you don’t have a list of extrinsic markers of achievement like new raises, promotions and titles. Careers do not follow a neat linear arc, and the 10-year challenge sets up the expectation that your career will only grow upward when its normal for a career to take multiple directions. One 2015 survey found that employees are not just motivated by climbing up the corporate ladder: Of the 2,000 full-time U.S. workers surveyed, 89% said they would take a position with a similar title and pay grade in a different department of their company. And many of us are not planning on staying on one single career track. Forty-two percent of respondents in that survey said they expected to have three or more careers in their life.
I think it’s more useful to expand the definition of career accomplishments beyond the time limits that a 10-year challenge imposes or the seemingly meteoric rises glamorized by lists like Forbes’ “30 under 30.” There is an obsession with early achievement, but many examples of late bloomers who found career success later in life. Take comedian Leslie Jones, who was the oldest new cast member of Saturday Night Live at age 47. As she told The New Yorker in 2015, “I remember some nights where I was, like, ‘All right, this comedy shit just ain’t working out.’And not just when I was 25. Like, when I was 45 … I was a less confident person back then. And damn sure not as funny.”
There is a better question than “What did you accomplish?”
If you genuinely and fairly want to evaluate your career, start by reframing the question so there is less pressure on yourself, said Monique Valcour, an executive coach.
“A gentler and more reflective way to take it might be, ‘If you could go back 10 years and have a conversation with yourself, what advice would you offer at that point in time?’” Valcour said.
Conversational topics that will get in touch with your past professional self could include, “Here are the most important things that are going to happen over the next 10 years. Here is what I recommend that you let go of and deemphasize. Here is how you are going to grow,” she said.
By talking to yourself with a kinder voice, you can get into the mindset of thinking about your career without shame or anxiety.
If you want to measure success beyond performance metrics, start paying attention to how you feel.
Gaining self-awareness about your career past and present means paying attention beyond the numbers. Sometimes, quantifiable numbers of achievement can overshadow equally important, but less visible, signs of success.
Valcour said there are some markers of success that are more objective and obvious to others like a salary raise, a promotion or earning a new degree. Then there are successes that are more subjective and take place in an interpersonal domain, “like helping a lot of people grow and develop” and “building a climate of trust or commitment where people really feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves.” There are also achievements that are subjective to your own personal experience, she said, like “being able to craft a career that really aligns with your values.”
Once you realize that you are the only person who gets to decide what success markers are meaningful, you can move beyond the 10-year benchmark of success.
Your impact can even be measured on a daily basis. In an interview with the “Call Your Girlfriend” podcast, Samantha Power, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, shared a useful way for people to judge their impact on a daily basis that she used in the Obama White House.
“My husband [fellow Obama aide Cass Sunstein] developed this sort of framework for us to assess our days where we’d say to each other, ‘Respected [or] not respected. Effective or not effective.’ And so we’d be walking out and one of us would say ‘Respected. Not effective.’ ‘Not effective, not respected.’” It was a good framework to assess how they were building coalition around a larger goal.
Reflecting on a decade also means noticing what you have.
If you find yourself comparing your past accomplishments to someone else’s and falling short, use gratitude to get outside of your comparison envy and remember what you have. Expressing gratitude is a science-backed method of feeling more positive about your day.
Questions to spark feelings of gratitude can include “‘What have I learned?’ and ‘What were the seeds of that learning?’” Valcour said. “Often, with the longer-term perspective, the quality of experiences that we had in the past tend to shift. Something that was very acute, or seemed to be all-consuming in the moment, we now see in the tapestry of everything that was happening in our lives.”
Here’s one method of expressing thanks that I learned from fiction. “The House of Broken Angels” by Luis Alberto Urrea follows Big Angel, the dying patriarch of a Mexican family that depended on him as he reflects on his last weeks of life. At the guidance of a friend, he starts keeping a notebook of what he is grateful for, giving “attention to the small things, which were paradoxically eternal.” They are big and small moments:
a day without pain.
These short descriptions demonstrate that you don’t have to write a drawn-out gratitude essay to start keeping a gratitude practice. You can start small by jotting down a few words of your personal highlights week to week, day to day.
Once you notice what you have, you can focus less on what you don’t have yet. By paying attention to your experience, you gain the power to define what’s a personal accomplishment worth remembering, no matter what you’re decade you are in.