What is success – in life, at work, in academia? What does it look like, how does it feel and, the question in many of our minds… how do I achieve success?


Last night, Freedom of Mind LSE hosted a panel exploring what success means and busting the myth that to succeed you need to sacrifice your welfare. Chaired by Professor Lord Richard Layard, the panelists included Anastasia (Bank of England), John (Deloitte), Lizzie (LSE Careers) and Nicola (Mental Health First Aid).


The criteria for success is made up of multiple contributing internal and external factors, for many students and LSE alumni. A small, yet constant conversation of spring weeks, internships and graduate roles across campus paints the wrong picture of what the goal (and indeed success) is and has to be by the end of your degree. 


But with the competition for placements and roles high, in hand with the challenging academic environment for LSE students, how can we all be more mindful as we navigate the space between academia and the world of work? What can you do as a student and employee, and what part do employers have in balancing ambition and well-being?


X+Y ≠ success


A key theme which emerged throughout the panel was that success is not one-dimensional. It’s not an exact science made up of X amount of this and Y amount of that. Success is not defined by one or two factors. Success and what it means to you is subjective and what it looks like will change throughout your life. The criteria changes because you change. The experiences you have and connections you make will shape you and of course, life happens. A good first step to thinking about what success looks like and feels to you is to understand yourself, your values, ambitions, dreams, aspirations, likes and dislikes – both professional and personal.


Comparison – the thief of joy?


It can be difficult, at a time where we’re all so connected, to not compare yourself to others. What’s important, as both panel and audience discussed, is striking the right balance – particularly when you’re thinking about how ambition and well-being are discussed online, with friends, peers and colleagues. Can those conversations or that post online provide some motivation for you? Yes! Seeing other people’s ambition might inspire you to take action – which is great! But it could also add unnecessary pressure and further anxiety. Overexposure could leave you feeling like you’re not doing enough, or you’ve missed the boat on applications for a spring week or an internship.


But stop! Take a moment and pause.


Remember that what might be the right pathway for one person could very well be the wrong fit for another. Part of defining success for yourself is assessing the merit of your achievements without the social comparisons. This, of course, is easier said than done – but it takes time, which you have plenty of during your time at LSE and the years following graduation.


Whether you’re studying your undergraduate degree, are on a study abroad or are master’s student here for a year, we are all guilty of getting caught up in the rat race of London. Rushing around the city, or campus, or the library. From class to running errands and everything in between. Adding in thinking about careers, your first (or indeed tenth) job, applying for further study etc, and it can all get overwhelming. Especially when it feels like everyone knows what they want to do or be post-university.


Myth bust: as a Careers department, we can confirm that many students at LSE, do not, in fact, arrive with a careers plan!


University certainly is one of the passports to success, but there are multiple routes and it’s about taking the time to explore which combination works. Make the right choices and the right decisions for you and believe in the power of the choices you make.


Feeling like you need to know before you’ve even started your degree where you want to be in 5 or 10 years can be frightening and anxiety-inducing. Those same feelings can come flooding back when you’re making a decision at any point in your career. Whether it’s for about your first job, or whether to go for a small organisation or a global company. John’s advice for taking the anxiety out of a decision? Remember that you’re not making a choice for life.


But what about employers and organisations?

There are two strands to this. Firstly, remember that you have a choice and a responsibility to yourself to find an organisation and employer that is right for you. Think about who you’re applying to and if you think the cultural fit is right for you, in the same way, you’d assess the location and salary. What’s the work-life balance like? Network via LinkedIn or in-person if the opportunity presents itself with current or former employees (we have an ever-growing alumni community at LSE – make use of it!). And know what an organisation can offer and what it is that they offer that is important to you.


Anastasia and John both spoke of well-being initiatives, support networks, groups and committees at their respective organisations. Of environments and a culture where conversations about your mental health and well-being can take place. This might not always be the easiest information to find out from a quick website search. But ask the question and use tools such as the mind well-being workplace index. Work out what success looks like at work for you? How do you like to be supported, what does a workplace where you will thrive look like?


Secondly, employers and organisations, of course, have a large responsibility in ensuring the well-being of their staff. Working with organisations such as Mental Health First Aid, facilitating and encouraging a safe and inclusive environment is important. Whilst high-pressure roles and industries are a part of the landscape of the world of work – and there is not much you, or I can do to change that, what can be changed and managed is how organisations implement the work-life balance and aid us in navigating them. Equipping us with tools, resources, support and challenging the culture of a workplace.


So, to summarise…

No matter where you currently find yourself in your career planning (whether that’s not-quite-ready-to-start-planning to thinking about changing careers), you have the power to define what success is. Spend time reflecting and understanding yourself and your skills, ask for support, help and advice from across the university and try to avoid social comparisons of achievements. We talk about success as the last stop when in reality “success” and being “successful” is a journey. One where we learn, grow, question, ask for and give support and share our stories and experiences.

If reading this blog has raised any questions for you, get in touch, book an appointment for a careers consultation or let us know in the comments.