What if success weren’t something that was going to happen sometime in the future? What if you’re already there?

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A new coaching client wanted a promotion.

“I’ve gotten promoted every year,” said my client, a software engineer at a large tech company. “Being promoted is how I know I’m successful.”

I looked at him worriedly.

“I expect you’re going to run out of runway,” I told him. “One of these years you’re not going to get promoted, and then what? You’re a failure?”

My client nodded. “I don’t know how I can keep this up,” he agreed. “I’m not sure how much harder I can work.”

“Let’s talk about the difference between career goals and outcomes,” I said, showing him my copy of the 2011 best-seller “Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization,” by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright.

“A goal is off in the future, so, to some people, it implies a failure in the present,” the authors write. “’When we achieve the goal, we will have stopped failing’ is how many people relate to the goal-setting process.” The authors were writing about organizational goals, but the distinction applies to career management, as well.

“An outcome, by contrast, is a present state of success that morphs into an even bigger victory over time,” they write.

I looked at my client, an earnest young man with a ready smile and friendly, outgoing nature. He looks about 10 years younger than he is. “Why do you want to be promoted every year?” I ask him.

“I want money and power,” he said.

“Yeah, me too,” I laughed. “Why do you want money and power?”

“Because then I’m in a better position to help people,” he replied.

“Let’s turn this around,” I suggested. “What if you’re already successful? After all, you have successfully found work that you love and excel at; you get paid to work on interesting problems; you’ve built friendships in a new city; you’ve found a partner you hope to spend the rest of your life with.

“What if success weren’t something that was going to happen sometime in the future? What if you’re already there?” I asked him.

He looked a bit dumbstruck.

“Earning that promotion is an outcome of that success, rather than the goal itself,” I suggested.

We talked about how his goals, in this reframing, had to do with solving increasingly difficult and complex technical problems that help people — the “bigger victory” that the “Tribal Leadership” authors describe. He will fight for that promotion — and we developed a clear plan to get there — but it won’t define success for him.

“Goals … have diminishing returns as people become unwilling to spend their careers in a state of failure, scratching toward success,” write the authors of “Tribal Leadership.”

This software engineer with the big, open smile isn’t scratching toward success. He’s already there.