years of serviceIt used to be that people wore their years of service with a company like a badge of honor. The higher the number, the more they puffed out their chests. And they were revered for it, too.

These days, not everyone sees it that way. While I appreciate their stick-to-itiveness and dedication, I have a lot of questions for people who have stayed at the same company for a long time.

On the individual side, I wonder:

How do you stay fresh? Are you still bringing new ideas? What are you doing to keep things moving forward? What makes you so valuable? Are you just filling a chair or are you making magic? Aren’t you afraid of stagnating?

On the company side, I think:

That must be a great place to work for you to stay so long. What have they done to keep you so satisfied? 

As I approach my 18-year anniversary with the same company, these thoughts occupy more and more of my cranial space. I couldn’t figure out why the years-of-service reverie was sticking in my craw–until a few days ago.

A friend forwarded me a presentation about company culture, and one simple statement from it made everything come together: people today work for a purpose, not a pension. (Thanks, HubSpot.) You can’t separate work from life, so your work and your life have to fit together in a way that YOU find satisfying.

Yes, yes, and yes.

Kayla Cruz, a fellow blogger who really thinks about this stuff, got it a long time ago. She’s been preaching it from her keyboard since the beginning of time. Well, okay, since the beginning of her time. She thinks we should redefine success:

Today, when I think of success, I don’t think about working for some multi-million dollar corporation managing all of the best accounts, swiftly climbing the corporate ladder.

Instead, I think about being happy. I think about finding a career that I love, one that challenges me. I think about a career that allows me to help others, that allows me to give back in some way. I think about having time to travel and hang out with my friends. I think about making sure that I have enough time to devote to a relationship and building a family one day. Success, to me, means being inspired and having interesting work to do. Success, therefore, is not being bored.

That doesn’t make me any less ambitious.

That doesn’t make me any less determined.

I love the way Kayla pokes and prods. Although she tends to apply her insights to Generation Y, I argue that they apply to everyone, even my Generation X self.

So as I think about my eighteen-year milestone, I realize that its status as a badge of honor depends completely on the answers to the questions I posed earlier. “I’ve been here for 18 years” should never be punctuated by a moment of silence as I wait for a round of applause. It doesn’t automatically validate my ideas over someone else’s. It should never be used as a weapon. That statement simply can’t stand alone.

No matter where I am or for how long, I have to stay fresh, I have to add value, and I have to find fulfillment.

The next time someone tells me how long he has been at a job, I’m going to ask, “And are you happy?” A yes-answer is the real badge of honor.

P.S. Check out this post from Kayla, too: 4 Day Work Week. Different approach, different words, but deep down, the message is the same. The link to the post I quoted is above, if you click the words ‘redefine success.’