In my last TechRepublic IT Consultant post, I responded to Josh Richard’s question on LinkedIn: “Why did you become an IT consultant?” Josh also asked a follow-up question: “How close are you to achieving consulting success as you envisioned it?”

I’m glad he qualified success with those last four words, because its definition depends on individual motives, values, and priorities. Not only is it an individual matter, it also varies within the individual over time.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I became a consultant almost by accident. Judging from the discussion, I’m not unique in that regard. I didn’t have a clear vision at that time about what I wanted to achieve long-term as a consultant. My decision was much more tactical than strategic. I had vague notions of piling up an impressive client base and charging them lots of money, without however having a plan on how to accomplish that. I had enough work to do at the time, and not a severe enough motivation for putting forth the effort to acquire more.

A couple of years into it, though, I had gained more regular clients (again, almost by accident). I realized that if I were willing to work evenings and weekends, I could start raking in some serious cash. I compromised on personal time, relinquishing my position as Chief Couch Potato on college football Saturdays in order to work instead, while retaining that title for NFL games on Sundays.

Life has a way, though, of changing your plans for you. Just as I was really starting to roll, I met my future second wife. Suddenly, personal time became more important — although I immediately donated it all to my significant other. In an attempt to cut back on my hours, I rather rudely informed my clients that I’d be raising my rates by almost 40%. This backfired, however. Instead of reducing demand, it increased it!

About a year later, my wife gave birth to our daughter. For a little while after that, I cared for her half the day while my wife went into the office, then I’d hand her off to Mom and go into my client’s office for the rest of the day. Soon, though, my wife decided to quit her job and take care of our daughter full-time. This shifted my priorities yet again, both because I suddenly had more time available for work and because I was the sole bread-winner for a family. At this time, I began building my business as fast as I could. I accepted every engagement, some of which turned into some pretty bad trips (I still have flashbacks), but others became good long-term relationships that I still have after more than a decade.

We had a second child, then moved to Washington and bought waterfront property. I kept cranking my intensity past eleven in order to support our lifestyle. “Work hard, play hard” became my motto. I drove a Lincoln, and we sipped Dom Perignon whenever we felt like it. I thought then that I had achieved “consulting success,” but then some things happened that changed my mind.

First came the dot-com bust. My clients weren’t terribly affected by that event, but it did put a damper on new software development across the board for while. This let me know how fragile my business model was, and how easily it might crash.

Then came 9/11, followed the next year by three difficult medical situations in our family (which I won’t detail for reasons of privacy). These reminded me how brief is life, and made me realize that I was speeding through it. I began to feel burned out, and I decided to cut back my billable hours in order to spend more time doing the things that matter in the long run.

I’m still trying to find that balance, though. When you invite the feast or famine phenomenon to flip on you, it usually obliges in trumps. So financial concerns have often led me back to over-working until I have too much to do again, and my personal life suffers. I’m living alone now, so I go back and forth between thinking of myself as a success or a failure. Honestly, it’s a mixture.

Most people who are just starting out as consultants would probably look at me and think, “He’s successful. That’s where I want to be.” Even myself twenty years ago would look at my business as it stands today and call that a success. Heck, I even write about consulting for TechRepublic. But if you don’t know it yet, I’ll give you a clue: there is no point of arrival at success. It’s a continuous process of adaptation to your changing market, the circumstances of your life, and your own evolving desires and aspirations. Aeschylus said, “Call no man happy until he is dead.” I think, on the contrary, you can call someone happy if they are doing what they most want to be doing, right now.