Differing Levels of Success: Spain vs. US

I would like to preface this blog post with the disclaimer that I, as a 21-year-old college student with two months of real work experience at a single company, am startlingly underqualified to speak unequivocally and comprehensively on the topic of what defines a “successful” worker in general, let alone across cultural lines. That said, I’m about to do just that. Take it as my opinion and what I’ve been able to observe over my short time interning at Pulsar Technologies in Madrid, Spain.

First let’s establish my view of what a successful employee looks like back home in the US. The image that immediately comes to mind is that of a Hollywood Wall Street stock broker. Fresh dressed. Professional. Skilled. Slick. And, most importantly, individualistic. When I think of success in the US business world I think of someone who makes their own way. Someone who confidently tackles challenges, works hard, sometimes long, hours and earns the money to show it. Someone who combines the best attributes of Rosie the Riveter and Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street. With that image in mind, let’s look at professional success in Spain.

I’d say there are a few different levels of professional success in Spain, all of which bear noting. In the US, but more so in Spain, having a job in itself implies a certain level of success. My coworkers have occasionally discussed unemployment in Spain, and it definitely is a much larger problem there. Sometimes even qualified individuals can have trouble translating a degree into a paying job. What’s more, some people end up in jobs, but jobs that they are grossly overqualified for. Employment in Spain is a level of professional success that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Beyond that, however, there are obviously things that define a successful employee versus an average one.

In general, I’d say there are two distinct paths of a “successful” worker in Spain. There’s the independent, entrepreneur model that is very similar to the American view of success. Administrative. Go-getting. Individualistic. The CEO at the company I’m currently working for very much exemplifies this type of success story. He sought an education for himself, built the company 19 years ago and he continues to run it and reap the benefits. Aside from this executive archetype, there’s also a more in-the-trenches type of success story I’ve been exposed to. To attain this level of success, you just need to do your job well for long enough to become established and respected as dependable. Some of the most respected people in my office aren’t in upper management, they’re just very good at what they do and have been good at it long enough to attain a certain status. These two types of success are largely dictated by culture. What portion is standard workplace culture versus what portion is specifically Spanish workplace culture is debatable, but either way these types of successes are dictated more by social structure and can apply across industries. In addition to these, there are some attributes of the successful people I’ve come into contact with that apply specifically to my workplace and industry.

In the information technology field (the sector I’ve been working in the past few months), there are a few things that define a successful employee. The most important is knowledge. The most successful people at my office are the ones who have such a breadth of knowledge that others frequently look to them for advice. Just as important as this knowledge is the ability to apply it efficiently and effectively. There are people at my office who know a lot but can’t always find a solution to a problem in a timely manner. Conversely, the most successful IT worker in the office can seemingly always use his knowledge to solve even the strangest of problems; and solve them quickly, even if his first, second and third solutions are unsuccessful. In IT, success boils down to whether or not you can make something work and how quickly you can make it work. Now, with an established definition of a successful IT professional in Spain, it’s time to compare that definition to the previously discussed archetype of a successful American employee.

A few things stand out to me as different between US business culture and Spanish business culture as it pertains to success. The first is the social aspect. In the US, successful people tend to be more individualistic whereas a huge part of being successful in Spain is being sociable, knowledgeable and approachable. This applies both to the successful Spanish CEO, who must be sociable with external clients, and the successful employee, who must be sociable with his/her coworkers. The social difference between the two cultures also extends into the content of socialization. A good worker in Spain gets to know his/her coworkers on a more personal level than is common in the US. In addition to the social aspect, I would say that less emphasis is placed on salary/money in Spain. People seem to be more content with having a comfortable life than as opposed to constantly striving for a bigger paycheck.

There are certainly more differences between Spanish and US culture surrounding success in the workplace. However, these two details: socialization and money were the two most prevalent in my experience. Going forward, I know that my time in Spain will give me a unique perspective as I enter the American workforce. Especially since I’m considering a career with an international side, it’s been a privilege to see first-hand what Spaniards think about success.