Tuesday, 19 November 2019

What Does Success Look Like?

What makes a 'successful' life? As I get older, this is a question I find myself pondering on a frequent basis. As an inherently self-doubting, perfection-striving individual, I have, throughout life, tended to view my 'achievements' as somehow lacking or not quite enough. The nagging suspicion that I may not have ever really fulfilled my potential - both at work and in my personal life - has in more recent years cemented into something much darker and ever present. I know I'm not alone in feeling like this - it's this sense of dissatisfaction that defines the classic mid-life crisis and makes many of us hit our mid forties heavy with the feeling that our lives may never be as 'successful' as we expected them to be.

But what if we really took the time to redefine what is meant by 'success', and looked at our lives through a much kinder and more rational lens? To start your own personal process, I recommend listening to the podcast 'How to Fail' with journalist Elizabeth Day, and more specifically the episode with philosopher Alain de Botton. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the 50 or so minutes I spent listening to this episode have made me completely reassess the concept of failure and see that failure as defined by contemporary standards hinders our ability to lead contented lives. 

Because at the heart of this episode is the celebration of the ordinary; a life lived that is ordinary and average (which is, after all, the statistical norm. Not many people actually become hugely wealthy, experts in their field, or global celebrities) is not a flawed life. It's how most of our lives will be defined. Hurrah! 

I found it hugely comforting to consider that my averageness is absolutely fine. In more recent years, where daily I've been reminded of the successes of others - the promotion splashed across Linkedin that contrasts with my own floundering career progression, the fabulous holiday afforded by those who I assume have made better career and financial decisions than me, the family member who only ever texts to share their child's latest glittering achievement - I've often felt overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness. Why are my own horizons seemingly so limited? My financial outlook so shaky? My parenting skills so ineffective? 

But rather than consider that some failure on my part has led to this, perhaps a reassessment of expectation is needed. We've become so obsessed with a one-size-fits-all guide to success in contemporary culture. It's why individuality has been stripped away from our education system which places value on a very restricted set of skills.  It's why domestic ordinariness has become stigmatised - not only must we be go-getters at work but 'living our best lives' at home too, 'acing' our love lives, raising high-achieving children and filling our weekends with sporting endeavours (extra Brownie points if you can fit in some charity work or volunteering too). 

The very lexicon we employ reinforces this idea that we must be excelling all the time, with cloying expressions like 'YOLO', 'Good Vibes Only' and 'Strong Girls Club' (yuck) splashed across our social feeds to remind us that we must never be anything less than brilliant. 

As I've got older, I've found all this exhausting. I don't doubt social media is a major contributor to fuelling unrealistic ideas about success. But, as the podcast helpfully points out, it's important to remember that, when thinking of the personal contentment of those so-say successful people all around us, their level of happiness is much more consistent with our own that we might imagine. The point is - and this is something I find hard to remember - that even the most successful CEO will have problems of their own, or be experiencing feelings of failure too (they are just likely to be 'failing' in different areas of their life to you.)

What's also helpful about this podcast is its historical framing of success through the centuries. In ancient Greece, for example, the concept of failure - played out in the myriad of Greek tragedies - was positively embraced and seen as a vehicle for making those watching more empathetic and kind to the people around them. Those tragedies were a reminder of the capricious and fragile nature of life. No matter how wealthy, successful or noble born you may be, no one is immune to how luck (or bad luck) may play out in your life.

I think this is an important point, particularly in the age of social media where influencers flog unrealistic lifestyles and present sugar-coated images that rarely reflect that true messiness and unfairness of life. We make awful judgements about ourselves based on the assumed brilliance of other people's lives, gleaned solely from pictures featured on their Instagram feed. As the recent digital misadventures of influencer Mother of Daughters attest, the lives of others are rarely as gilded as we imagine them to be.

So, what I have learnt about my own situation? Mainly to be kinder to myself and view the small moments of contentment that pepper life as valid indicators of success. To not always be striving for societal constructs of success: the amazing job, the big house, the good school, the annual skiing holiday, for example. 

To celebrate the small but often significant wins that make a life: the fact that I'm great at organising our family's holidays; that I've discovered the joy of yoga and find the discipline to practise every day; that we have a lovely home (not the biggest, or the fanciest), decorated with care and filled with our personalities; that we have raised children who may not be the most academic or gifted but who fill me with pride when I overhear them talking to other grown ups. And I think these 'little' successes are enough....

To listen to the How to Fail podcast, click here.

I also recommend this piece on marriage by Alain de Botton here.


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