What is success?
- What does success look like to you?
I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, success was having a good job, a house and a car. We had to work hard at school, get good results and then those would lead to a good degree and onward to that good job, preferably for life.
I went to a grammar school where success was defined in terms of grades and girls were encouraged to be successful in ‘male’ subjects and boys were offered the more traditional ‘female’ subjects. In reality, I don’t remember any having any boys in my O level Home Economics class, but we all had to do either physics or chemistry.
- What were the messages about success that you have inherited from your family, upbringing or school?
When I look back at the definitions of success I was passed down, they were all externally located; that is that success lay in achieving things outside of myself that were visible to the world.
I remember arguing with my mum in my late teens that it was possible for women to have it all. All she said was ‘you wait until you have children’.
Of course I didn’t listen but wrote her off as ‘old fashioned’ and carried on amassing the external signs of ‘success’. I got oodles of qualifications, some very dodgy cars, a house and I traveled loads. I was promoted young. I worked hard and played hard.
But then there was another pull. I started to feel broody and when I looked around the South East and compared it to where my cousins lived in Wales, I realised that if I ever did have kids, I wanted a more Enid Blyton style of childhood than I could see in the South East. So I moved to Wales.
Which, from a career point of view, was not a good move. I had a bright future at the school I was in and in moving away I took a demotion.
But I did start my PhD, volunteer at a hospice, make good friends and buy a house by a river.
So I still had some of the signs of ‘external’ success, whilst also having stepped off the promotion ladder, for what turned out to be, forever.
And then I had kids..and mum was right, everything changed. I wanted to be a good mum. I would love to have been able to be a stay at home mum but couldn’t afford to be and there was part of me which felt uncomfortable wanting that because it wasn’t in my definition of what success was.
The definition of success I had been aspiring to, didn’t include: happy relationships, great friendships, being part of a community, being a good enough parent, keeping fit, doing things that gave me meaning and purpose. Although I had most of those things in my life, at the time, I didn’t see them as part of it meant to have a successful life. I just focused on the fact that I wasn’t a ‘success’ at work because I didn’t want the promotions because I wanted to spend time with the kids. But I didn’t feel very successful as a mum either as I wasn’t doing that full time either.
I’ve blogged before about how we don’t consider parenting to be ‘productive’ and why parenting should be valued more for it’s productivity. The more I think about it, the more we need a new way of thinking about success.
I think the old way of thinking about things is based on a masculine paradigm of success based on: status and hierarchy, dominance, competition, external achievement or achievement in the world, competition, acquisition of material good, money and land, scarcity, being the best and being right. This old paradigm is dualistic: you either succeed or fail, you are right or wrong, it’s mine or yours, there is work and then there is the rest of life. The ends justify the means and above all, success is hard work which takes a long time to come so put the effort in.
I think this paradigm is broken.
We know that our mental health as a nation, especially in our children and young people is fast declining, that obesity is rising and that the gap between the haves and the have nots is widening. Globally, poverty, war, violence and disease are the life experiences of too many human beings
So I’d like to suggest a new paradigm for success:
- Instead of competition we need to connect.
- Instead of achievement how about inspiration.
- Rather than status and hierarchy – let’s collaborate.
- Instead of scarcity let’s focus on abundance; there is enough in the world if only we could share.
- Instead of domination let’s support and value each other.
- Rather than needing to be right and best wouldn’t it be lovely if we could be human and use our strengths.
- What if we didn’t need to work so hard because when you use your strengths it is a pleasure?
- If we stopped thinking about success and failure we could focus on learning and feedback.
- If we stopped trying to balance work and life we could create a life which integrates how we are productive with how we live.
- What if we stopped thinking about what is mine and what is yours, could we share?
- Rather than defining success in material and financial terms, we need to think in terms of social, environmental and emotional capital.
- What if how we did something was as important as what we are trying to do?
- What if we stopped defining success externally, but considered happiness, love and peace to be our way of thinking about success.
- Because why do we want promotions, cars, money?
We want them because we thing that when we get them we will be happy. But then we get those things and we’re still not happy.
Because happiness is an inside job.
We’ve been thinking about success the wrong way round.
‘Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful’ Albert Schweitzer
‘Don’t aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally’ David Frost
I love Alice Walker and for me this poem sums up some of what I wish for our new paradigm for success:
We alone can devalue gold
by not caring
if it falls or rises
in the marketplace.
Wherever there is gold
there is a chain, you know,
and if your chain
so much the worse
and sea-shaped stones
are all as rare.
This could be our revolution:
to love what is plentiful
as much as