Whose success is it anyway?
Success and how to achieve it has had people scratching their heads and looking over the shoulders for millennia. Enter any book shop and I’d wager that at least half the books in the self-help section will feature some mention of ‘success’ on the cover. Actually, success seems to have become a pseudonym for ‘happiness’ and the words are often used interchangeably in our society. To be successful equates to feeling fulfilled, feeling content.
Many of us blindly accept the societal norm of success – an attractive partner, children, a good career, wealth and two cars in the garage. But whose idea of ‘success’ is this? Surely, we cannot all have the same criteria for success, yet that’s the way it’s presented to us through advertising, the media, the education system. Rarely do we hear any distinction between the types of success i.e. ‘successful at work’, ‘successful in relationship’ etc. It’s all lumped together wholesale with the assumption being that we are all striving towards this somewhat generalised, ‘one size fits all’ ideal.
We just need to look around us to see the underbelly of the frantic scrabble for the ‘one size fits all’ concept of success – break downs, exhaustion, stress, ever longer working hours and transient relationships. If we all have the power to be successful and are equipped with a plethora of empowering tools to achieve success, why are we not all evolving and moving forward in accordance with the promises of these self-help tomes?
For me, the first step in being truly successful is being honest with ourselves and defining what we want, what will make us feel truly satisfied. The second is to live accordingly. Authentic success is the feeling that we have when we know we’re reaching our goals, no matter what they are. This may be a very different set of achievements than those that would inspire envy in our neighbours, our colleagues, our friends and family.
Have you ever worked really hard at something, slogged away, striven and pushed yourself to finally reach your goal only to feel a total sense of anti-climax? This happened to me after my first degree (in a subject I wasn’t passionate about). I thought my life would begin in earnest after I completed my exams. Unfortunately, even though I received a much better grade that I ever had hoped for, I felt totally deflated and cheated of the feeling of elation that I anticipated. Looking back, I can see this as a sure signal that I had met someone else’s goals and ideals, not my own.
What is it that blocks us from going after and realising our own concept of success? For many of us it’s years of conditioning. From the day we’re born we soak up our parents’ idea of success. This idea of success often comprises what they haven’t achieved in their own lives – the psychoanalyst Carl Jung put it well when he stated that nothing had a stronger influence psychologically on children than “the unlived life of the parents”. These unlived lives are projected onto us and we become the vessels into which our parents pour their own unfulfilled goals. Sometimes this is done explicitly, children are ‘groomed’ for a specific career or to attain a certain lifestyle.
Being honest with ourselves means giving up others stranglehold on our idea of success and building our own from the ground up. We need to set aside our everyday selves, the part of our self that is driven by ‘shoulds’, that is caught up with meeting other peoples’ expectations and really listen to what’s essential for us, what fulfils us. This is where therapy can be very useful. A therapist may try to help clients identify whose concept of success they are pursuing and to define their own vision of what a successful life would look like for them.
A useful exercise is to imagine yourself at 80, looking back on your life, and giving yourself advice from that older, wiser position. Write a letter to yourself as you are now from your imagined self at the age of 80. What would you tell yourself to focus on? What should you be investing your time in and what should you not be wasting it on?
This exercise helps prioritise what’s important and to gain a more holistic overview of their lives. Many of us get very attached to certain goals we have for ourselves without considering the impact that achieving those goals can have on other areas of our lives. If we can imagine what a successful life looks like from the perspective of our 80 year old (hopefully) wiser self, that’s a really good starting point.