When you hear the word success, what springs to mind for you?
Is it big houses and fancy cars? Is it someone who is at the top of their game professionally? Is it Olympic athletes or world class lawyers? Is it achieving lofty goals or travelling the world?
When I first graduated from uni, I had a very clear picture of what success meant to me. I thought about success almost like a checklist – get promoted, have a nice car, buy my own house, go on three holidays a year to exotic destinations, etc etc. The list went on and on – marry a nice bloke, have a couple of perfectly behaved children, buy a bigger house, keep climbing the career ladder.
I quickly got myself started on this path to “success”. I got the great graduate job and was promoted three times within two years, to a position that saw me managing my own team and travelling internationally on business at the age of 24. I bought myself a sort of fancy car and a designer handbag and took myself on lots of lovely holidays. My boyfriend and I started saving for a house deposit and were thinking about where we might like to settle down. To the outside world, it must have seemed like everything was going pretty swimmingly.
And yet, I didn’t feel remotely successful. I felt like a fraud at work, constantly worried that somebody was about to pull the carpet from under me (I now recognise this as imposter syndrome which I could write a whole other essay about). I found myself sitting on the sofa and crying for absolutely no reason a lot. I tangled myself in worry, always keeping an eye on what everyone was up to and worrying that I was the least successful of my friends. So much of my early twenties was plagued with this anxiety, so scared about making the wrong decision that I didn’t make any at all.
I realise now that I felt this way because I saw success as something that had to be validated by other people. I was constantly chasing the things I thought I should be doing in order to look successful to the outside world, rather than focussing on the things that were most important to me.
Since then, I’ve redefined my idea of success. It’s no longer about earning lots of money or having a fancy job title. Success for me these days is rooted in the simpler stuff. I feel successful because I get to do something I love every day. I feel successful because I have finally found an outlet for my creativity. I feel successful when friends or family tell me that I’ve helped them in some way. I feel successful on those rare weeks where I manage to strike a balance between work and life and fun.
I know that my idea of success is not the same as everybody else’s and that’s totally fine with me. A couple of years ago I would have cringed at the thought of someone looking at my life and deeming me unsuccessful, but these days I have enough confidence to value my own opinion over anybody else’s. We’re all different people, so it would be totally weird for us all to spend our lives chasing the same goals and ambitions, wouldn’t it?
The funny thing is, now that I’m clear on my own vision of success and have shaped my life around trying to achieve the things that are most important to me, I seem to get a hell of a lot more done. I think it’s because the stuff that you end up being most ~successful~ at is usually the stuff that you’re really bloody passionate about.
So this week, whenever you get that sinking feeling and find yourself comparing yourself to everyone else, stop. Think about what is most important to you, about what will make you feel great rather than just appear more impressive to other people. I promise you that not only will it make you feel better, but it will stop you wasting a load of time trying to achieve things you don’t even want.
This essay first appeared in my newsletter, The Weekly Pep Talk, which you can sign up to here.