As a topic, success can quickly become fertile ground for clichés and rote answers. There just isn’t one type of success that everyone subscribes to. So much so, that there is even a campaign rallying to get a major dictionary to change their definition of the word.
Traditionally notions of success have been linked closely to wealth and career, though now it seems the cultural spotlight seems to be shifting more towards a whole life version – one encapsulating things that are more difficult to measure than money like happiness, freedom and time. Many who have pursued the traditional version of success and discovered that it didn’t give them the freedom nor fulfilment they had longed for have begun to question its essence and sought out alternatives… or is it that they’ve just become arrogant and rich and have decided not to care? It’s unclear.
Success has nonetheless gone rogue. To instagrammers and tweeters the world over the digital nomad who is tripping the light fantastic, travelling the world, reporting it on online with a social media and web-business-enabled un-tethering to the norm, has become the benchmark. Hardly surprising when you compare sitting be-suited at a desk in a city high rise with laying on a beach in south America eating lobsters (true story – see more about my friends Rach and Gary and their adventures here).
More than 20 years ago, after growing up in the shoulder-padded and sisters-doin’-it-for-themselves 80s, I was thrilled to be accepted into a respected business school. I lasted three short months of driving across town and sitting in accountancy lectures crying into my cheap cafeteria coffee. My soul cried out. I left and re-entered university the following year to study psychology and history as part of an arts degree. They were my people. They were not all about money and traditional notions of success. Critical thinking, actively questioning the status quo, these were our way – and none of the things that large corporate structures really encourage too much, particularly in junior roles.
In the years to come I went from working in public relations (smuggly earning more than my friends at the time), to independent filmmaking (including a brief stint on the set of Star Wars), to office administration, to legal word processing for top 5 legal firms, and back again to working in community and arts organisations. Eventually I studied to be a builder, a teacher and a permaculture designer and then finally realised that I had to work for myself to find a role that could really value all I had to offer. None of these jobs were considered really ‘successful’ (except maybe the Star Wars one in some circles).
Through it all I maintained a close relationship with my son whilst bringing him up as a single parent. In fact I even quit a job with quite good career prospects in construction when he started school because I just couldn’t bear dropping my little 5 year old darling off at before school care from 7 in the morning till 6 at night during his first few weeks in big school. His little face was so poignant….. I just couldn’t do it.
In my opinion, THAT was me choosing success. I chose success as a parent, as a mother, as a person. I decided that the money and the opportunity were not as important to me as him and his experience of starting school. My relationship with my son trumped it all.
Since that time I’ve made decisions that meant I could prioritise things differently. I’m now married with two kids and another coming along shortly and life is very different to the working/studying/mothering on my own life. Still it was back then that I changed things to value my relationships and the quality of my life over the money and career I could have pursued. I feel proud of this rather than ashamed that I am not conventionally career-successful. I have ditched the shame for a better life.
I often have this conversation with other parents who stay at home, or people who have chosen to work part time, about why we make that choice. I’m by no means judging anyone who doesn’t, the point I’m making is we define our own success.
For me it means having space and time for my kids, for my soul, for my calling. It means being able to be there for the people I care about as much as possible, and also be there for myself in that deeper way. Yes, I am financially dependent. No, I am not ashamed of that. I am choosing it and incredibly grateful for the privileged position I am in to have that choice. I’m not going to gush, but anyone who knows my history also knows that things have not always been this way for me so I don’t take it lightly.
My question for you dear reader is what small choices can you make in your life today to honour your heart and soul, the people you love, the life that would be a true success for you? For where your attention goes, energy flows. So I say, find your version of success and live it in any way you can.