What does success really mean?

It’s an odd word, success. Look it up in the dictionary and you’ll find success described as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose”. Now, factually, I believe that. I agree. But dig a level deeper behind that definition and I see that, actually, there’s a whole load of other meanings, thoughts — an entire system of mistruths — attached to that very word, that I’d assumed were connected. And those perceived demands were crippling me.

Here’s what it looks like? 

My old definition of success:

  1. Filling every waking moment with productive, goal-orientated tasks. Often work-related but also stretching to exercise and courses in my spare time to fuel my “I’m good enough, believe me” vibe.
  2. Getting good grades and a good education 
  3. Getting a professional sounding and looking job
  4. Money. If I am able to have extra money for saving and fun, that’s successful
  5. Staying busy. ALL. THE. TIME
  6. Making people happy (often at my own expense)
  7. Not taking the time to think about anything that might give me a little clue as to why I’m so obsessed with ‘success’
  8. People like success. (Somehow that got translated in my head as people only like you, specifically you, if you match a narrow definition of success).

Does any of this sound familiar?

Why do I think this?! You may have your own story playing away daily, providing a minute-by-minute account of everything you know not to be true (although that instinct may be buried deep, deep down!) Who told us these things? Do we believe really? There are those deep, deep emotions again, screaming at us to take note.

This is what success was to me. So concrete and embedded into my thoughts, behaviours, feelings and the severe level of discomfort when trying to challenge them, that I didn’t stop to think whether they were good for me. Whether they were building me up me or destroying me. That is, until a crisis of tragedy, utter disbelief and on a scale of genuine global magnitude, forced me to take an unequivocal level of reflection and introspection.

Did this version of success make me happy? Honestly? Well, no. These thoughts and actions, in their obsessive over-the-top, all-consuming and 24/7 nature did not bring me joy or relief. The opposite in fact. They were insatiable monsters that gnawed at me until they were fed. Living up to some ideal of success was an addiction you could say. 

As none of these pressures did it for me, the next question was then: What actually brings me joy? So, here’s my new definition of success. It’s very much a work in progress. I am very much a work in progress. I’m still trying to understand and be very honest about what aspects of my old version of success I’m still struggling to let go of. And more importantly, uncover why. But I feel much healthier for it. 

For me, success is about taking time to really connect (virtually at the moment) with my friends, to give myself the permission to do nothing, to listen to my intuition, to feel as if I’m part of something, that I’m contributing, to have a safe and loving home, to have someone that makes me smile, to have freedom, to have flexibility, to have control over my life, to be authentic. To get closer to me. To bridge the gap between who I think people want me to be and who I really am. To not be afraid to have open, honest and deep conversations — and knowing and being okay with the fact that these may (most probably will) be hard. Be honest about what I can and cannot do, and what I’m comfortable with. 

What success looks like now:

  1. To keep learning. To ask questions about the world, life and the people in it. To understand. To be kinder. To listen to other’s perspectives and to be the best person I can be.
  2. Prioritising my mental and physical health first. Now, I walk every day. There are several similarities between myself and a labrador but one of them is definitely my inability to sit still for too long. My number one sentence at the moment is: “I need to walk, I’m getting irritable/twitchy!”
  3. Following passions. I’m doing courses I’m genuinely interested in that have nothing to do with my work (for now!). Like in September 2019, I auditioned, got in and enrolled on an eight-month foundation course in musical theatre. Was I writing about musical theatre for an article? Hoping to move into that sector for my business? Nope and nope. It was simply because as a child, I loved to sing, dance and act. It’s when I felt most alive and myself. I wanted to see if that childhood love was the same at 30 years old. Spoiler, not quite  —  it was much harder work (more on that later!) — but I felt free, happy and energised. It’s stirred positive emotions in me that I want to keep uncovering. 
  4. Do more of what I love, as much as possible. To devote my time and energy into those things that help others and have meaning. That reflect my real values and my real self. To feel part of something. The job thing has been the hardest for me, for sure. And it didn’t even stop when I went self-employed in 2015. Family, society and other folk in networking meetings had a powerful effect on what I deemed to be successful. I let others dictate to me what it was and how I should be. Not maliciously I’m pointing out, but somewhere in what they said translated as: “You will be liked if you do it this way!”, “you can’t do it your way!” , “people don’t do that!”, “this will make me happy!” and “this will make me love you!”. And in my deep-rooted need to people please, I listened. I gave up on my own whimpering and whispering voice. I gave in to the noise. But now I feel I’m getting somewhere. I listen to my intuition. How comfortable or uncomfortable does a decision make me? I’m not seriously wise owl can I add — I got here after losing 90% of my work and being forced to sit back, press reset and re-evaluate. Oh, and a vision board is not a bad shout either. 
  5. Time is the most precious commodity. You can’t get it back. I’m trying to remember that when I exchange too much of it, in favour of money. Do I want to be time affluent or money affluent? Well, according to scientists, time affluent, for sure. I’m now agreeing!
  6. The busyness part of me has forced me into deteriorating mental health and increasing stress levels for years. Stay busy and you won’t think. As we pass the 100-day point of lockdown in the UK, as much as I’ve tried to distract myself with walking, painting, chatting to friends and quizzing, it’s undoubtedly for a person with limited work and no social activities, a time to think and move beyond my busyness. Have I cracked it? Only time will tell. But I do now know the necessity of resting, relaxing, sleeping, exercising and having dedicated downtime.
  7. Listening to my gut (and not just when I’m hungry or hangry) to really understand how comfortable I feel with the decisions I make. We all have social niceties, obligations and meetings we have to attend — how much of my life does this make up? Asking whether I’m doing this at the expense of my own health and happiness is a big step.
  8. Taking time to do nothing. Self care, self heal and self reflect. And take time to be creative. I fill time. But what am I filling it with? Are they healthier habits than before? I think so. It’s gradual and inconsistent, but better than nothing. It’s all progression.
  9. Friends love you for you. Family love you for you. Make time for these people. They are the priority.

Ultimately, I’m learning that success is a personal thing. And defining success for yourself is liberating, empowering and enriching. It tells the world, I will not be disrupted or stopped by you. 

Here’s to living your most successful life, whatever that means to you!