Saturday, 23 April 2011

on success and why it matters

I'm going to switch into full-on essay mode for this one. Hope you don't mind.

I'll begin this train of thought by recounting a mini-breakthrough from a therapy session a few weeks back. I was frustrated by my slow progress, going on about how I know that I'm being too hard on myself, but I just can't do anything to change my way of thinking. My therapist asked me the same question he's raised several times before: what would happen if I stopped berating myself for everything? What is it that I am afraid of?

And suddenly I had the answer. I'm afraid that if I stop asking too much of myself, I will never achieve anything again.

Breaking it down, that means I choose to live the way I do, constantly berating myself, constantly being disappointed.

It means that I choose to be miserable because I'd rather be successful than be happy.

And still, I am now going to tell you this: I am sick of people telling me that success doesn't matter. 

In the fast-paced highly competitive world we live in, people are constructing dreams of a life not ruled by success, when in fact, a world like that is both impossible and frightening. Yearning for success is base-level human and trying to rid ourselves of it is a perplexing thought. 

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be successful. It is our stilted sense of success that's the problem.

Just think about it. What if being successful was measured by happiness? What if we stopped accepting awry outsider definitions of success and started building our own?

Only during the past few months have I begun to realise how immensely important success is for me. All my life I have been told by parents, teachers and friends to stop being so hard on myself. I expect a lot from myself, always have. There is nothing more embarrassing than not knowing something and there is nothing more scary than failure.

And now I'm beginning to realise that I have been chasing false dreams for eighteen years. For my entire life I have striven for approval, for intelligence, for good grades in school. I have beaten myself again and again over not being good enough, not trying hard enough. I have made my life miserable because I have been running away from failure too desperately to think about other options, other ways of life.

This is not a good way to live. This is not what I want.

Why am I accepting norms of success from society, from people who are not me? 

I am the only one to determine my own dreams. I don't need my life and my happiness to be validated by anyone except myself.

For me, success would mean, for instance, being able to read the books I want to read, study the things I want to study, go the places I want to go and surround myself with the people I love.

These are the heavyweight dreams, the important ones, the things that actually matter. These are achievable dreams and they are all my own. They are dreams that do not scare me shitless, they don't make my teeth chatter out of panic. Instead, they make me feel hopeful.

So, with the risk of sounding like a bad self-help book: close your eyes and breathe deep for a bit and think about what you want. 

And, if you are anything like me, please stop blindly pushing yourself out of fear of failure. Because, as the wonderful J.K. Rowling said in her Harvard commencement speech (which you should absolutely watch because it is one of the most powerful and inspiring things I have ever heard),

"It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default."


  1. I used to push myself for good grades and to be the accepted and expected 'successful'. It was only when this pushing gave me M.E. that I stopped (actually it was a few months after getting it) and realised that I should define my own success and happiness. Not to mention that if I kept pushing myself I could end up bed-bound.

    So reading this made me happy as I am glad you have come to this realisation by yourself and didn't have to have a life changing, permanant chronic illness to realise it (as I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy, let alone someone I like!).

  2. Thank you for such a lovely comment! I'm sorry to hear about your illness - sometimes it seems we really need drastic signs until we can slow down. (It's not easy to give yourself some slack, is it.) Thank you, once more. x

  3. This reminds me of a similar break through of my own: Last year, just before I came to Germany to be married, I discovered that I was miserable about it. I found myself crying on my sofa, in my car, in the shower, between my last few college classes...all because when I left college, left my "career path," I was going to be failing...letting everyone down.

    All my life, I've been told that the key to success (and therefore a happy life) is a university degree and a good job. None of the women in my family had the opportunity to become financially independent, so when I took my opportunity (in the form of a full scholarship) and tossed it aside (by getting married and moving away) I thought I was letting all of those women (who raised and pushed me to be better) down.

    What it took me months to realize is that the sense of failure and disappointment I was so hurt by wasn't coming from my family at all, but from myself. The ideas that I had about what constitutes success came from them, yes, but they realized that my happiness lay on a different path. I didn't understand that then.

    It wasn't until I stopped looking for permission from others to leave my safe goal of having a degree and career, and gave it to myself that I was really able to find some peace. It's such a simple idea, to cast off conventional ideas of success and happiness...but it is SO difficult to actually do.

    This post makes me very happy for you...realizing what you really want (and that it's okay to have it) is a big step toward getting it. ;)

  4. Thank you so much for commenting, Carrie.

    I think the most dangerous disappointment is the one that comes from yourself, because that is omnipresent and so hard to get over. Ceasing to demand too much from myself is turning out to be the biggest challenge I have faced so far.

    And in the end, nothing is braver than leaving the path laid out for you to find another way of being happy. I'm happy for you and hoping I'll be as brave if (or when) I face decisions like that.