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Society’s Treadmill VS. Your Definition of Success

Written by Alexandra McCarthy -Child & Adolescent Psychologist & Founder of Wildflower Holistic Services

“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards; they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so they will be happier: The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first BE who you really are, then DO what you need to do, in order to HAVE what you want” – Margaret Young

These words speak volumes to me because at the end of the day it resonates as the truth! So many of us get caught up in the momentum of life: completing a formal education, finding a high paying job, buying a house, getting married, having a family and the list continues to grow. All the while, we forget to stop and ask ourselves what do WE actually want out of life and WHO AM I?

Success is a very loaded word that has various meanings to different people and cultures worldwide. However, too often we define success based on society’s expectations or worse, by comparing ourselves to others. What is further unfortunate is that we then begin to define ourselves by the idea of success. But what really is success and what does it mean to be successful?

What I have experienced through talking to many people from a range of backgrounds is that in defining success many of us forget to ask the question: “Who am I?”. There have been several instances when I have heard individuals (myself included) defining themselves by their work title, their role within the family, relationship status, hobbies or sporting interests. However, who are you really when all this is taken away? And what does it mean to be successful when you have nothing? As morbid as it may sound, I have never heard of a eulogy whereby it stated that “John Smith*” was a successful man as he purchased a house when he was 25, wedded to Emily Smith* at age 27 and produced two children before he reached 30. John was also a very affluent man due to landing the managerial role in the leading health team at 40 and he will be dearly missed by all”. Yes, the eulogy may address your accomplishments, however not in an age-specific way. Rather the focus of the eulogy, a 21st speech or any speech which causes a moment of reflection or celebration would focus on you as the individual. At the end of the day YOU matter, not what you have achieved or accomplished.

Whilst your accolades would be addressed within any of the above speeches, the question is why would these accomplishments be highlighted? A number of you may suggest it is because they were a successful individual, it is important to mention the things that they achieved. However I ask you this: how did it come about that one achieved these things? Ultimately it comes down to YOU as an individual and what YOU have brought into this world. To be able to have finished a university degree YOU would have had to study, sit the exams and have passed. It comes down to one’s qualities such as your passion, determination, commitment and perseverance which have led you to ‘succeed’ in completing the degree. To be successful in an interview it would have come down to YOU, how you presented yourself, the way in which you articulated your responses, your strengths, and any background knowledge or expertise you would bring to the job. All of this information didn’t simply fall into your lap, rather it is due to your dedication, respect for yourself, passion for learning, possibly even mindfulness techniques that allowed you to ‘succeed’ within the interview.

Unfortunately there are still instances when we are drawn to an external concept of success and what it means to be successful, even when we attempt to refrain ourselves from society’s definition of success. It can be quite difficult at times due to the influence of social media and television shows; even particular government policies impose age brackets on a number of life events. However have you stopped and wondered whether this could be a sly ploy to condition us into discontent in particular areas of our life, such that we stay in line with social norms, consumerism and not break free or think for ourselves? Food for thought!

Let’s look at two examples here. We have an individual who graduated from university, landed a high paying job as a lawyer and moved up the corporate ladder. Yes to society, they may be viewed as successful. However unknown to others, they are extremely miserable in their job due to stress and deadlines and they have limited time participating in the things which truly make them happy. Therefore they feel they aren’t making the most out of life, rather they are just another ‘cog’ in the system. Do you think this individual feels successful? If so, what are you basing their definition of success on? Societal norms, bank cheques, a professional title? Have you considered his values? In contrast, we have another individual who has spent two years travelling the world, volunteering and working abroad to be able to stay afloat and pay the border taxes, learning and speaking the native tongue, immersing themselves in the culture and growing from their experiences. They have since returned home with no savings behind them, no job and very little financial assets, however (as cliché as it sounds) with memories which bring them joy and happiness. Do you think this individual feels successful? If so, what are you basing your definition of success on? Is it on societal norms or their personal beliefs and values?

The first individual is a common example of external success, whereby their role is largely recognised by society as being successful. This is further reinforced by the external praise of colleagues, job title and bank cheques, which could pay for a ‘fancy’ car, ‘big’ house and elaborate holidays or materialistic items. The second individual is a common example of internal success, whereby their lifestyle choices and experiences may not be recognised by society as leading to a successful life. This is further reinforced by their limited financial assets and no job, however what about the personal growth this individual may have experienced? What is the value in that? Yes, you’re right it might not land them a leading role in a corporate firm, however do you think that they are happier than the individual commonly described in the example of external success?

Realistically if we were to consider the ‘western’ societal definition of success (and look I may be making a large assumption here but), it’s super outdated! Why is it that so many individuals fear their high school reunion? Ever thought it may be due to the fact that they feel unsuccessful based on our current understanding of success? Why does it matter if we get married when we are 20, 40 or if we don’t get married at all? Does that mean we are unsuccessful in relationships? What if we only make enough money to get us by? What does that say about ourselves? Does that allude to the idea that we have had an unsuccessful career? The good news is that we are in a position where we can push the boundaries and re-evaluate success based on ourselves, and what we believe it to be.

For some of us, success is ground in popularity, power and money. For others, the focus of success is on growth and contribution. What matters most is that your definition of success is led by you – you pursue what you want to do for the right reasons, rather than something someone else is steering you towards.

Ask yourself a number of simple, yet enlightening questions.

· What does success mean to you here and now? As a result, how would you redefine success?

· How would you like to be remembered, and what can you do to be that person?

· What messages would you like to bestow upon others?

Let’s throw out society’s expectations and definition of success and redefine success based on the things that are important to us. For some struggling with mental health issues getting out of bed in the morning is a huge achievement, for others it may be paying off a credit card debt, or learning how to read and comprehend forms, despite being of an age where it is expected that they should have learnt these things. Remember that success is not a gender-specific concept, and to be successful doesn’t mean that you necessarily need to accomplish something, it’s simply based on living in alignment with what you want. Take if from the words of John Lennon, “When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down “Happy”. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.” Therefore if he died happy, he also died a success.

For me, my personal definition of success is as follows: “Success means living a life that I do not need a vacation from”. It involves creativity and authentic expression in all that I do. This means I feel successful when I have nurtured the relationships that serve me, I say ‘no’ to things which weigh me down, I explore the possibilities of all scenarios and I have a deep belly laugh at least once a day. Most importantly, I feel successful when I have cherished myself, through meditation, nourishing food, nature and physical activity.

At the end of the day, there is no right and wrong way to define success but PLEASE don’t let society’s expectations or self-comparison make you feel as if you are unsuccessful. You, my friend, have the power within to allow yourself to be the successful person YOU want to be!

*John and Emily Smith are fictional characters for the purpose of this blog piece

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