How do societal definitions of success underpin collective decisions and our personal definitions of success, and how could the process of consciously redefining success for ourselves effect personal and collective positive change?
Sixteen years ago I looked successful: I was earning great money, working on big projects with a great team of people and was partying hard. But I was not happy. I had loved studying architecture and I believed in my capacity to create beautiful buildings that respected the earth, but I had found myself in a place where my work was only helping developers green wash for marketing purposes and get richer on schemes that made no sense in a more beautiful future that I imagined was possible. I was working 80–90 hours per week, unsurprisingly my relationship was falling apart, I was constantly stressed and I really didn’t like who I was. I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do and I realised that I wasn’t sure what it was that I did want, or who I even was.
So I decided to change my life: I did a masters degree, became single, changed jobs and we sold our house. I took time off completely and decided to explore what really mattered: through a deep dive into meditation, yoga, conscious dance, my own creativity, including exploring and learning about, intentional and indigenous communities and permaculture, all the time listening and trusting in my heart. I had no idea what my destination was but the words: create, inspire, transform guided me for many years.
Through all of this, my head and my heart were conflicted: I was following my passion and loved the freedom of it all, but I perceived myself as a failure. I had walked away from a really good career and now I didn’t have a functioning business, I wasn’t designing beautiful award winning buildings and I didn’t even have a home. I had no big love in my life or a family and I didn’t know how to be happy without the things I thought defined my success.
I was trying to move forward while looking back; pining for the prestige and very clear definition of success my old life offered: an architect, a homeowner, a wife and a mother. It took me years to realise that I wasn’t moving forward because I didn’t have a clear definition of success for this new path I had set off on; my old definition was like a anchor keeping me tethered.
Like shedding a skin I am finally in the process of letting go of the old and have been re-assessing my path, appreciating where I am and understanding that redefining success can be a creative process: it can be terrifying and vulnerable, a place of not-knowing and equally, liberating, inspiring, a part of our naturally changing and evolving life-process and worthy of our attention, patience and courage.
This process has been teaching me about the creative landscape of this type of change and how it has important ripple effects in our interconnected lives.
1 WHO defines your success?
What is success and who is determining it? The US Merriam-Webster dictionary defines success as “the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect or fame”. This definition permeates most of the business world, advertising, social media and education. Advertising tells us that success looks like the freedom to have what you want when you want it. With this definition percolating into all of life how can we be sure that our definition of success is really our own and how we can effect real change in the world if our collective definitions of success are based on out-dated and colonial ideas of prestige, wealth, power and status?
So the first step is to take a radical look at your own definition of success: follow it back to its roots and see where it comes from. If your definition of success is determined by forces outside of you, they will change over time, your sense of success will always be fleeting and it will cause misery as you continue to fall short.
If we want to change the external definitions we need to start on a personal level and live them in our lives: your definition of success needs to be an inside job.
To create change in our world we need to change on a personal level first. And this is not an easy step: this one might be the hardest because it can feel that we are going against the grain and maybe losing our identity, social circles and social status along the way.
Recognising our disconnect between what we are doing and who and what we really want to be can bring up shame, defensiveness and fear; it did for me. And it can take a lot of courage to do things differently to members of our family and peers; it can be a lonely place when you change direction and travel along an unfamiliar path. But I believe we learn to find our pace and our authentic way forward, and in honouring our unique journey we find our place in the order of interconnected things.
In redefining success we can find our courage, our unique voice and learn that we still belong.
2 Re-define failure
Failure is a strange byproduct of the value our society places on competition and winning. The truth is that the only failure is the failure to try, and even then it holds potential as a lesson for future endeavours. In order to redefine success we need to redefine our failures.
Success isn’t a line in the sand or a destination, but is about taking one step at a time on our journey. Looking back there is no failure; every step you have taken in you life has led you here and this is living, this is success.
One of my great life teachers is practicing watercolour painting and in particular the mistakes that naturally arise. Sometimes my ink pen leaks or I loose my favourite paintbrush or I put the paintbrush in the black ink pot by mistake. I’ve learned to stop when one of these ‘mistakes’ happen, to breathe, observe and let myself embrace a new direction. My paintings are fluid and dynamic and I usually have an idea where they are going, but I don’t know I’m finished until I feel it. I’ve learned to embrace the mistakes; to see them as a gift, mostly. Its an on-going relationship. The unexpected, failures and mishaps will happen: I am not in control, thankfully, because I wouldn’t have the freedom to explore as much if I was!
You can look back at your life experiences with an open heart, with the kindness and curiosity of a wise elder, and try opening to the idea that the mistakes and the failure may have been blessings in disguise. I remember reading a quote from the Buddha that said something like: in the present moment we can even change the past. This has stayed with me over years and remains a kind reminder as I realise that our perspective and memories of the past can indeed change as we change.
3 WHY do you do what you do?
I’ve been wondering about why I do what I do and what the values are that under pin my definition of success? I’ve been checking out what people tend to say when asked about their definition of success: many people say success about being happy. Happiness is a wonderful goal and I don’t know of people who don’t want it, and so my questions are: what is it that makes you happy and why? What do you value and why? Why do you do what you do?
A good way to understand your values is to think about times you feel happy and proud of yourself. What things feel fulfilling and satisfying? What gives your life meaning? Our values are mostly stable but they can change through out our lives.
I wonder how this question of ‘why’ could effect the longer term thinking of companies, corporations and governments. Imagine if there wasn’t a disparity between personal and business definitions of success? Imagine if we brought our personal values into the offices, factories, boardrooms and how we run our businesses and governments?
4 WHAT and HOW
It is a privilege to be able to consider our futures as children and young adults. Millions in our world don’t get to make a decision about their future so its definitely another freedom we can hold with much appreciation. Growing up we formulate goals, based on expectations, passions, role-models and necessity and the approach evolves from one generation to the next.
My niece was sitting at the kitchen table drawing one day a few years ago (she was, and still is, an prolific producer of craft). Looking at her painting one day, without thinking much I asked her: “Do you want to be an artist when you grow up?” She looked at me as only a six year old can; as if I was a bit thick, and responded matter of factly: “…..I already am one”.
What a fantastic answer! It got me to totally rethink and reframe this silly ‘adult question’! My question to my nieces and nephews evolved to be a bit of a creative game. From then on my question became: what things would you combine together to create your ideal work? One of my nephews responded once by saying that he’d combine cooking, travelling and dinosaurs, so he could become a travelling archaeologist that explores the history and foods of different countries. How gorgeous! I LOVE children’s goals and dreams: they are so filled with heart, possibility and creativity and they tend to hold them lightly and yet with great passion!
I am learning that how I define success is less about achieving the goals that I set for myself (although they are important as a focus) and more about how we relate to our goals, how we engage in our journey, how we take care of ourselves and others along the way and how we learn to appreciate the landing places along the way. I believe the journey requires less effort when I am kinder to myself, appreciating the stops along the way and recognising the unexpected gifts in the mistakes.
5 GET BUSY LIVING
To get comfortable with life I believe that we need to let ourselves learn how to relate with the inevitability of our death. Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, in her book ‘The top 5 regrets of the dying’ listed:
- I wish I’d had he courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
- I wish I had let myself be happier.
The more we can accept the fact that our death is inevitable I believe the more precious life becomes: the sweeter the scents, the more heart felt the joy, the more valuable our loved ones, the more magical the creativity and the more engageable the change.
Exercises I have done to get my head, hands and heart around this include: asking myself what ‘a life well lived’ looks like and imagining looking back from my death at what my epitaph might be.
You can be hugely successful and not feel like you’re making any meaningful difference and you can be making a meaningful difference and not fit any definition of success that exists in our society.
Getting clear on your definition of success is important for our own internal change: this can root us in our work and support us in creating change in the world. We learn to walk our talk and live by demonstration; showing that change can be powerful and positive.
Redefining success can align us with our values and our true calling in life. Using our creativity we can engage in this redefinition with an open mind and heart, listening to the calls to action and finding steadiness in the moments of not knowing.
Redefining success takes courage and leaps of faith, maybe going against the grain and daring to do things differently.
Redefining success is not always an easy comfortable or clear-cut process and it doesn’t necessarily come with financial rewards. So why do it? Do it because you believe you’re here to explore and be all that you can be, because you believe that great positive change is possible.
My definition of success is doing work that supports people to create positive change, and to leave a better world for our next generations.
Is your definition of success serving you?
And exercise you can try:
- Set yourself some quiet time, if you can, and think about what your definition of success is. How does it relate to money, your home, your relationship, work ethic, your career, your contribution, your role as a parent/friend/guardian, status etc. Write this clearly for yourself.
- Connect with the things that spark joy and a sense of fulfilment in your life: the activities, places, people, ideas etc. Let yourself feel that sense in your body and notice what images, words, colours, sensations come up. You could explore through meditation, writing, painting, drawing, discussing with a friend, playing music, gardening..
- Once you feel clear on this get notice if your definition of success is leading you to this kind of joy? Let yourself see and feel how your definition is truly serving you. If it’s not, or not quite, how might you redefine it to align more with what does?
This enquiry could be something you do monthly or annually to allow for incremental change or it could be a simple support and confirmation that you exactly where you want to be.