Maggie Gilewicz, PhD*
What would you tell me if I asked you what success is, generally, and what it specifically means to you? I have never met anyone who would not want to be successful in something! But I rarely meet people who ask themselves what success means to them and why do they want to be successful. These questions sound easy and the answers appear to be obvious, yet our attempts to answer them often become difficult, in particular the more we are willing to dig deep and the more we chose to be honest with ourselves.
It took me at least 3 years of conversations with various people, many interactions, hours and hours of coaching sessions with others, and 100s of books I read when something really hit me! I realized there are obviously many reasons why we feel frustrated, stressed, scared or anxious yet the whole success business is one of the major reasons we feel this way.
Regardless of the culture or society we live in, the success industry (no I don’t know whose behind it, which makes it even more surreal) had long constructed the image of what it means to be successful. This image involves certain criteria and while I could probably write a couple of pages on what they are, in general terms they come down to two things: material possessions and social status/fame.
And so we are considered successful if we have a certain job preferably by a certain age, we have a certain house and a car (and please not just any! Of course!), we dress a certain way (brands), we hang out with certain people; we go to certain restaurants and attend certain events. I could go on. I say certain because it varies depending on where we come from. I am sure you can fill in the blanks depending on where you are.
*Now, on a side note; I want to make it clear that I don’t consider material possessions or high social status as some sort of enemies! Absolutely not! These are not an issue per se, it is our motives and reasons why we want both that are worth questioning?
The success industry affects us in ways we are not even aware of and it often begins in our families and depends on how we are brought up. Our parents, naturally, want the best for us. They want us to be successful, have good jobs and financial security. In the best case scenario, our parents observe us, look out for our natural talents and passions and help us nurture them. Being brought up this way, it is much more likely that our life choices and career choices will be based on what we truly love doing rather than on what we should be doing. The financial criteria are secondary. It is all about following our passion and using our natural gifts.
In the worst case scenario, our families expect us to choose certain jobs or we end up choosing jobs which we don’t really want, but our desire to please parents and be accepted by them are stronger than the courage to follow our own path. Then we find ourselves struggling and we wonder why. Too busy to meet the expectations, too preoccupied to please others and keep up with demands (now also cultural and social) we end up stressed and exhausted, depressed and anxious…often convinced that there is something wrong with us. We are achieving goal after goal, which makes us feel temporarily satisfied on the outside but empty on the inside. And then we begin to compare ourselves to others, to those who at least on the outside we perceive as successful, as those who have made it. And again and again we realise we don’t do enough or have enough! It’s exhausting!
I, who consider myself independent of other peoples’ opinions, open-minded, aware and following my own path, had to face the truth when I realised to what extent, unintentionally I was comparing myself to those in my age group who seemed to have their life ‘sorted’, who had stable jobs and regular income, certain stuff etc. Not only that. I was shocked when I realised how much, despite of my independence, I wanted to please my family through my achievements, things I did, people I met etc.
Oh yes, it was a painful realisation! And yet, very sobering a one! This quote by Prof Richard E. Shell became my regular reminder that: ‘when everyone around you agrees on what success means, it is all too easy to join them. And if you allow others to define your goals for you, then there is a pretty good chance you will end up holding a prize you did not choose and do not want’.
This success industry far too often rules our lives and we’re not even aware of it. It influences how we think about others and more importantly how we think about ourselves. It emphasises the constant need to do more and have more. And it is crazy, that those who have courage to question the status quo, those who reject the idea that someone will decide for them whether they are successful or not, who chose and pursue their own path despite of the criticism and even rejection by others are often said to ‘have lost it’. And when they talk about their biggest goal being to know who they really are and have courage to show it they are accused of living in a ‘woowoo’ land’.So before you catch yourself thinking that you are not enough, have enough or do enough. Before you begin to think how dissatisfied you are with your life. Before you call a therapist, reach for another self-help book, a drink or drug take some time and ask yourself:
- Is the success industry influencing the way I think about myself and others and if yes then how, in what areas and to what extent?
- If there was no pressure to be successful how would I feel about myself and my life?
- What success means to me?
It certainly takes courage to live the way you want to live, to do your own thing and be OK with it despite the criticism or even rejection of others. But then what’s the alternative and how does it look to you? The New Year just kicked off. Dear Alochonaa reader, what will you choose? I choose to be courageous no matter how scary it is, because to me the alternative looks rather miserable.
*Dr. Maggie Writes from London. She is a political scientist, sociologist, teacher and transformative coach. While she is still passionate about her academic interests, currently her work focuses on writing, teaching, speaking and coaching. Her mission is to encourage, assist and inspire everyone to question the status quo, to live however they want to live and be whoever they want to be, fearlessly.