Success: are we there yet?
Lisa Fraser argues that success is always a journey and never a final destination. And we are more successful, the more we share our success.
Scrolling through social media the other day, I had the bizarre experience of seeing photos of my old university friends, some with a swarm of children, others with important-sounding job titles, or cosy houses, or enjoying breath-taking holidays on the other side of the planet (even in a summer of Covid!). Suddenly, I stopped, wondering: why am I not like them? Where did I fail?
Instead of rejoicing for my friends, I was feeling anxious and somehow ‘inadequate’. It made me think about what we mean by ‘success’.
I forced myself to stop scrolling: would I want to be on the other side of the world right now? No: this year, I chose to go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, here in England, and I had been rejoicing at this prospect until a few minutes ago! Would I be happier if I had children? No: I chose to dedicate my time to volunteering, which was filling me with joy.
It dawned on me that there is no single definition of ‘success’: something is a ‘success’ when I decide it is, because it feels right to me – to my body, my soul and my hopes. In the end, It’s not the stories I tell my friends which count. What really matters is how I feel about my own life. And I’m the only one who knows that.
As I questioned my initial frustrations, I became more aware that I was not where I was by mistake: my ‘here and now’ was the fruit of a long series of conscious decisions, making the best of the opportunities that life had given me. I realised I was more in control of my life than I had previously thought. In a small way, I felt empowered, and it consoled me.
I asked myself: what brings me true joy? I’m not talking about fun and excitement. I’m talking rather about a sense of fulfilment, inner peace and consolation. And if I push further in this direction: where will that lead me in five years’ time? Who do I want to be by then?
We often think about these questions when we are in our teens – rightly so. Actually, we should continue to have this inner discussion at all ages, to make sure that every day we make the decisions that help us go in the right direction.
We use roadmaps when we travel – maybe we need to do the same in our journey through our own life? In our professional lives we are familiar with the idea of drawing up a ‘mission statement’, and that idea can be usefully transferred into the private realm – a few lines saying what fulfils us, and where we want to go with our life. This mission statement can become a sort of personal roadmap. We can use it as guidance, as a measure to assess our progress, and a source of comfort when we start doubting ourselves: am I focusing on the goal that is unique to me?
Remaining focused is challenging when the journey from where we are to where we want to be feels so long. It is easy to be dispirited when looking around: why have my friends arrived ‘somewhere’, and I’m not ‘there’ yet?
When I feel that way, looking back helps me put life in perspective. Where was I five years ago? Have I made progress in areas that were dear to me? Success is not innate. It is true that some people were born and brought up in more favourable environments. But for most of us, it is a constant struggle, and that’s normal. The most important thing is not to give up: as long as we keep struggling, wrestling, fighting, it means we are moving forward.
It is also reassuring to recall often that the journey feels long because our life goals keep moving. We will never really ‘arrive’ at a place where success is secure once and for all. For instance, when I was a teenager, having my own bedroom was my wildest dream; as a young adult, I wanted to own a flat; in the future, I will surely want a house.
We shouldn’t wait for the ‘Big Day: when we will ‘arrive’, put down our luggage, and have a long rest. That day will never come, and there would be something wrong if it did! We will always want better – it’s part of human nature, we are hopeful that both life and we can be better. Being hopeful is a great gift… so long as we are also able to enjoy the ‘here and now’.
I’ve come to see that there is no finishing line in daily life, because ‘success’ is a journey not a destination.
I must take time to look back, like looking at a photo album, and feel grateful for the good experiences I’ve had. I must make time to look at the landscape that is being offered to me right now, because this is where my efforts have led me so far, and I deserve to enjoy it.
At the same time, it’s useful to think about the roadmap and the goals I’m aiming at. Success is about rejoicing over the small victories one has achieved, enjoying the gifts of the present day, and being hopeful about the things one can still achieve in the future.
“What will I achieve?” This question reminds me of the first thing children asks their parents when they fasten their seatbelt after getting into a car: “Where are we going?” Actually, growing up teaches us that an equally important question is: “How will I get there?” I can picture the beautiful sand beach, and yes, it will be there for me. However, it’s up to me to learn how to drive, get a car… and actually reach my destination.
One of my university friends has become an ambassador. Impressive, isn’t it? How did he arrive there? He made sacrifices: he studied a rare language for five years in his spare time; he dedicated his weekends to study and exams; he declined invitations to most parties for a few years.
These sacrifices seem excruciating to me. But thinking about it, I also made sacrifices; I said no to parties too, I took night classes, and I went through intense public speaking training, because I had a higher goal: I knew that giving public talks would help me thrive.
Love requires sacrifice – that was a price I was willing to pay because I was journeying towards a place that I believed would bring joy – to myself and others.
It is useful to make a regular examination of conscience and to fix goals … we should compare where we are now with where we want to be, and ask:
“What qualities and skills do I need to move in that direction? How can I develop these?”
And then … go for it!
Do you know what all the people we regard as ‘successful’ have in common? One day, they spotted an opportunity, and they said yes to it.
Life will not wait for us to be ready. If we wait to be ready to apply to a job – by the time we get round to it, the vacancy will be filled. If we wait until we have a good wage and a ‘perfect beach body’ to talk to the person of our dreams – by the time we get round to it, they will be dating someone else.
The ability to grab the opportunities – carpe diem, as the ancients put it – based on awareness of what is right for us, is critical. The fundamental question to ask ourselves when considering an opportunity is: in the longer term, will it bring me and others greater fulfilment? If so – go for it, apply, say yes, or make the first step.
We will have the stamina to keep going; we will find the inner resources to develop new skills; we will meet people on the way who will raise us up. It’s amazing how much and how quickly we can learn when we say yes to something that is right for us.
There is one other facet to success that we need to master if we are to truly enjoy its fruits. We need to learn to enjoy it not only in ourselves, but also in others.
When I was comparing myself to my friends and feeling I was ‘inadequate’, I wondered why I wasn’t able to rejoice for them and with them. I came to realise that their joy was not depriving me of anything: my essential self and my skills remained real, unthreatened. But I hesitated …
I came to the conclusion that success is not a pie that diminishes when people eat it. Success is rather like the sun: it is here for all of us to enjoy without competing, because it is good and infinite. What do we do when the sun appears? We rush to the park, or to the beach, we call our friends, and we sit together. Success is the same: it is better when we share it with other people.
What can we share if we don’t feel hugely successful? One option is to wait until we become millionaires – but we know that is unlikely to happen. The other option is to start sharing today the few resources we have. Counting our blessings at the end of each day can help us see that we all have something to share.
Likewise, looking back in time can be an eye-opener: what did I have (not just in material terms) five years ago, and what more do I have today? It could be business experience, a good network, new skills, or just a living room where I can invite friends for a glass of wine.
We may feel ‘inadequate’, but, looking around, we will always find someone who has less than us. And focusing on sharing what we’ve built and collected along the way will be our best source of comfort.
No, we’re not there yet, but we’re certainly further along the way. And not to give up and to keep on trying is already a form of success – much more perhaps than we might realise.
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