August 19, 2018

Redefining Success

This column was first published in Courier Magazine.

I often wonder if my natural topics of interest are too ‘millennial’. To combat this, I’ve developed a social filter – don’t be too much of millennial cliché when speaking in public – as I don’t want to feed my generation’s stereotypes: entitled, selfish, anxious, rebellious. But one topic that’s truly cross-generational is the idea of success.

It’s such a personal and broad thing, yet we’ve all been fed one often-perpetuated dictionary definition: the attainment of fame, wealth or social status. This feels incredibly dated. In an era of Instagram highlight reels, it’s never a good thing to copy someone else’s idea of success and paste it into our own lives.

But there’s a big shift going on. We’re finally discussing new definitions of what success means to us individually, and many of us are waking up to what we want from our squiggly, non-linear paths.

Public relations founder Sabine Zetteler spoke about her definitions of business success on the radio show In Good Company: working with people you really like, believing in what you do, and slow and steady growth. As she says: ‘I’d gladly do this forever. I’m not in any hurry. If I can pay my rent and I can pay my bills and I can pay my team and I can sleep really well because I don’t feel like I’ve not cut any corners anywhere, then brilliant.’

I’ve been thinking about that ‘slow and steady’ bit a lot. Success is not always about quick scale or huge growth. Sometimes, staying more agile can reap incredible rewards, too. Being empowered is about choosing your own path based on equal opportunity. It’s definitely not forcing yourself to be ambitious in the wrong way just to look ‘good’ on paper (or social media.)

If you Google the phrase ‘confidence crisis’, 435 million search results come up. This crisis seems to be coming from the idea that we must succeed, and we must do it straight way. The thing about social media is that fast wins are validated and rewarded in a way that feels instantly good. We get quick hits of dopamine. But our careers are long. True success for me means some sort of longevity — will I still be working in an industry I love in 20 or 30 years?

In an era of Instagram highlight reels, it’s never a good thing to copy someone else’s idea of success and paste it into our own lives.”

Side-hustles have become a national past-time and GoDaddy research says we’re earning an extra £500 to £5,000 per month from them. But in order to launch the side-hustles we’ve always wanted, we need to let go of this old-school concept of success. For something to start small and simply get started, it matters that we don’t self-sabotage or put ourselves off it straight away.

The rapper Cardi B recently said on a radio show: ‘Nowadays, people are like “Oh yeah, well your record didn’t hit top 10.” I don’t care, I think it was a good song, what’s the problem?’ This is another problem about social media culture: we’ve become obsessed with numbers. Numbers matter, but they shouldn’t distract us from doing good, meaningful, long-lasting work.

High-powered individuals are embracing a slower, more fulfilled life, too. On the podcast Happy Place, which discusses careers and mental health, Alexandra Schulman and Fearne Cotton discuss how much they despise the dreaded ‘What do you do?’ question after leaving their big jobs (Fearne, a BBC radio DJ; Alexandra, the former editor of Vogue). How does it feel once you leave? Alexandra replies: ‘I don’t feel fearful… Feeling trapped is one of the worst things.’ This ties in with new LinkedIn research that 96% of professionals really don’t care about getting that cushy corner office.

When we talk about defining measures of success, it’s also extremely exhilarating to see women talk openly about money and wanting lots of it. Finding purpose and value doesn’t mean you don’t care about money. For so long we’ve been told to choose between the two: be ‘fulfilled’ or get rich. But of course, you can want (and achieve) both.

Reading Forbes’ annual ‘The World’s Billionaires’ rankings, you’ll discover less than 12% of billionaires are women and almost three-quarters of them inherited their wealth. This sadly proves that there is still huge confidence and opportunity gap out there for women. Money can absolutely be a measure of success, if you want it to be. We need more women like Jessica Knoll who wrote the piece I Want To Be Rich And I’m Not Sorry for the New York Times. We need more rich women.

We should seek out all the different variations of personal success and pick and choose our own, like a Build-A-Bear workshop. In a world of algorithms, we hardly ever stumble across anything organically, but we should start hunting for examples of what we want, and decide for ourselves.

Are we getting a little bit bored of the traditional rat race? I think we’re starting to realise that the pot of gold at the end of rainbow we were promised doesn’t actually exist. Perhaps success now means freeing ourselves up a bit. It’s up to us to figure out what that means and go after it. Reaching the finish line won’t mean anything if we didn’t play some part in determining what we actually wanted in the first place.

Emma Gannon is a writer, podcaster and author of the new book ‘The Multi-Hyphen Method: Work less, create more, and design a career that works for you’.


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