It felt surreal to sit there, on a pew, amidst deeply unfamiliar people and surroundings.

Held for the tiny intellectual powerhouse who was my landlady whilst I was a student almost twenty years ago, it was hard not to feel like an interloper at her funeral. I hadn’t seen either her or her husband (who, I learnt, had passed some two years earlier) since shortly after I graduated.

Taking a seat beside a woman who was my fellow former student lodger, we awaited the service. As further mourners entered, we began an exchange that quickly went beyond mere pleasantries. Our landlords had always asked her about me, she said, despite she and I never keeping in touch. I winced, and started to explain my history, my walking stick, my life.

As each word fell from my lips it hit me why I’d never contacted my landlords; I had been ashamed. Ashamed of my health. Ashamed of my life.

Ashamed of my lack of success.

I never felt I had a ‘proper’ life landmark to give me the ‘permission’ to contact them; no marriage, no children, no great career development. To all but the most diligent observer, I have lived a life of challenge and hardship, both fleeting and systemic.

The service began. I sat there, listening to the eulogies about my former landlady, of the multiple kindnesses she and her husband had bestowed upon the strangers who soon became friends, all shared in the most loving and poignant detail. I felt a tremendous love and sense of gratitude towards her for, in her passing, she had given me a final gift; the gift of realising that she wouldn’t have judged me for my lack of material success. Not in the slightest.

She helped me to realise that the only person who was judging me .. was me.

.    .    .    .

Success is a oft-featured topic. Books, websites, courses and programmes proliferate, promising 6-figure incomes by following certain, certified steps. Do a google image search for the word “success” and you’ll see swathes of suited individuals, punching the air whilst standing astride the peak they’ve just conquered.

(No, I’ve never owned a suit…)

It’s debatable whether, once a certain level of income is reached, financial success brings greater happiness. But the income gap in the UK reveals the current inequality of economic success;

Inequality - income gap UK

(No wonder there’s a market of people keen to earn those much-vaunted 6 figures.)

Luckily alternative definitions of success, which go far beyond the economic, are growing in recognition.

Deepak Chopra and Oprah dedicated this spring’s Meditation Experience to manifesting what they describe as “true success”, a success built on one’s own internal definition and alignment to inspiration.

Wait But Why‘s Tim Urban, whose blog post series on procrastination is a work of beauty, nay, genius, points out a type of procrastinator he calls the “Successtinator”;

“A Successtinator can be happy with his life, but isn’t usually that happy in his life. And that’s because being a Successtinator does not make you a success. Someone who does something well professionally at the expense of balance, relationships, and health is not a success. Real success means having both professional life and lifestyle working well and in harmony—and Successtinators are too stressed, too unavailable.”

Po Bronson‘s brilliant What Should I Do With My Life? tells the story of an unhappy former commercial real estate broker who realized, “.. that the the only way out of this rut was to give up myself, to make it not about me. To give what I could in my own way.” To which end, he drafted his own new Success Formula, one he carried in his wallet and which lead to launching a social enterprise;

“When you stop pointing fingers,
Lying to yourself and others,
When you give yourself to the hungry,
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will ride through the darkness,
And your gloom will rise as the noonday sun,
And you’ll continually find the desires of your heart in
scorched and dry places and strength in your bones,
And finally become like a watered garden,
Like a spring whose waters never fail.”

Tad Hargrave, a rare coach who’s openly shared being broke at times, wrote a blistering attack on the “playing small” bullsh*t that plagues many of the social, business and wisdom entrepreneurship circles:

“Recently, in an online program, a participant shared, “I know I need to overcome the overwhelmed feeling, otherwise I’ll just keep my game small, rather than making a big impact.”

Over the years, I’ve heard so many people share some version of this with me. When they say it, there is often a backdrop of shame and embarrassment.

And I’ve seen too many speakers exhort their audiences with the same messages. I’ve seen so many coaches challenge their clients to “think bigger” as if bigger were always better.

I’m not arguing to make all business tiny. Some businesses are meant to grow. I’m not arguing that urging people to “not play small” doesn’t have a place.

I’m just trying to sing another song that I don’t hear as much as I’d like on the radio station of this conscious business and personal growth scene and hoping that it might get some airtime in the face of the Top 4o hits we constantly hear.

I’m trying to sing a song called “Good Enough” and hoping it might catch on.

I’m not arguing that this story is without value but that, without being questioned, it is a story that is told and acted out in places and ways it doesn’t belong.

I’m not arguing for people to quit too soon, never stretch or push themselves, and to not really go for it.

I’m just saying run for the joy of running, not to win some race set up by others with a dubious prize you might not really want in the first place.”

.    .    .    .

As I sit here, tapping away at my laptop on a Friday afternoon, my own outward indicators of “success” remain as they have generally been; pretty non-existent. Plus ça change, you know? Or, something.

However, the internal growth, wisdom and evolution I’ve experienced over the last five years, gifted to me by those exact same circumstances, provides me with the kind of treasure I cannot adequately measure.

Yeah, I’ll not lie. Sometimes it’s difficult. New people invariably ask “What do you do?”, a question I meet and parry with a range of multi-part answers.

The kind of success I have is measured in moments, choices, actions; some small, some profound, but always revealing a progress I hadn’t been fully conscious of. In the last few weeks, things like;

  • Giving myself permission to end conversations with those whose negativity I feel drain me
  • Retaining my trust and belief in my own loveability, concurrent with any real or perceived rejection
  • Receiving profoundly touching feedback about the inspiration a stranger’s experienced through conversation with me
  • Choosing how I spend my time (and with whom), employing a ‘no’ some days so I may offer a greater ‘yes’ on others

To all but the most diligent observer I still suck at external success. Oh well.

But the above feels more grounded, more authentic. It helps me to quit judging myself and thus find a whole new sense of freedom.

How about you?

2 thoughts on “How I Suck at Success (And You Can, Too)

  1. Tell me about it – I know that awkward “what do you do?” moment so well. I loved this post, and think’s a really important topic – I’ve been living in Sweden for the past few years, and find their attitude so refreshing – it’s all about quality of life for them. People prioritise exercise, family, just sitting around looking out the window – all of those make up a successful life, regardless of what may or may not be going on at work.

  2. Hey Claire, thanks! It’s not just a difficult question for those of us who lack traditional success, it’s also a challenge for bloggers/freelancers with multiple career strands to draw on.

    I read this recently and thought it an inspired yet practical way of handling the question; It’s not a new approach, but the comments are as helpful as the article.

    Prioritising quality of life is so important. I know Brene Brown wrote in Daring Greatly that her family’s dream list of ‘things to do’ (build an extension, go on an expensive holiday etc) actually took time away from her list of ‘things that make her family happy’ (working less to spend time together, relaxing around the house etc).

    it’s great that Sweden has such a refreshing difference in attitude. Here’s to a more Swedish model being embraced by everyone 🙂

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