When I was younger and wildly ambitious I thought being successful meant having a powerful corporate job, earning a lot of money, owning a fancy car and big house, being married to the perfect man with our pigeon pair children, a boy and a girl. That was about as far as my imagination went and I was convinced that’s how my life would turn out.
I seemed to be on the right track to my big, bright future with hard work and continued academic success throughout school and university. It was validation for me and life all made sense. When I started my first job at the tender age of 24 as a corporate lawyer in a prestigious New York law firm, moving there from South Africa, it was as if I had already reached the pinnacle of success. I was earning more than I have and probably will ever earn in my first job, living in the international and fast-paced city of New York, going out for fancy dinners and shows all the time, buying whatever I wanted, flying on last minute trips to London or Mexico. But it was all a facade and the reality of the situation was that I was desperately unhappy with my work and with my lifestyle. I found the work unfulfilling and the long hours too draining without any balance in my life. You can only imagine what having one Saturday off in an entire month, going to bed one night at 2am to wake up at 6am, or coming into an office on a Saturday to see a colleague sobbing at her desk because she had to miss her birthday dinner, does to a person’s spirit.
After the apparent failure of working in New York, because “failure” is seen to be the antithesis to “success”, I found that I lost a bit of my direction and purpose. I could no longer define myself by what I did. I did not know what success looked like anymore. It took a lot of hard work to redefine who I was as some-one not attached to my work or any external achievements.
As I turn 35 and am still single and without any children, I have realised that the last part of the dream is slowly slipping from my grasp. It has bothered me so much that it has kept me up some nights. I have yet again been forced to re-evaluate what success actually means to me. If I think that starting my own family is the purpose of my life then I have already failed and I might as well give up. I can only imagine that people who are divorced, or are single parents or are living with HIV, or any person who has experienced the million and one ways that their lives haven’t turned out the way they planned or dreamed might feel similar. But if we let our preconceived ideas of success or society’s standards of success define us then we are doomed to fail because so many of those factors are completely outside of our control.
If we can’t define success by our job title, material possessions, society’s standards or even the types of relationships that we have in our life then what is left? I do think success is individual to each person. I am trying to define success as living a purposeful and meaningful life and by the quality of relationships that I do have in my life. I look at what my core values are, what matters to me, and I want to live a life that is as consistent with that as possible. l strive to be authentic and kind. I derive a lot of value from helping people in meaningful ways such as through my creative writing non-profit organisation and coaching. I developed new hobbies of hiking, open water swimming and yoga. I don’t own a property and my car is 10 years old. Everyone values different things. I have given myself room to push past my predetermined ideas of how I thought my life should be and appreciate it for what it is and there is a lot to be grateful for. Taking myself off the projected track for my life path has been terrifying but also rewarding in many ways. If I think about my quality of life now compared to the quality of my life in New York, ironically with far less money it is only now that I have truly learnt to live well.
I challenge you to think about what success really means to you.