What is Success?

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It’s a long way to the top, but if you shift your mindset, the climb could be simpler than you think.

WORDS Sarah Windon

Success is often thought of in terms of being rich, getting that promotion, winning the guy or girl of your dreams, or beating the competition. But what if you were broke, got fired, were rejected and laughed at, and you always came last? What does this say about you? All too often our self worth can become caught up in what we have or don’t have, what grade we got or how much we’re earning. Is this really how you measure your success? Or is it just society’s idea of what is deemed successful?

Years after graduating from high school, I was still floating around trying to figure it all out. My peers were completing their degrees, finding careers and doing really well in life. I wasn’t at the place I wanted to be: waitressing, broke and about to start university. Exactly where I was five years ago at 18. A failure.

When I started university I only hoped of getting Passes. The idea that “P’s make degrees” offered me some comfort when I was trying something new and scary, something I’d already avoided once by going straight into the work force. Everyone warned me how hard university would be, how expensive it was and kept asking, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Well, yes, I was.

I finally knew what I wanted to do with my life and a university degree would help me get there. So you can see, after all those warnings how surprised I was to do really well in my first semester. I was thrilled! I can’t be that stupid after all. I mean, I really worked for it – but I was now verifiably smart – the results said so! My parents were proud of me, my friends impressed and I had a precious 4.0 GPA.

The next semester I struggled. I felt as though I was just scraping through and, in my mind, anything less than a Distinction was a failure. It was all about those little letters and all I cared about was maintaining a 4.0 GPA (which I’d never even heard of before starting university). My ego was so tied up with my results, so too was my self worth.
After noticing this roller coaster of self-esteem and self worth, I quickly realised that I was letting this external idea of success dictate my emotions and perception of myself. My fear of failure and need for praise was feeding into my tendency to be a perfectionist, and good marks was becoming my fix. This fear of failure, something I’m sure most people share, can hold the best of us back. This is not just with results – life too.

And what is a failure exactly? Some of the most “successful” people in the world have had massive “failures”. A newspaper editor fired Walt Disney because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas” and his first cartoon company went bankrupt before he created the multibillion-dollar empire he’s known for today. Steve Jobs co-created the software giant Apple in his early 20’s but was laid off from the company. He started a new company from scratch that was subsequently bought out by Apple. He returned to his CEO position prior to Apple creating the ever-popular revolutionary iPods, iPhones and iPads. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg both dropped out of Harvard. Thomas Edison, whose teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything”, had no less than 1000 unsuccessful attempts before inventing the first light bulb. Cate Blanchett, one of Australia’s leading actors, is famously quoted saying, “If you know you are going to fail, then fail gloriously!” If you try really hard at something and fail miserably (or gloriously) there can be no regrets, only a lesson learned and a life lived.

Everyone is trying to get ahead – but at what cost and for who? Our self worth is falling behind. We compare and contrast but can never seem to measure up in this rat race called Life. But what if you step out of the running? Will you find your own pace? Move to your own beat? The only way we can truly find contentment and success within ourselves is to accept our failures, find the lessons, and learn from them. Don’t attach your self worth to a grade, perception, or the numbers in your bank account. Find successes in everything you do – especially your failures. Reinforce how awesome you are to have even made an attempt and celebrate your achievements on the path to reaching your ultimate goal.

These days I know my need for “success”, attachment to perfection and good results. I attempt to counteract this by carrying out a sort of ritual before handing in my assignments. I hold the completed assignment in my hands and think about all the work I put into it. I am grateful for doing my best with the time, resources and environment I was working in and acknowledge what I’ve done. This helps me recognise the work I’ve put in before being graded by a third party and allows me to keep some of my personal power without giving it away to be measured and judged by someone else.

The truth is there is no race, it’s just you and the road – and it’s a long one– so why don’t you see where your journey takes you. I’m not saying throw your grades down the toilet, but you are a complex, carbon based life form. You are not a letter or a number.

Act accordingly.