‘Success is not final; failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts’… Winston Churchill
It seems to me that the current focus on success and failure is a modern phenomenon. I don’t mean in the sense that they exist – striving for success or failing at something we’ve tried is a fundamental part of the human condition; I mean in the importance that is now placed on success or failure in terms of our status, especially for women.
If we were to go back two or three generations and ask our great grandmothers how ‘successful’ they had been, it would be a question they couldn’t answer. Choices for women were limited and success or failure was assigned to the working world for men. Mostly, women lived their lives running homes and raising families.
Yet now it’s impossible to avoid the flurry of articles, memes and guides on how to live the perfect life, to be the best you and to ‘succeed’ no matter what. The personal coaching industry has exploded over the last few years, with ‘success experts’ willing to mentor us to our greatest heights and charging thousands of pounds for their transformative processes.
I love a good TED talk. It’s no secret that I am ambitious, both for myself and for our generation – but I wonder if this relentless drive towards some lofty goal is not only doing us a great disservice, but also harming our fundamental wellbeing?
How do we even define what success looks like? For some it’s financial freedom, for others it’s maintaining a size ten body well into their sixties, and for others it’s a perfect home and high achieving children.
We might strive to achieve all of these things and that’s okay – being healthy, solvent and proud of our children is great!
But it’s the idea that not achieving all of this suggests a lack of effort on our part – and that concerns me. The view that if we fall short in our aims we are somehow ‘less’ as women is largely behind the massive rise in mid-lifers being diagnosed with mental health issues (one in three at last count).
We are holding ourselves to incredibly high standards and being told by society that if we don’t reach these standards, somehow we haven’t tried hard enough to make it happen; that perhaps we lack ambition or discipline, or that we haven’t done enough affirmations to keep our ‘energy’ in line with our goals.
Marriages can fall apart. Does this mean that the marriage wasn’t successful? Of course not – simply that things can change and that it wasn’t working anymore. Surely staying in an unhappy place is a greater failure than moving on in freedom and peace?
Children make mistakes. Does this mean that we have raised them badly? Again, of course not – they have free will and the choices that they make are theirs, no matter what we like to think when they are small.
I know first-hand that if we focus on our careers, it’s incredibly challenging to maintain all other aspects of our lives single-handedly. The women we see in high-profile jobs or who are running their own businesses, but who also have fabulous homes, high achieving children and an enviable level of fitness, are not doing this alone. Many have an army of help that goes into making this happen. Nannies, tutors, cleaners, trainers, partners and family all step in to help shore up the perfect lifestyle – but this is rarely part of the media narrative when the great ‘I made it’ stories are being told.
We are not mini deities. We don’t have the exclusive on the direction our lives take, and it’s an illusion bordering on deception to suggest otherwise. Despite my best efforts, I lost my last business after slogging through the recession and into a boardroom coup. Nothing I could have done differently would have changed this – and if I had blamed myself entirely, I would never have pulled myself back up and built the community that I’m so proud of today.
When we try to define ourselves by the rule of ‘success or failure’, we tread a dangerous path for our mental health. One woman’s happy home is another’s unstructured nightmare. Where one person prioritises academic success, another might believe that having a large group of friends is the greater achievement. Neither is wrong, but it’s a very long yardstick for any of us to try and validate ourselves or anyone else with.
When I’m asked the secret to my success these days, I always share the following – there isn’t one.
We can only try our hardest with the tools we’ve been given and find joy where we can – and regardless of what society dictates, a life filled with love and the will to do the right thing will never be a failure in my eyes.