Before I became a mother – back when I was just me – I felt I had an incredibly successful life.
Certainly by all standard measures of success, it was.
I had an incredible career that I valued above almost all else. I earned great money. I had (and still have) a great husband. We had (and now have a bigger) house in one of the best beach-side suburbs of our city. We travelled overseas extensively and at a whim.
Sounds like a pretty damn successful life, right?
And while my life is still incredibly blessed, for much of the past decade, I have felt anything but successful.
Since leaving my career, I no longer meet the metrics of what a successful life looks like in our society.
Social norms tell us that a successful life is measured by the size of your house, the size of your bank account and the type of car you drive. It’s determined by the brand of clothes you wear, how you look, and how impressive your job title is.
Essentially, it’s metrics driven by money and title.
These are the standard metrics we are encouraged to aspire to and for the most part, we are all out there busting our arses trying to do just that.
It is these metrics and trying to achieve them that sees us do long hours, accept the tiresome commute, and spend the money on ‘stuff’ almost as quickly as we earn it.
But if you’re not that, are you still successful?
Becoming a mother – and adopting the lifestyle that came with it, that is, being ‘domestic’ – shattered my sense of self worth because I felt stripped of success.
Years of kid-wrangling and active wear as a daily uniform left me feeling anything but successful because I wasn’t meeting the metrics typically used to measure how well we’re doing in life.
My career was in tatters because I wouldn’t do the hours I would have to in order to keep it going.
Without ‘being’ a journalist, and instead being ‘only’ a mother, made me feel like a complete failure because our society values achievement over all else and motherhood is boring.
Without my job title, who was I?
And without the pay packet, the bank balance, the house and the car also dropped a few notches. We weren’t ‘upgrading’.
I felt small, restricted and terribly unhappy.
By all standard metrics, I was no longer successful.
We were not failures by any stretch of the imagination. Yet years of conditioning meant I was telling myself the story we are all told and sold – that in order to be considered successful, we must achieve those metrics and if we don’t have them, we are less.
If we can’t meet those metrics then we’re left feeling crap about ourselves, our lives and our circumstances.
So we stay on the treadmill and run faster. We keep looking at the numbers, keep looking to tick the boxes, and often to the detriment of our health. Certainly, we’re often not happy but hey! We’re successful, right?
And if we just get a little more of that success, we’ll be happy then. When we earn a little more, buy the bigger house, have that extra ‘stuff’, then we’ll be happy.
While we maintain these metrics as life’s ultimate goals, we remain a slave to money and lifestyles that may not be sustainable, healthy or what we actually want.
And if we choose to not stay on the treadmill, or if we simply cannot meet the metrics, then we’re left feeling inferior.
Do you want to be successful, or happy?
Redefining the idea of success is the gateway to being happier and less overwhelmed. Or so I’m learning.
Maybe my age has something to do with, certainly the books I’ve been reading are teaching me new ideas, but I certainly am in the process of caring less about what I always cared too much about.
I decided right from the start when my children were born that I wouldn’t return to full-time work. I wanted to work in some way – I had no intention of not doing anything – but I knew whatever I did it wouldn’t be full-time. Certainly not when the kids were little, and now that they’re older, it’s something I’m still not prepared to do, not just for their sake, but for my own.
For my own health and vitality, I don’t want that amount of overload and overwhelm.
I could work full-time if I wanted to. I’ve considered the idea more than once. The upside is obvious – I’d ‘feel’ important and our bank balance would be healthy.
I though, would be neither – no more important than I am right now, and not healthy.
Time and time again (I’ve been around this particular roundabout a few times), my decision about what kind of work I want to do and how I want to do it – with as little stress as possible – brings me to the same conclusion:
my idea of success is not what it used to be.
I’m trying to adopt a new idea of what a successful life is, which is this: it is one in which I live each day in a happy state as much as I can, and to achieve that means sticking to my highest values.
That doesn’t mean give up work – because that part of my life is one of my highest values still. It just doesn’t look like it used to because it needs to fit alongside my other values.
A successful life looks like values, not metrics
A successful life is one in which you can live your life in a way that makes you happy, not a metric or standard.
A successful life is one where you can do something every day that you enjoy – the freedom to be able to do that.
A successful life is one in which you can live in alignment to your values – that your decisions match your beliefs.
Your successful life may well look very differently to mine or to anyone else’s. It may well be that your successful life includes full-time work or a particular job title, and that is completely fine. It might mean neither of those – also perfectly fine.
If it’s in alignment with your highest values, it will bring you happiness.
Mark Manson, in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck, asks the question ‘what are you willing to struggle for?’ The answer to that helps you define what is most important to you, and therefore, what you should actually care about (give a fuck about).
I know – without question – that I’m not prepared to struggle through 40+ hour weeks in order to hang on to my career.
I am however, willing to struggle (awkwardly) through yoga classes in order to get my flexibility back and feel more grounded.
When I sit and consider what I value most, I come up with:
- Being with my family in a meaningful way – sharing experiences and making the most of our time together while the kids are still here, and staying connected with my husband as a couple;
- Taking care of my health in both mind and body – eating wholefoods as much as I can; moving in some way every day whether it’s a yoga class or walk; seeking time in nature, especially the beach; resting and actively monitoring and managing stress.
- Connecting with friends – making time and room to broaden and strengthen my friendships and those of my family;
- Doing meaningful work – writing, contributing to the benefit of others; being of service and producing content that is helpful to other women.
If at the end of each day I can tick off those boxes, or even just some of them, in some way big or small, then that’s pretty successful.
Every day isn’t going to be some utopian dream.
I don’t act lovingly towards my family every day. I don’t always spend time with friends or even speak to another human all day long and my work isn’t always meaningful or fulfilling.
Some days I’m lazy or fearful and sad, and not very happy at all. I doubt my decisions pretty much daily and sometimes yearn for the good old days and my career back.
Those days are the days to check-in and ask the question again: do I want to be successful, or happy? And what does that look like, exactly?
Continuing to make choices that create more opportunities to live fully aligned with my values is my new metric of success.