What does success mean to me?

I’ve been reflecting a lot on this question.

Before I attempt to pick a path from the myriad of options that my inbox is now overflowing with (thank you friends and family for the precious bible you’ve given me), I need to take a big step back and think about my goal. I know I need to do something new. I know it needs to fit around my kids and my health but what am I trying to achieve? What does success mean to me? Is it job satisfaction? Is it financial gain? Is it working for a company? Is it running my own business?

There’s a podcast that I’ve listened to this week that I’ve found really thought-provoking (https://tim.blog/2015/11/10/alain-de-botton/). It’s an interview with Alain de Botton, who I had previously wrongly pigeon-holed as a rather dry intellectual. In fact, I think I’ve developed a bit of a brain crush! He is a ‘philosopher of every day life’; he has spent a lifetime interrogating the way we live and what makes us happy and I think his insights are profound.

The interviewer asks which person de Botton most strongly associates with the word success. His quickfire answer is Steve Jobs, but de Botton immediately regrets his response. He explains why he took issue with his own answer: “I don’t actually see Jobs as the quintessence of success. For me a successful person is someone who has got to grips with their talents and made the most of them, whilst also being reconciled to their weaknesses. They don’t rant about their weaknesses or blame the world for them. They own them. True success is being at peace with yourself”.

I like that.

I think I’ve been driven for a long time by the Steve Jobs answer. I suspect I’m not alone in that feeling. We’re programmed by family, our education, society to seek out status, achievement, money, responsibility / power. When we reach it, we think we’ll be able to hold our heads up high in front of our friends and family, secure in the knowledge that we’ve proved ourselves and we’ve made it. But de Botton’s point is that the popular perception of success is not one that automatically brings contentment; some of the emails I’ve received from friends are testament to that.

Success for me today was leaving the house, getting the kids to school, riding on a bus to reach this café and writing this blog. By most people’s standards that’s pretty average, but by my current standards I’ve nailed it. I had a horrid spin at 6am which has left me feeling unsteady and with pounding tinnitus. Some days these symptoms alone would be enough to see me crawling straight back into bed but today I fought them. I’m out of the house. I’m writing. That’s a massive victory for me. I’m convinced that I must be able to use the determination I’ve developed from coping with the shitstorm of my condition and apply it to my career. Could I use it to help kids in tough situations? Could I use it to set up my own business? Could I use it break into writing?

And what about owning my weaknesses? I’ve realised during the last six weeks that my love for writing has probably developed out of a weakness; I think I’m essentially rather crap at presenting my thinking verbally. I don’t think I’m socially inept. In fact I really enjoy connecting with people, but I find it really hard to challenge a colleague’s opinion, to defend an argument, sell a new idea, convince others. I need time, and preferably a blank page and a pen, to process my thinking. At university I banged out 1st class essays with ease because I love to carefully craft an argument, but give me an actual real-life-talking-right-now debate and I struggle. And because so much of working life requires quick-fire, intelligent verbalization of thoughts I’ve always seen it as a major handicap.

There are two ways out here. I could just acknowledge it as a weakness, own it and focus on my strengths. But I also think that another way to own it is to accept that I need to write to help me present my thoughts. There’s no shame in that and it might give me the confidence I need to start verbalizing my thinking in a professional environment.

Character analysis aside, the key for me this week is the peace thing. “Success is being at peace with yourself”. I really, really like that. For now, writing brings me an immense feeling of peace. It helps me to think and process and consider and wonder and dream. My plan is to write my way out of this sometimes dark hole I find myself in and hopefully, in the process, the path will become clear.

Post note

Some more de Botton wisdom …

“Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.”

“People only really start to get interesting when they start to rattle the bars of their cages”.

“I think of myself as quite a shy person. But when I’m curious about something, I’ll go quite far to satisfy my curiosity”

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