Reflecting on the meanings of ‘success’

I find it funny how sometimes, as I am musing on a specific concept, I suddenly read a flurry of things on said concept. Does this ever happen to you? This week, I’ve been thinking a lot (I am tempted to say meditating but I don’t think it is quite that) about success, and how we can come to define success in our own lives. This is, really, the focus of my year this year. How can I become comfortable in my life again? How can I learn to accept that things have not gone the way I thought they would but that nevertheless my life has meaning and purpose and, is successful and fulfilling. How can I find value in my everyday life? How can I feel worthy within myself?

As I wrote back in January, I have been struggling these last few years to feel successful in my work life. This past week, as I returned to work after some weeks away on holiday, I could not help but feel somewhat… stuck. Now the rational part of my brain knows that this is not actually true. I am learning new things all the time, developing skills that I can see I will use in the future, and (when I am lucky) the main focus of my job becomes about writing and communicating research. And it is great – interesting, challenging, absorbing.

But the anxious part of my brain keels over at the thought of all the things I cannot do right now, and want to do at some point in the future. Somehow my rational brain cannot calm my anxious brain, cannot make it see that I do not have to have a bestselling cookbook right now. That I do not need to be working as a freelancer right now. That I do not really need more money right now. That I do not need to have it all figured out yet. Maybe I never need to have it all figured out.

This week, as my anxious brain got the better of my head and railed against my life, I read this profile of Samin Nosrat. In it Samin reflects on her success, and the long road it has taken to achieve: “I’m so glad that I’ve had so much disappointment and can see so clearly,” she says. “Twenty years ago, I would’ve been swept up.” And I read this profile of Georgina Hayden, who has a beautiful looking new cookbook out. Sometimes, when we see others being successful in things we perhaps would like to be successful in, we fail to see the long and winding road they’ve been on in order to get there.

That was the first thing I learnt this week: do not let other people’s success affect your own feelings of worth, you do not know the path they took. You can never really know the intimate struggles and conflicts people encounter. I need to be joyful for others success, rather than jealous of it, or feeling that I am not good enough because they are successful now.

The second thing I learned this week came from an article on a blog I like: A Slow Adventure. Maddy writes how it is important to come up with your own definition of what success means, and that by focusing on what matters, you will be able to better understand this.

When I reflected on this idea, I realised that I am still chasing acceptance from the academy. I will feel successful… if I get this journal article published… or if I get accepted to present at that conference… or if my colleagues realise I have valuable research skills… I guess my acculturation into the academy was more far-reaching that I thought.

So part of the work I need to do now, is to rediscover what success might mean for me. I know that I feel successful whenever a blog post is published on a Sunday. I feel successful when I get feedback from work blog posts. I feel accomplished when I notice I have made micro progress towards a new yoga pose. I celebrate when I have enough energy to go out for a run.

How else might I define success in this new life? Through holding my relationship with A- close? By learning to paddle board? By participating more in my local community? By learning and surrendering to live as it is now, not as I wish it could be? How do you define success?