Do you want to be successful? If you are like me, then your response to that question is, ‘Hmm...It depends‘. It depends on what ‘being successful’ means.
We are surrounded by the message that success is about ‘having it all’. Over and over again, the world implies that if you are to truly consider yourself a success you need: love, money, a prestigious job, a wonderful family, happy kids, lots of friends, health, a beautiful body, a lovely home with a shiny kitchen, a fancy car…. Only when you have all of these things can you count yourself as successful.
Even worse, we are sold the myth that it is actually possible to have it all. A multitude of articles; books and courses promise, ‘if you just do x, then you will … lose weight, earn lots of money, get that promotion’ etc. We are encouraged to believe that if you keep following all of this advice, then, one day, you will have it all. You will know that you are successful. And, all will be well.
However for people like me (and perhaps you) this belief – that you can/should have it all – is exhausting and unhelpful.
In practical terms, when you pursue success, you come up against a tricky contradiction. Some of the things you need to do in order to achieve objective career success, actually make it harder to build meaningful relationships and be happy. For example, objective career success is linked to working long hours and moving for work. However, moving to a new city and working long hours both make it difficult to maintain meaningful relationships and are both associated with decreased happiness.
More than that, this isn’t a level playing field. When it comes to objective career success (salary and promotion), white men who live in developed countries have a head start.
A further difficulty is that it is actually getting harder and harder for most people (even white men!) to achieve objective career success and this trend is likely to get worse rather than better.
The ‘having it all’ myth is also problematic because of how it can mess you up in other ways.
I notice that whenever I buy the ‘you can/should have it all’ myth, then I start to berate myself, because:
- I spend too much time reading about Donald Trump and not enough time doing deep work
- I eat too many biscuits and not enough kale
- I am not a university professor and I haven’t written a best-selling book
- I don’t earn a six figure income.
When I buy the ‘having it all’ myth, I run around trying to get everything right. I feel anxious about all the things I am not achieving. I feel exhausted and overwhelmed and my life passes me by as I pursue the ‘infinite more’.
When I buy the myth that I can have it all, I see myself and my life as problems to be solved. I fail to notice moments of joy and connection. I notice myself thinking, if I just try a little harder; If I read the right book; if I do all the right things; if I just become better or different in some ill-defined way; then, everything will fall into place. Then, I will have it all and then…I can relax and enjoy this moment.
But what if you and I were to accept that we can’t actually do it all or have it all? What would that be like?
Instead of focusing on getting everything right, perhaps we could give our attention to being here now. To embracing this messy life with all of its imperfection. Whilst at the very same time, with courage and lots of self-compassion, we face up to the ways we need to change. Not in order to get the perfect life, with the fancy car and the posh job, but so that we give ourselves a fighting chance to achieve the things that really do matter, which probably include:
- Loving relationships
- Physical and emotional health
- Enough money to pay the bills and stay out of debt
- Meaningful and engaging ‘work’ (not necessarily paid)
None of these are easy. All of these require an ongoing commitment to gently aligning moment to moment choices with these longer term goals. All of these become more likely if you practice certain behaviours – such as mindfulness and self-compassion.
In the end, I do need to eat less biscuits and more kale. But not so I can tick ‘perfect body’ off my ‘having it all’ list. (I am a middle-aged lady – I think that ship has sailed!) Instead, I choose to eat more kale because it is one way of caring for my precious body.
Perhaps we can’t have it all but, instead, over time, we can make choices that lead to a life that is rich and meaningful and that might just be better than having it all.