Seeking external inspiration vs finding your own definition
I recently had this discussion with a close friend, on what ‘success’ is and how you recognise it. She had just turned 30 and I am a few months from that milestone, I’m sure we are far from the only friends entering a new decade who have had the reviewed and assessed whether we are where we thought we would be. My friend said she considered me successful, looking at aspects such as my career, relationship, living arrangements etc. but I did not. That’s not to say I am unsatisfied with my current situation, not by any means but ‘success’ is one of those terms we rarely attribute to ourselves. Success is an aspirational, and ever moving goalpost. Most of us know what our personal version of success looks like but how many people actually stop and say “Right, that’s it. Nothing more to do”? Redefining what success looks like as our situation changes is part of life and necessary for continued improvement…just as long as you can view that moving goalpost as a new opportunity and not as an impossible distance that makes you a failure.
Theres the crux of it…to not succeed is to fail, and what an ugly word that is. The absence of success does not have to mean failure, it also means life and continual motion.
The other question is, who decides what success is? As explored above, people may view your own achievements as making you a success when you don’t recognise them as such. Similarly, others may not see your successes because they don’t appreciate where you have come from and how hard you worked. It has to be your own definition as only you know your personal journey. There is definitely something to be said for seeking external inspiration and having role models who have achieved the kind of success you aspire to. The danger comes when this inspiration becomes a damaging or unrealistic comparison that serves to dishearten rather than inspire.
Last week I had a health check as part of a wellbeing course and the results came out surprisingly well. After my initial pleasure at these numbers I started to question myself, why was I so surprised? I exercise regularly and eat relatively healthily (with maybe too many ‘occasional’ treats) so my ‘health stats’ should be that of an average healthy person of my age and size. The truth is, my definition of success for my health had not been measured by statistics on a healthy body fat percentage or cholesterol level. My health success had been defined by those Instagram pictures of ridiculously toned girls, perfect from every angle and glowing with confidence. The rational part of my brain knows all about photoshop, flattering light and filters. It also knows that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes and is not only achieved by a six pack and a perfectly round but smooth bum. That doesn’t stop me comparing all the same, and from coming up short when I scrutinise my own body.
I wish I had done this health check sooner. Those numbers don’t define me either but they have given me a defence against those negative thoughts when I compare my own body to that of a beautiful model on a (possibly faked) Instagram post. Not looking like the woman in that picture does not make me unhealthy and does not make my efforts to be healthier unworthy. So there is my second point on defining success:
Comparison is good, and useful in measuring if you are where you want to be…but your choice of comparison is crucial.
It’s perfectly normal to compare yourself to others and to feel either jealousy or pride depending on how you think you measure up. However if you feel you are only comparing to criticise yourself, try to challenge that thinking. Next time you see someone who makes you feel like your own life is not successful, in whatever form, try to focus on what it is that makes you admire that person rather than what it is you don’t have. What are they doing that you could learn from? The advantage of someone ahead of you is that they have already made that journey and that is something you can use to your advantage rather than merely noticing the distance yet to travel.