What it means to be successful

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Arianna Huffington’s book, Thrive (which compares success to a three legged stool of which money and power are two, but one leg is missing) has inspired Emma Lawton from HŪF Design to reassess her own take on what it means to be successful.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal” – Winston Churchill

Sometimes I lay awake at night worrying whether I am a success or not. Would Mum and Dad have been proud of me?

What is success?

You could say that Mum and Dad were successful. Having been made redundant at 45, my Dad with Mum’s support, set up his own business. It was a slow burner but after two decades of sheer hard graft, the business was providing the family with a comfortable income and when the pair of them retired they were able to sell the company for a gratifying sum of money. That was their definition of success; money, nice cars, social standing. That was their reward for all their blood, sweat and tears. Their success came at a cost though. They were not in the best of health and their grown up daughters lived at the other end of the country.

Success is a state of mind

Our inbuilt prehistoric survival instinct requiring us to identify and respond to danger, means that our brains are predisposed to be more sensitive to unpleasant news than good news according to Hara Estroff Marano in Psychology today.

In other words it is completely natural that I am a glass half empty type of girl who relates very closely to Winnie the Pooh’s friend Eeyore!

I tend to overlook my successes. I forget that I have an honours degree but focus on my only getting a second. If you were to congratulate me on winning the BETA Innovation award I would be more than likely to defer by saying the designer was good.

However, the events of the last few years have forced me to re-evaluate things. I am owning my achievements without suffixing them with the word “but”.  I passed my A Levels, I passed my driving test, I got an honours degree. I won an innovation award.  Success!

Is success one big event?

And so it is that I have reconsidered my opinion that a person is either successful or unsuccessful. Instead, I now believe that people experience multiple instances of success and of failure through their lives.

In his TED talk in 2009, Richard St John explains how he had a very successful business but made the mistake of believing he had ‘Made It’ and stopped trying. His business failed and he had to go back to square one but he did not quit. In his experience success is a journey.

Is failure always bad?

Failure is Yang to the Ying of success. To me the fear of failure (atychiphobia) can be totally paralyzing. Alain de Botton in his Ted Talk in 2009, says that it is actually the fear of judgement and ridicule that we are afraid of, although one might be put off risking all if it meant not being able to keep a roof over one’s head.

If I’m going to redefine what success means to me, then I need to redefine failure too.

There has been a lot written about failure though and the prevailing view seems to be that although your efforts may not have brought the results you might have hoped for, we should not see that as the final outcome, but a rung on the ladder to success. Henry Ford said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”

You’ll never get to the top of Everest by going for a stroll

It is easy to get sucked into the popularist view of success but how awful would it be to attain your vision and realise it’s not what you wanted after all. It is important to put your own measures of success into place which implies some kind of goal setting.

Goal setting is a subject in its own right. The trick is to be clear about your goal, how you will know when you’ve achieved it and when you want to have completed it by. And write it down. You are 42% more likely to achieve your goals by writing them down regularly.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” – Allen Saunders, 1957

You can have the smartest goals in the world but there are times when life throws you a curved ball. Like your husband bringing his new girlfriend home, or having to be rushed into hospital with an infection in your knee joint. These life changing events can be the worst and the best things to happen to you. They force you to take a good look at yourself, your behaviours, and your beliefs. They are an opportunity to check your goals are still right for you and to correct your course if you’re heading off in the wrong direction.

TED is a nonprofit organisation that brings Technology, Entertainment and Design together. The organisation is devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged. They have a very interesting set of talks about success here: https://www.ted.com/playlists/152/what_is_success