• Amber

Defining Success


Why I had to let go of what I thought made me important

There's a quote on my homepage. You can't miss it, really - it's quite big. In bold letters within red quotation marks it reads, 'failure is being successful at the things that don't matter.'

I would love to credit it, I really would. I have searched high and low to find the name of the man I first heard it from, but my brain doesn't reach far enough into the annals of my teenage years, and nor it seems do the notebooks I've unearthed. All I know is I was about 17 or 18, and it's been with me ever since.

You see, I grew up the kind of person who really loved affirmation. I probably loved it and needed it more than your average child. I'm not sure why that was - my parents are wonderful, encouraging and loving people and there certainly wasn't any shortage of family affection. I didn't go through any traumas that left me feeling bereft. I was just a pat-on-the-head, gold-star-seeking kind of a kid. I loved for people to be happy with me - I loved to impress them. Precocious was the highest compliment as far as I was concerned.

From an early age I was pretty good academically and I loved to write, so I would present my work to whomever might praise me for it: family, teachers, parents of friends. Most of the time I was very assured of the value of what I produced, but I wanted the approval of others too. By the time I left primary school I had already decided to be a journalist, an early career decision supported by the teacher I most idolised.

I started a family newsletter when I was 11/12, with subscription forms and fees and everything, and of course my name under every other article. Submissions were strictly policed and edited, as my long-suffering siblings will attest! The Amberville Times (oh cringe) was my baby, and I was its proud mother, shoving it under the noses of the grown-ups and demanding they admire its snotty little face.

I could write a whole book, I suspect, about what went on between that and the realisation at about 22 that my little plan to become a journalist and change the world had fallen apart at the seams. Pertinent moments included the decision to apply to Oxford rather than a journalism college, and subsequent choices that saw me dive into a major voluntary role with the christian union that didn't leave me enough time to commit efforts elsewhere, i.e. in the direction of the student papers.

It would have been easy to say I made the wrong decision, but it was what I believed was right at the time, and if I'm completely honest the journo scene in Oxford was intensely intimidating. I went from feeling self-assured and infinitely capable to realising everyone else had two years or more of a headstart on me in terms of experience, plus the contacts to back them up. I had no contacts, two weeks writing glorified adverts in a parochial gazette, and quite frankly a total fear of being found wanting. It was not a combination for glory. I dabbled in book reviews and submitted a few bits of poetry to some little journals, but the next Kate Adie I was not. I wasn't even on early Clarkson level.

On the quad at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University

Getting married straight after University was another curve-ball to my master plan, albeit a most welcome one. Snugly ensconced in our little flat, drawing up seating plans and liaising with bridesmaids, I merrily dreamed of the point at which, a couple of years down the line, we would move to London for me to train in journalism and my 'career proper' would begin.

Wedded bliss! 11th December 2010

The best laid plans of mice and men, and all that jazz! Six months after my wedding I had just scraped into a minimum-wage paying temp job after five months unemployed during one of the worst youth unemployment periods in recent history. I had left my previous job - which kept me awake at night with stress - only because I thought I was about to get fired for incompetence. I felt incredibly small, and it was going to take me a couple of years to recover my confidence. My husband was having second thoughts about a change of career path as well, and slowly but surely I realised that the dream I'd cherished for so long was definitely dormant, if not actually dead.

What do you do when that happens? I'll tell you what I did (and this is not a recommendation). I looked for ways to apportion blame. I blamed people, I blamed circumstances, hell I even blamed the economy. Then I switched tack. I was 'getting some experience' so I could make my move a bit further down the line. 'There are so many routes,' I'd say casually. 'I'm just checking the options and learning about industry.' Was I bollocks (sorry Mum). I was selling worktops, that's what I was doing. And I was fighting the sneaking suspicion that actually, what I had thought I wanted for so long wasn't what I wanted at all.

But as long as people thought I had it together, it was fine, right? That's the problem with success. I needed to achieve it, in one way or another, in order to feel like people valued me. It wasn't good enough to just be doing a job. I needed people to think I was doing well, that I had a purpose. I couldn't allow myself to be seen to drop the ball, or to admit that I might have changed my mind, or that I might be struggling. I'm sure some people saw through it but I didn't think they did, so for several years I kept plugging away. I got a promotion and a fancy company car. On the face of it I was carving myself a little niche - but I was desperately unhappy and unfulfilled.

I named him Bruce after the shark in Finding Nemo

And so, in very painful but very necessary ways, my idea of what constituted success had to change. I had to go public with what had been struggling inside for so long, and I had to find something else to throw my energies into. It had long been apparent to me that my job shouldn't be everything, but I had allowed it to entangle me so fully that I could hardly find the mental energy or time for anything else. I had become selfish, timid, and unenterprising. And I recognised that any kind of success I had at that point was really failure, because I wasn't fulfilling anything with lasting value.

I re-started my blog. I volunteered to help a couple of social enterprises. I started seriously casting around for a job I would actually love and would mean more than a paycheck. I got involved in the body positivity movement. I trained to run the tastelife course. I made myself vulnerable in my friendships and I made an effort to create new ones too. I tried to re-learn how to be humble. It's hard to do! It's hard to meet up with a load of uni friends who are several years into stellar careers and admit that actually, you're unemployed right now and have no idea what you're doing with your life. It's hard to have to then explain your new job countless times to people who have been on your case for six months, a look of pity in their eyes. It's just hard.

But it's so worth it. These months have stripped away from me the layers of protection I had wrapped myself in to shield me from my perceived failure. They've taught me that life requires us to be vulnerable in order to grow, and actually it's okay not to have it together. I have had the space and time to consider what matters. And now I have the motivation to pursue it.

I suspect defining true success will be a lifelong lesson, but it's one I am very willing to learn.


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