Sunday, 17 May 2015

The definition of success

I have this recurring dream where I’m a teacher. I used to be a teacher… in fact I’ve been a teacher/tutor/facilitator/instructor of varying types and with varying degrees of success, but in this dream, I’m definitely a school teacher.

Anyway, I’m late for class. I don’t know what class I’m supposed to be taking, or in what room. I don’t have a time-table and I don’t know where to find one or who to ask. So I travel through a labyrinth of stairs and corridors and quadrangles until I find a tiny staffroom, but nobody knows or is willing to help me. They are operating with the comfortable buzz of familiarity. I have that anxious panicky sensation: my breathing is extra shallow and my brain has swollen until it no longer fits safely in my skull. And all I can feel is failure. It sticks to my skin like sodden paper and hollows my mouth with acidity. My ears are filled with it. I am sludgy misery. Failure. Frozen with shame. Unworthiness itself.

The opposite of success.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, trying to work out exactly what my view of success is. And I really don’t know. I know what I think it should be. Like I know what I think I should say.... All those meme-type things, like success is a journey or success is having your soul at peace or success is adding something positive to humanity or even:

But a solid definition eludes me... keeps slipping away.

I guess my confusion has something to do with having been a mostly stay-at-home mum for seventeen years. When we adopted from overseas, we had to sign an agreement that one parent would always be at home with the baby for the first year. And it was me. Cheerfully and excitedly it was me. Until then, of course, I’d worked full-time, first as a teacher, and then as a publisher. I’d had a successful career. Visibly successful. I felt respected and valuable. Even admired. I had control. Success could be measured… performance appraisals and goal–setting meetings, promotions, a company car, a brilliant PA… Then it all stopped. 
Parenting isn't like that. 
Working-in the work for money around working at being a mostly-stay-at-home mum doesn't work like that.

Dr Dad went on climbing the corporate ladder, skipping rungs with ease. Driven. Achieving. Applauded. I dropped into the mothering role I’d so longed for. Ached for during a decade of misery and failure… failure to conceive… failure to stay pregnant… failure to stay calm… even our marriage failed for a while. My body failed me. But I continued to be a success in my working life. I hung on to that. The success I felt in my career must have been a large part of my sense of self. My identity. Because now, almost two decades later, after all those years of part-time/ casual/ working from home/ volunteer jobs during the regular 24/7 hours of motherhood, I find my sense of self has been eroded. I think I've lost my identity somewhere along the way. And I can’t remember what success used to feel like.

I don’t even know what it is.

I have no problems with the momentary joy of a win:

Victory photo: NEVER ENDING VICTORY tumblr_ll9lkyeCFn1qbqbjb.gif 

And I'm not saying that I never feel any sense of achievement:
success photo:  n50iuwi.gif 

But maybe I never recalibrated my brain from the workplace definition... 
the measure-your-success-by-visible-signs-of-accomplishment definition... 
the one that depends on external verification and acknowledgment. 

And maybe success is like happiness — transient, changing, internal. 
Maybe it's a shape-shifter.
Maybe it doesn't have a solid definition.

Am I getting close?


  1. I can understand how you feel about success being measured mostly in the workplace. However, you have brought up two children, plus ran a home, That is no mean feat, especially as, from what I understand, your children are both doing very well, and sound like well-rounded individuals. You have to take at least some of the credit for that Wendy. :-) xx

    1. You're a kind-hearted soul, Judy. yes... I get all the blame for the kids... maybe a little of the credit... nature versus nurture is an interesting think when your kids are not biologically connected to you in any way...

  2. Indeed you are getting close, Wendy. The definition becomes a little fluid as we grow into our chosen roles. I think you should present yourself with an award for making the choices you did and sticking to them. When you've known "success" in a career, it is easy to make it a sort of benchmark. :) Not talking off the top of my head - I quit a 16-ish year career at the top to get married, much to the shock of my folks. I thought, why not take a brief sabbatical and return to work. What is funny is, I prolonged the sabbatical after my little boy came along, we moved cities and I thought, no big deal getting back into the work routine. It wasn't easy. Life had different plans. I remember being so frustrated some days, as to feel worthless - always forgetting I was busy as hell at home - looking after my son, my Mom, managing the home .... until one day, my Mom gave me a gentle shove and urged me to change the way I thought.

    Today, while we were walking on the terrace, I got annoyed over something and pointed out how often I say "I didn't get any work done today" as if cooking, grocery and veggie shopping, cleaning house... all those things don't count, not to mention being there as a sounding board whenever required.

    We underestimate ourselves you know! I think you are amazing to have done what you did. I think you should give yourself a lot of credit. Being a Mom is no easy task you know, rewards notwithstanding.

    Here is a big hug and a high-five. :) You seriously rock, you know!

    1. You knew I really did need that hug... You're a wise woman, Vidya.
      And of course you're absolutely right... i say exactly the same when a domestic day passes by, busy but not very stimulating or fulfilling... I think that's where I am getting lost. My kids are becoming the independent young adults I am raising them to be. They don't need me or respond to me as they used to do. And that is good. and I am proud to see them going alone. But I feel I am losing value. And MAN I miss those hugs...
      My daughter still climbs into bed with me to chat... I hope she never grows out of the habit. Her whole life passes before my eyes every morning. But my beautiful son... sigh... well his hugs were always the best...

  3. I think you are getting close. This is a thoughtful post, and one that makes me ponder ' what is success when you are retired?' 'Do I still have worth and value?' A wise woman told me lately that the world needs people to stop and admire and notice nature. That in itself will bring humankind along. I can work with that. So can you. You are a successful blogger, I know that to be true.

    1. Well I'm certainly doing my part in the admiration of the art of nature stakes... Almost every day now that we live in this beautiful place I stop the car or race outside or rush to a window because of some gorgeous and amazing work of nature... Today there were tiny bright blue wrens darting about in the shrubs and an echidna waddled out to enjoy the ants that the recent rain has made active... yesterday, well you saw that sunset... on Saturday I spent 10 minutes watching an eagle float and drift without once flapping her wings... and I stopped at the side of the road because there was a stunning pheasant coucal building her nest in a ditch and I didn't know we even had those birds here on out tiny island... this morning's sunrise you saw too... And I'm quite in love with the goats across the road, My compost gets next to nothing now because I take the leaves and peelings over for the Goatie-people... who rush bleating to greet me ... Me and Nature are getting well acquainted... It's the humans I struggle

  4. Yes you're getting close. It is hard to quantify success outside a working/business environment but you will only have to look around at what you have achieved in your homelife and more importantly in how your children are growing into adults to see success. It's just more difficult to find the right benchmark to measure against. And probably not a wise move anyway to start comparing how your kids are doing against others.

    I recently gave up working and haven't yet sorted out my long term future. I could easily say, because I don't have any work accolades to my name, that I've not been successful. But then I look at my children and know that I have done a good job with them. And hopefully they will go on and do a good job with kids if they have them in the future. I've done my best. You can't ask for more than that. But it would be nice if someone would pay me for blogging and drinking wine!

    1. Oh me too... Writing and drinking wine are my favourite things....
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Other Wendy ( I hope you don't mind if I call you that... would you believe I'm taking a water colour class and of the 7 students, 3 of us are called Wendy! I'd never met another until I was in my 50s, now we're everywhere... ).
      The mothering thing is tough for me at the moment... kids at tricky ages ... oldest son ( my stepson who was only 3 when I married his dad) has moved on and away so that I rarely hear from him, and I miss him heaps... Daughter almost 15 and working out who she is ... son in final year of school, so tied to his desk and me getting used to the idea of him heading off to uni when he was only a baby yesterday...
      But I think I am getting close.
      Thanks to my regular visits to the psychologist...
      And my blog with all you wonderful blogging buddies all over the globe.
      I'm getting there... with help from all you great people...

  5. I have that dream too, only I'm a student. I'm almost through the term and realize there's a class I haven't bothered to go to since the first week and I don't know what the assignments are or when the exam is I can't even remember the room number. It's too late to fix it. I'm going to fail, spectacularly, because I'm a total loser.

    I try to look at success, like happiness, as a state of mind and a daily choice. I can let other people define it for me and give them the power to extend or withhold it as they see fit. Or I can define it for myself and not give my power away. Or I can choose not to worry about it and just deal with what's in front of me today.

    Having been an attorney -- a career that's laden with external success indicators and dysfunctional Type A competitive strivers terrified they won't measure up -- I've watched the Hamster Wheel of Success run my colleagues into the ground. Substance abuse, depression, divorce, scandal, suicide -- talented people blowing their lives up trying to attain an increasingly grandiose vision of success, playing the game as hard as they could, not realizing that they were never going to win because the goal posts kept getting moved back.

    If you like your life on more days than you don't, then I think you're a success. But it doesn't matter what I think. At least not to anybody else. It takes more soul searching to figure out your own definition, but I know I'm a lot happier for not running on the hamster wheel.

    Here's my favorite lawyer joke: How many lawyer jokes are there? Only one or two. The rest are true stories.

    1. Laura, thank you for this wonderful response... I am certainly working towards being able to have such a clear view as yours. And I totally agree about the hamster wheel.. . it all seems so pointless...
      The being at school dream... I have that one too.. and it's always Maths I haven't bothered to attend...

    2. It's always a math class in my dream too.

  6. Always such a wonderful visit when I come to your site. Success--- I am also pondering it. I love my life as a full-time homemaker, but I'd love it more if money was not dependent upon my husband having to go in to an office all day, every week, all year. You know? I think success for me is that I am content in my own body, doing things that make me feel like I have value, and making a difference in someone else's life, even if it is only one other one. It doesn't require great money, or lots of approval, just the knowledge that I am where I am supposed to be, and living fully in that moment. Maybe my definition is too shallow or not grandiose enough, but I guess it works for me today because I would much rather think I AM successful than to think that I am NOT! :)

    1. I'm really working on the living in the moment and not needing approval thing...I could take a leaf out of your book... several leaves probably!
      And thanks for the lovely compliment. I needed it ( See?! It's that need for approval kicking in again.)

  7. You love to write about things close to the bone, don't you?
    I understand your point about success in careers being more'real' because it is quantified by superiors. But don't forget, even when one's work performance was valued and acknowledged, there were still so many frustrations and worries that took away from a complete sense of success - sometimes it felt like being a contestant on Survivor.
    But I totally get what you are saying.
    It's a shame success is really about what other people think and say, those who love you, and those who don't really know you at all.

    1. I never thought of it as close to the bone, Buffy... I just write what I'm thinking about. And I guess that brutal honest thing overlays that. And you are, of course, absolutely right with the "Survivor" analogy. The notion of whether success IS about what other people think and say is exactly what I'm trying to explore. I need to be able to be more satisfied with me.