Why We Need to Stop Calling People "Successful"
The importance of being mindful about not only our own success, but other people’s success, too.
I’ve always been the “successful” one. The first to be a published writer. The first to have a managerial job. The first to save £10,000. The first. There isn’t a conventional benchmark of success that I haven’t, at some point, tried to get to. Last night, I was having dinner with a friend when she, a talented, smart and delightful woman, declared herself the “least successful” of our friendship group. As I heard her talk about all of the things she thought she’d have at 30, I, an overworked, stressed and exhausted woman, realised something.
By now, most of us know that we need to be mindful of our own success. “We can be successful on our own terms!” say a recent flurry of think pieces, and I totally agree. But, perhaps most importantly, we need to be mindful of other people’s success, too.
Hear me out…
We all agree that our own definition of success is whatever we want it to be, right? Sometimes success is a promotion or landing an amazing project, other times it’s getting out of bed and simply showing up. Sure. Easy enough. But still, the focus, whether you’re chasing Instagram-fame-and-money success or freelancing-from-a-beach success, is success. We’re the generation who grew up under the pressure of Forbes 30 under 30 lists. The generation who were told we could “be anything” only to be met with ridiculous house prices and a shitty job market. Thanks to the Internet, we compare ourselves to other people’s Internet illusions on the regular, whether we admit it or not. Success. Success. #Success. It’s the word that follows us everywhere. But when the opposite of success, by definition, is failure, I’m not sure it’s a word I want in my vocabulary any more.
Maybe it’s time we stopped throwing around the word “success” so often. Maybe it’s time we stopped describing people as “successful” so often. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time we start considering other characteristics, like kindness and well-being, as aspirational. Imagine...
I make this argument from experience. I’ve sacrificed so much of my social life all in the name of success. I’ve neglected my well-being and suffered from gross health conditions thanks to stress (otherwise known as “success”). I’ve even read emails from my readers asking how I got to where I am today, all while crying after a particularly bad day. And for what?
Just so people can call me successful…? Success ebbs and flows. It changes with the seasons. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. But you can’t remove the pressures of conventional success from your life, without reconsidering how you think and talk about other people, too. So here’s something to remember the next time you start thinking about “success”:
Success is never yours to keep. Just when you can almost taste it and feel it in your grasp, your idea of it changes yet again. With success, there’s always a next step. My success, your success, our success is not only subjective, it’s an illusion. It’s a very personal thing and has very little to do with anyone else.
And really, how liberating is that?