Why I think I’m a gigantic failure and you probably think you are too

I’m not a revolutionary. I’m not a ‘thought leader’ (I don’t even know what that is, it sounds a bit self-important, to be honest. ‘What do you do?’ ‘Oh, I’m a thought leader, I sit around thinking things before other people’). I usually don’t even feel like I’m qualified to do my job, to run my business, or to help or encourage others in their lives due to my catastrophic loser-ness. I’m a bit of a failure, really.

But why? I’ve got a degree, and intellectually I know I’m good at what I do. So why is it so hard to accept that I’m successful?

What’s your definition of success?

Society tells us that success consists of a tidy package which includes a large house, a husband/ wife, and probably a couple of kids.

Society tells us that it’s good to be busy-  to out-busy all the other people so that we don’t have time to enjoy our lives, our big houses and children.

Society tells us that success is money.

Failure is not being unable to meet someone else’s goals

I used to have money. I used to live in a lovely home, had a perfectly acceptable husband, and two cats alongside heavy expectations for children. But I still wasn’t happy. I pursued happiness through the normal combination of bad decisions and high achievement at work. When that didn’t bring happiness, I blew everything apart with an acrimonious (and ongoing) divorce, a series of fairly unique choices, and ultimately running away to live in India.

Put simply: I’m not a ‘success’. As Ms. Cunningham, my 6th form accounting teacher said, I’m a space cadet. A loose cannon. A starving tortured writer, battling monkeys in my Bangalore apartment (this is an actual thing that happens, I have a monkey-stick to ward them off) and a series of random bank transactions that must leave my bank manager scratching his head.

Imposter syndrome

Wikipedia, the font of all internet knowledge, tells me that imposter syndrome is when, despite plenty of evidence of awesomeness and competence, sufferers are convinced they are frauds and that they don’t deserve their success. They attribute their success to external forces- luck, or to other people’s work, or that they’ve tricked others into thinking they are successful. There’s no intrinsic belief that their success has been earned by their own merits, skills, and hard work.

So, a warped sense of what constitutes success and a heavy dose of imposter syndrome, and you have me. But it’s not just me. I know a number of people that are the same. So how do we go about changing the rhetoric that is in our heads?

Kick somewhere else (find your goalposts)

To be honest with you, for me it was less of a conscious decision and more that I was propelled into a direction I had never considered by outside forces. It was a broken heart, and an unethical callous employer.

In the fracas following these events, somehow, I moved my goalposts. I realised success isn’t money, although it does make life easier. It’s certainly not owning a home, or having a partner, or owning things. In fact those things make life more difficult. For me, success is freedom. To travel. To live in a small home with all I need and nothing more (although I will always need one more pair of shoes). To have time to read books or take a long lunch with friends or to bake bread and pasta from scratch… or to work 16 hour days when I need to (and finding some balance, occasionally). When I found my success, a lot of the imposter syndrome disappeared.

So what are you kicking at?

If you’re following the prescribed course of success, I don’t think you’ll ever be happy, because they aren’t your goals, it’s not what makes YOU happy. Similarly, I don’t think living in India would make most people happy either.

As I grew up, I developed a real lack of interest in having children, and so it always surprised me that for some women, that was all they wanted to do. It took a while before I realised that what makes me happy- or successful- won’t be the same for everyone (and, even then, society now expects women to have more than one child, to be a fully available drop-your-kid-off-at-school-with-an-organic-non-GMO-lunch-Mum, AND work… but that’s another blog for another day).

We need to change our definition of success before we shrug off the belief that we are failures or imposters. Is success having ‘normal’, fed, clothed, and happy children? Is it owning your own company, to give you the freedom to do what you want? Is it having stacks of cash so you can buy expensive clothes and handbags? Is it living miles from a city, with fruit trees and goats and a deck that faces the sea? What really, truly, makes you happy?

Once you’ve figured that out, success is anything that leads you in that direction. With every choice you make, think: Is this taking you closer to your goal, or further away?

And once you’re successful- taking ever-incremental steps towards your own goals- you’re no longer failing. You’re no longer a failure.

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