The measure of success


You know what? I’m getting pretty fed up with hearing that the only way to make it as a businessperson is to work shit-hard hours and ignore your family, friends and any other needs or priorities you might have. I was on a flight recently and the Easyjet magazine profiled the daily routines of three of the most successful creative professionals of the year or something… The first guy was a fashion brand (I hadn’t heard of him, although I wouldn’t take that as a mark of his success or lack thereof, in fairness) and the second was a graphic designer (director of Saatchi in Germany if I recall, who I HAVE heard of but it would be a poor look-out indeed, as a graphics graduate, if I had not). Both of them preached that gospel – start early, work til late, don’t even go home if you need to get the job done. Neither of them seemed to have much time for, or interest in, anything outside of work – although that might be down to the context of the article.

I don’t doubt that the cane-it model works for some people. I’m absolutely certain these guys are vastly more wealthy than I am and have big exciting lives. Some peoples’ priority is make as much money as fast as you can – that’s what success means to them. But that supposed success – at what cost does it come?

I have my own business and I’ve been on a learning curve about what that means, and what I can do with it. For a long time, I felt I was letting my clients down if I didn’t totally slave away at it all week, plus as many evenings and weekends as I could manage. I wanted to please everyone and I wanted to do ALL THE PROJECTS.

But you know what? I was living under a constant cloud of guilt because no matter how much I did, it was never enough. I never got to the end of the to-do list and the clients sure as hell didn’t care that I was busting a gut – they always wanted that bit (or a lot) more than I was able to give them. The end result was me totally stressed, exhausted, anxious and no good to anyone. It took me a while to turn my thinking around from “what am I doing wrong? Why am I not stronger, faster, better, more capable? What’s wrong with ME?” to, “Hang on – what’s wrong with the rest of the world? This can’t be healthy – there must be another way.”

I still battle to find a balance between the various elements I’m trying to fit into one life, or more specifially, one particular short phase of one life. The starting a family phase – which, by the cruel machinations of biology, usually falls right into the period when we are reaching our career peak. We’ve done the study, the years of experience; we’ve found our niche, our passion, if we’re lucky. I set my business up after seven years of study and diverse working experiences within my field, feeling as ready as I’d ever be and hot for the challenge. Six months later, I fell pregnant (and that already after a couple of years of “properly” trying). I had come to the conclusion that there’s never a good time to have kids, when you’re a working person who intends to continue working, so you just have to balance it as best you can. I had no idea how motherhood would hit me (and boy did it hit me; more of which in other posts), I just knew it was something I wanted to do…

It ended up being a good excuse to run the company down for more than half a year; I was fortunate to be in a position to do so. I was able to let go the responsibilities and worries for a while – it may be my passion, but that doesn’t make the day-to-day stress and challenges any easier to deal with. This became a source of guilt and confusion in itself – if I am passionate about what I do, why am I so happy to abandon it for a spell?

Eventually, though, I came to the conclusion that I would be leaving a part of myself unfulfilled if I didn’t get back to it, and of course I made the classic mistake of trying to go back at full force, more determined, stronger and better than before. I ended up worse than ever, anxiety and depression hounding me and hindering both my productivity and my personal life. I started looking for help, looking into other ways to manage things, to balance the books and my mental health. I took a hard look at the real priorities and finally started to understand I had to put myself in front of everything else – if I’m not ok, how am I going to be a good mother? A good partner? Provide a good service in my work? So number 1 is number 1, and then it’s family, and only after that comes work. I had it all twisted.

So these days? I am not in the office by 7am – or even 9am – every day. I don’t work many 12 hour or even 8 hour days, partly because now I’m pregnant again and it seems I’ve been given the right to the full frequency range of ailments (bad back, pelvic dysfunction, levels of bad sleep and physical exhaustion not at all comparable to the first time around). But partly just because work – this job, even though it IS my passion – is not the only thing in my life. It’s not the number one priority. My wellbeing is, and my family, and spending time on the various things that light me up. I am – sadly or happily – not a one-track person, I have what feels like a bazillion interests and I start to dim if I don’t do a bit of each of them from time to time.

If that makes me an irresponsible and imperfect professional, so be it. I think it makes me a more honest and more stable person, and that, to me, is far more important. I really want us to stop valuing the hard-graft-until-you’re-a-millionaire model as the measure of success. I’m not into judging, so if that model works for you – great. But if you’re unhappy being stuck in that mentality and some of this resonates with you, stop for a moment and think about what success means to you. Is it money? A big house and a Learjet? Or is it earning enough to live comfortably, sustainably, and having time to do fun stuff and spend time with your loved ones? I kind of want it all… but I don’t really need a private jet. You have to make a few choices at some point, but the choice doesn’t have to come down to career OR kids, family OR business success. That much I’ve found to be true.


Acknowledgements: I owe some of these insights to friends, colleagues and coaches who have illustrated some strands of the spectrum of what’s possible today, challenging the traditional bust-a-gut model. If you fancy looking into this further I can recommend Ria van Doorn and Yasmin Vorajee, who have some pretty inspiring thoughts on the subject. Thanks again, ladies.


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