Re-Defining Success

With New Years having just passed under our nose, it is once again that time of year where we place ourselves under the microscope for rigorous self-inspection. A season of gluttonous self-indulgence brought to a close, the  leap from depravity to punishment fits in nicely with the spirit of the religious festivities. For every drink or pie too many there is a sin to atone for, and the tallying up of our annually- accumulated vices sweeps us into the new year on a fresh wave of disgust and loathing. This year however I found the idea of waiting till New Years to change my life positively comical. With self-improvement and wellness very much in vogue, tearing yourself to shreds only to build yourself back up again is an year round, if not daily, activity.

As a recent graduate seeking employment this has been especially true in my case. Prepping myself each day with a series of daily resolutions as I enter the intellectual pageantry of job-seeking, the bid to make myself ‘worthy’ has become an unrelenting endeavour. With each job-spec highlighting my shortcomings, waiting until January 1st to up-skill is a luxury I simply cannot afford.

Since it began, my job-seeking process has become all-consuming. As a young graduate whooshed out from my university cradle, it has been an unspoken, mutual understanding reached by society at large the becoming gainfully employed would be my de facto purpose in life. The discussion is not whether I should look for a job it is a forgone conclusion. The pressure feels immense at times. Days of unemployment stretch ahead of me like an indeterminate prison sentence, each job application like a parole meeting.

Society has come define work as virtue rather than a means to an end and being educated and unemployed is tantamount to a sin. Friends that have chosen to enjoy the time between jobs rather than fill the void say feel ashamed of the indulgence of “doing nothing”. Gaps on your CV timeline are the ultimate faux pas, prompting suspicion and demands for explanation.

In modern times we have become so fixated with work it has fused with our identity, leading us to vilify those that are unemployed. This was touched on in a piece in The Atlantic where the author hypothesises a world without work by taking a look back on a time, surprisingly not long ago, when work was interspersed with play and free time was not equated with idleness.

I have grown fed up with feeling unsuccessful because I do not have a job. Or more accurately, I have grown fed up with employment and career advancement being used as the sole benchmark of success. On some level acknowledge that friends, family, good health and happiness are the most important things in life, but it remains confined to an idealistic plane of existence, reserved for late-night discussions over glasses of wine rather than how we actually define or live our lives.

Unlike our parents’ generation, millennials regard their careers as an opportunity to realise their purpose in life. While that is certainly for the better, their ability to be mutual exclusive from one another is too easily forgotten. Success is broadly defined as “the accomplishment of an aim or a purpose”, but in our modern-career driven lives we have demoted it job success. The gendered phrase, “the successful businessman” has been drilled into me since I was a child, but does one ever hear of a stay-at-home mum being described as successful? Even a Google search of ‘successful mother’ brings up webpages overwhelmingly referring to ‘career mothers’, as though raising children is no achievement in itself. Would we ever describe a father as ‘successful’ if he gave up a career to mind is children?

Looking for a job is exhausting and demoralising. With the final decision out of your hands, it is easy to feel powerless and consumed by the search. No matter how much graft you put in, unless you lockdown an employment contract the finishing line continues to taunt you from the same distance. Perhaps the most tragic thing of all is that those with jobs are also perpetually miserable while at work, but even more so on their downtime. A famous study of Chicago workers in 1989 led psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Judith LeFevre to describe this as ‘the paradox of work’: their results showed that workers wished they were somewhere else when working, but still reported feeling better and less anxious at work than anywhere else.

If I am potentially going to be miserable either way, it seems that using employment status as the watermark is a rather skewed way of defining success. Beginning this 2017 I intend to rectify that by applying my own definition success. Does that mean I’ll stop looking for a job? No. Does that mean I’ll stop looking for a job that I deem to have purpose? No again. But it does mean I will stop myself from using a formula of success that favours work over happiness.

I will define my own purpose and I will define my own success.


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