I’ve been feeling a bit less than successful lately, especially when it comes to this blog. I’ve just found it hard to get down to writing. There have been all sorts of things, emotional, mental and practical getting in the way, but at the end of the day I just haven’t been doing it.
The dreaded overwhelm has got to me – too much to write about, too many other people writing about it all, too many writers better than me, not enough time, not enough ideas, not enough energy. The excuses come thick and fast and sometimes I see them for what they are.
So if they are ultimately excuses, what exactly is it that’s stopping me? Or rather, why am I stopping me? And who is that ‘I’ and who is that ‘me’ and why do I think they’re separate?! Not quite ready for that philosophical and/or spiritual question right at this moment so just keeping it close to surface level for now – in which case it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that it’s just the classic fear of failure, not being good enough, not being successful enough, not being enough.
With thoughts of that nature stewing in the back of my brain, something I read yesterday really struck a chord: in his book ‘The Confidence Gap’, Russ Harris talks about redefining success according to values instead of goals.
Isn’t it interesting how the language of success usually refers to material goals people have achieved – a certain amount of wealth, a level of seniority at work or the size of their house? So if someone talks about a ‘successful man’ or a ‘woman who’s made a success of herself’ we’ll usually assume they’re talking about jobs and/or money (see the lovely Michael J. Fox, above), even if our personal measures of success are different.
I like to think my definition of success for myself is less about money and more about the fulfilment which I would like to feel in all areas of my life – work, family, friendships, fun – but whatever it is, it’s still goals, things I haven’t achieved yet, at least not to the degree I would like. The thing is, that’s the way we function isn’t it, we’re always working towards something, we’ve never arrived at the place we want to be, and so from toddlerhood to old age we’re always trotting along or leaping or dragging our feet towards the next thing, thinking we’ll be ‘done’ when we get there.
Sixties philosopher and Zen dude Alan Watts expresses it so well in this excerpt from one of his talks ‘Why Your Life is Not a Journey’. In it he wonders why we’re all acting as if the point of life is to rush along to school, then university, then a job, then retirement… Couldn’t we live life in the same way we listen to a piece of music or the way we dance, he suggests, where the point isn’t to get to the end of the piece of music, or the dance (because that wouldn’t be much fun would it) but instead where every moment, every note, every shimmy of the hips, whether in the beginning, the middle or the end is as valid and worthy of attention as any other.
Which is why defining success according to values makes a lot more sense. While goals are by their nature in the future, and often the fairly distant future (‘when I’m a famous writer’ or ‘when I’ve paid off all my debts’, ‘when I’ve bought a house’ or ‘when I’m a proper grown-up’ – is that ever going to happen by the way?… ) and mean that success is always just out of reach (because even if you reach that goal, there’ll be another one lurking just behind it), values are just there all the time and that means you can measure your success by them at any time – and hopefully with more positive results.
First step then is to figure out what your values actually are. It might feel like a cheesy exercise, but that’s just because we’re cynical middle-aged Brits! Well I am anyway. Fighting my resistance to the task I came up with: authenticity, compassion, contribution, creativity, open-mindedness, respect and responsibility.
So to put the theory to the test… Have I created a marvellous, ‘successful’ blog with 100,000 subscribers and an self-generating income stream (that would be nice wouldn’t it)? No, I have not, yet… (goals). And I have been the most authentic, compassionate, giving, creative, open-minded, respectful and responsible person I can possibly be? No, not yet (still goals). But have I lived in accordance with my values this very day? Yes actually I have! I genuinely have. Hey presto, I am successful and actually I can feel pretty good about myself because of that.
Of course it’s not a magic formula, it is a shift in perspective which requires actual effort. Harris’ view is that using mindfulness as a tool every day can get you there. It’s worth checking out the technique he advocates called ACT (Acceptance Commitment Therapy) which at its core is about working with ourselves as we are and has proved to be significantly successful in the treatment of those suffering from depression and addiction. So it’s not just playing with words, this has the potential to be a powerful shift in mindset, especially of course if it’s applied early on in life.
So the mission is not just to apply it to myself but also to the kids. Unfortunately, being in our school system, which seems to be valuing hard academic goals over less measurable values and skills such as creativity, responsibility and adaptability more and more every day, means that kids absolutely cannot avoid falling into the same trap to at least some degree. Measuring their own success or failure by these goals that the system has put in place is sadly not setting them up to be confident, bold, happy people.
Countless studies have shown that focus on play and creativity provides the most widely beneficial start for all young children and exams are not only unnecessary but potentially damaging for primary school kids. But my nearly 9 year old is terrified of SATs and the possibility of the 11-plus, while half the kids in her year are being tutored to prepare for exams that are over a year away; the pressure of goals is rising.
Getting the best education for your child is a minefield which is becoming ever more precarious and there’s obviously no easy answer to this, but I think that recognising children’s achievements in living by their values – at least as much as academic goals – has got to be a start. It may even be the secret to their future success – fulfilment in work, relationships and all of life.
And if all that fails, I’d just like to end up floating on a giant fountain of champagne (now THAT’s the dream).