The concept of success is interesting to me. Surely, success looks different to everyone and is wholly relative to the goal in mind, and therefore “success” is an ever moving and subjective target. If success is tied to sacrifice, what does it actually mean to be successful, if one type of success might only exist in the absence of another? And if failure is the antonym to success, do we respect the journey and the work that goes in to reaching for our ambitions as much as the outcome, regardless of what that might be? These are questions I find myself asking, 23 and a university graduate, with an increasingly confused idea of what path I would like to take next. In absence of much experience or success in the professional world, I will take you on a journey through the education system, where we first encounter and experience what it is to achieve, and to fail.
You see, the prospect of tangible success just isn’t on my radar. That may be because the careers I have been interested in aren’t expected to earn much money, or because I don’t come from a background of wealth nor poverty, and therefore have felt no need to strive for more than I am accustomed to. Certainly, as I grow older, I appreciate the stability and the comfort that large amounts of money provide, so the need to earn a “decent” salary in my future career is something I am more acutely aware of. Money is associated with success, if we consider that the purpose of a job in our society is to provide for yourself and your loved ones some financial stability. However, I would also argue that there are (obviously) many other worthwhile things to achieve in this world, and many that could provide a person with a greater sense of fulfilment. Perhaps, this collective obsession with success isn’t always as positive as it might appear, and a measure of effort rather than ability might be a fairer representation of achievement. It is a complicated thing to think about, but now that I am, I realise I could not tell you what it is that I want to accomplish in my future. That is not to say that everyone must have X plan and Y goal, but still I have little idea of what might give me that sense of purpose and direction which we all crave to one extent or another. There are things I am interested in, even passionate about, but is it always wise to turn such passions into a career? These are not unusual questions for a person of my age to have, and I’m sure many can relate, but does that feeling of uncertainty ever go away? Do we wait for an epiphany to show us the way, or do we actively go looking? And once we have what we once wanted, will we feel satisfied or will we be distracted by a yearning for something else, something more?
I can’t imagine reaching a stage in my life where I feel I have attained something that might feel like accomplishment. That’s not to say that I don’t desire it, I just can’t imagine it. When I think about what I might pursue as a project or a career or an ambition, I can only foresee it falling flat. Why? I believe it all begins in our formative years, in education. From a young age I was told I was bright. To be honest, I was – at least by the standards that are assessed by our educational system. I was imaginative, creative, curious, an avid reader… the model infant student. However, I don’t remember that I put much effort into maintaining this level of proficiency at school and if it’s easy for you, you don’t have to learn how to try. I was a good kid, and I liked school. I was merely fortunate enough to be able to understand what I was being taught without much struggle, and so established myself as “gifted and talented” – a label given to some children to signify their superior intelligence and ability, although I’m not sure to what end. I moved to junior school and continued in the same way, a good student but not an exceptional student, maybe the second best in the class. I knew I was “bright”, and I enjoyed learning. By far my favourite subject was English, for reading and writing was my main hobby as a child and thankfully what I possessed the most natural skill for – I am sure the two are linked. But it was during junior school, as I developed into pre-adolescence, that an element of comparison and competition became present in my day to day life. A number of my close friends were also deemed “bright” but possessed much louder personalities than my own. Ambition and competitiveness are simply not in my nature. I kept up with them well enough, but when it came down to who was picked for this or that or who came first in the race or who got the best marks in class, it wasn’t me. I had come to expect that it might sometimes – inadvertently – be my turn to come out on top, because a lot of my self-worth had become entwined with the notion of being “bright”, of getting the best marks without really trying. At the same time, I was not one to brag or boast, and so I preferred to sink a little into submission and to accept that I would not be coming first easily again.
As you might imagine, this strategy was not going to see me through the rest of my education, and I would have to work a little harder. At secondary school, where teenagers grow more and more aware of their own existence and their place within society, I continued much the same. Although deep down and secretly feeling indignant and disappointed about not being the brightest and the best, I did well enough. I was in the “top set” for everything by default, a position determined by my earlier years in education, and although my natural proclivity for creative subjects like English and music meant that I could continue to do well in them without too much effort, I did have to try a little harder to keep up with the other things I was learning. Maths, for example, is not something that comes naturally to me at all, much to my frustration. This was a time when grades began to mean something real and palpable, and although I maintained very good grades throughout my time at school, when it came down to my final exams, I could undoubtedly have done a lot better. “Potential” was a word that was thrown around a lot by my teachers, and I knew despite my gruff teenage dismissal that what they said was true. I had accepted my inherent mediocrity and inability to achieve greatness before ever really trying in the first place. I had not practiced self-discipline, because I knew I could put in little work and still achieve perfectly respectable grades, but deep down I knew that I was failing myself. I knew that in some strange but all too familiar case of self-sabotage, I was too afraid to try. Because what if everyone was wrong? What if I really was just mediocre? It is so much harder to work hard and challenge yourself to do better than it is to just accept the status quo and plod along into the pedestrian. I knew I could do it, but I was afraid to fail, and so I allowed myself to develop bad habits and a negative attitude towards my abilities.
Later on and most recently at university, my relationship with my studies became all the more complex. I loved the student lifestyle and I loved discussing concepts in seminars with people who cared about the same things I did. However, I got progressively worse at being the student I wanted to be. The times that I worked hard but received lesser grades than I had previously perturbed me. This was close enough to failure for me to continue to coast through most of my course, enjoying and participating but always leaving room for plausible deniability. Standardised intellectual success had become intertwined with self-doubt, and disappointing grades became a reflection of my identity rather than just the individual effort applied to reach that outcome. As many students do, I left work until the last possible moment, promising myself each time would be the last. A strange feeling of calm came over me as deadlines loomed closer and closer, lulled into a false sense of security by early assignments but also repressing a very real sense of hopelessness about my ability to do as well as I could. Be it force of habit or a reaction to stress, I was sometimes unable to produce anything of worth until the adrenaline of an approaching submission came over me. Even that burn out in my final year, which culminated in a series of late submissions and my first ever application for special considerations. Of course, university life invites a multitude of different lessons and experiences both good and bad, arguably more on a social level than an academic one, but the pressure to come out of uni with a respectable classification is ever present in the minds of every final year student. It wasn’t until what remained of my final semester before Covid-19 cut it short that I finally felt ready to take on my studies in the way I had always intended. Receiving positive feedback had filled me with relief, not pride, and at times I even felt guilty, as though I didn’t deserve to do well because I could have tried harder. That I didn’t deserve to do better than friends who worked much harder and didn’t do as well on paper. I told myself I didn’t really care about results day, because I had put nothing on the line.
As an adult, after completing my university degree and in the absence of other things to occupy my mind, I am left still doubting. For at 23, I do not feel as if I have ever truly applied myself or challenged myself to do something really difficult, and accomplished it. Even as I realise this I am disappointed in myself, but more importantly I am acutely aware of how much I am now afraid to have aspirations and to reach for them. Of how conscious I am of my limitations, in all aspects of my life. I am surrounded by supportive family and friends who will back me wherever I choose to go, and deep down I know I could do anything. The only thing holding me back is my own innate sense of insufficiency, which is ironic in itself; how could I be insufficient at something I haven’t even tried to do? As I continue to learn more and more about myself with each passing day, I realise that to challenge myself to challenge myself is both the most valuable and terrifying investment I could make.
I am not suggesting that I was in any way failed by the educational system; that would be glaringly arrogant and an oversight of privilege and personal responsibility. I have been shown nothing but support and encouragement in my endeavours. I am probably being a little self-indulgent, as I did put the work in when it mattered and have a first class degree to show for it, but I do not doubt that this insidious feeling of inadequacy will be familiar to a lot of people. Often times I have wondered if I am merely lazy, but the term doesn’t quite seem to fit right. Our development from childhood to adolescence to “adulthood” is certainly shaped by our experiences at school, which does make me wonder… if I had been forced to put in a little more effort and develop a better sense of self-discipline and challenge, what might I have achieved? And, more significantly, why are we so obsessed with the idea of comparative success in the first place? We are jealous of individuals with a natural, seemingly effortless talent, but it is the people who work tirelessly and without excuses who we admire. I would argue that a person who has consistently put their all into their work should be considered equally – if not more – successful than a person who achieves the same without the same input. Success is certainly subjective, and one might argue that success on a greater scale is not sustainable and therefore problematic in itself. But to have some goal, no matter how big or small, to work hard to get there and one day feel that sense of achievement… this is not a feeling I think I have ever experienced.
I think I might like to give it a try.
Image courtesy of Thought Catalogue.