lifestyle

I thought success meant wearing a suit

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Through high school my version of success was embarrassingly simple. I had a vague image picked out from any number of bad movies of a girl returning to her home town for Christmas or some family reunion, dressed in a suit. It was that simple. Success was wearing a well-cut suit. I extrapolated out from there and figured jobs requiring suits required good marks at school and getting into university. From there I figured a suited job would await and success would be a wrap. A suited job did await but success was not alongside.

I can’t recall whether I was in a doctor’s waiting room or the non-descript reception of a legal office but either is possible. Whichever waiting room it was, it was the place where I finally twigged.  It dawned on me that my suited job did not feel anything like success. I felt ripped off.

For so long I had chased one version of success – oblivious to any other adaptation – which came to equate my personal worth with external acknowledgements like being awarded a good mark or landing a job at a reputable law firm or wearing a suit to work. It helped through university but out in the wide world I could suddenly see its failings.

I realised that outside the confines of school there was no teacher and no one was awarding me marks. I was on my own. In that moment the expression shifting paradigms finally made sense. I realised success was however I chose to define it. And it was far more complex than my girl-in-a-well-cut-suit version. That version suddenly felt terribly misguided and naive.

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As terrifying as this discovery seemed, it also felt exhilarating. To wrest myself from the imaginary grip of report cards. I was momentarily cross at my school and at the movies for failing to broaden my definition of success from achievement – academic or suit-wearing – but I let it go as I had more pressing matters at hand. For example, what the hell kind of life did I want??? As opposed to what kind of life did I think I’d get good marks for.

As a solicitor I spent every many a waking minute wondering exactly what it was that made me feel so uncomfortable in my job. I worked with some exceptionally difficult characters who certainly contributed but I also worked with some exceptionally wonderful people who evened things out. Eventually – in that same waiting room – I realised I was miserable because I was living a life that didn’t fit me. I felt like I was having an affair. Like I was betraying my work colleagues because in my head and heart I wanted a different life. In the office I looked around and as much as I tried I couldn’t see lives I wanted to emulate.

This was difficult to reconcile. These were people who the high school version of myself would have nominated as being highly successful. Occupying prestigious positions, undertaking major roles, leading big teams of driven lawyers, earning large sums of money, many of whom I really really liked … but I looked and looked and looked and I couldn’t drum up a modicum of envy. I didn’t want their lives. That’s not demeaning. I battled myself on that point for months but eventually I accepted it was my version of success versus another’s. Not like for like. Success is in the eye of the beholder.

I wish in that moment – when it truly sunk in that the world (or at least my definition of success) was my oyster – I could say I resigned and grabbed my other dreams with open arms. I didn’t. Fortunately a whack of illness eventually conspired in my favour. It enforced a break and then prompted my resignation. That break gave me some blank space to properly re-think my take on success. And it looked nothing like a girl in a suit.

The short of the long of it was realising internal factors like my personal enjoyment, health, fulfilment and sanity are far better indictors of my success than the external acknowledgements I so used to love.

So, that’s how I got my head around success. I feel like I made these realisations quite late in the piece and I wonder how and when other people determine their versions of success?

How does success look and feel to you? Has your definition of success changed over the years? What will you need to have done in life to feel “successful”?

Georgie is a reformed lawyer, one-time journalist and newish wife and mother,

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