“My name is Tola Fisher, I’m 34 and I’m not living a successful life.” This is how my TEDx Talk began last year, as I started to unpick what I saw as the myth of success and the effect it was having on my own life.
I had been suffering from the sickness of comparison – heightened by non-stop visibility on social media. Why was I living in a home I did not own? Why wasn’t I driving a car with a hefty price tag?
Where oh where were my visible indicators of “success”? (I am not by any means knocking these displays of wealth. My concern however, is that they should be seen as exactly that and not the picture of a “successful life”.)
A few years ago, I saw a tube advert with the slogan, “Use your 6-9 to improve your 9-5”. Once this was a reality faced by many families trying to improve their wellbeing — now, working in the daytime and studying at night is presented as aspirational for the entire working population.
For those of us who do not have the same levels of financial necessity, the nonetheless constant activity has been applauded because we have laboured under the premise that productivity equals being successful.
In current times of pandemic, the constant show of “doing” has gone out of the window as we turn to self-isolation and social-distancing.
The hustle energy with which we’ve previously been encouraged to “rise and grind” in order to live a successful life cannot be mustered when you’re trying to wfh along with flatmates, children who need to be home schooled or a manager insistent on 10 Zoom meetings a day to prove you are actually working.
At my all-girls’ school, we were taught that we could be anything we wanted. And I’m grateful for the education I have had and the opportunities to live out my childhood dream of being a writer.
But the “we can have it all” narrative deprives us from recognising that “having it all” is not necessarily a measure of being successful.
None of the advice from my school guidance counsellors included a career as a cleaner, a carer or even a parent. They are seen as the traditional roles for women and, although we don’t often admit it, the easier ones.
Recently, self-titled “Tradwife” Alena Pettitt faced a backlash after appearing on ITV’s This Morning to talk about why she voluntarily quit a career in marketing to become a housewife.
On her blog, The Darling Academy, she says, “Don’t get me wrong, I am forever grateful for feminism and the courageous women who went before me, to win the vote for me, to win choices for me.
However in the wake of all that, it doesn’t give them the permission to tell me I can be anything I want to be, but it’s simply ‘not enough’ to want to stay at home and raise my children, take care of my husband, and my home.”
Those of us now forced to stay at home all day with our children will realise, perhaps more than ever, that full-time parenting is bloody hard. And yet to some, like Alena, it can be even more successful than working outside the home.
As recently as a month ago, the government released plans to stop issuing visas to low-skilled workers such as carers, shop staff and cleaners.
Fast forward to the spread of coronavirus and suddenly we are clamouring to support these actually rather skilled and particularly necessary members of our community. Ironically, much of our success in this uncertain time will rely on this once maligned group of people.
The joint clapping for the NHS on 26 March this year was the biggest show of togetherness the UK has seen for a long time and I sense we will all come out of this pandemic very much changed.
Our “doing” may no longer be determined by the lure of things to show off to our friends – not immediately anyway. Hopefully much closer to our hearts will be where we set our value and how we pay attention to the things most important to us.
After so much isolation, individualist pursuits may no longer appeal compared to our relationships with family, friends, even our neighbours, or contributing to the community.
Maybe this is time for us to build our own successful stories. What would make you proud even if no one else knew about it?
Having a sense of self-satisfaction is a success indicator we should not ignore and, since we may be stuck indoors for a while, we have plenty of opportunities to seek that out in our everyday lives. And maybe that’s what can steer us away from chasing “success”, towards a life we can be truly proud of.
Tola Doll Fisher is a writer and speaker.