When Success Comes Calling, Are You Going to Like Who You Are?
Lately, I’ve been wrestling with my definition of ‘success.’
When I was younger, I believed success looked like me sitting in a glass corner office with the word ‘Partner’ emblazoned on a gold plaque on the door. This image was the ultimate goal and I did everything I could in high school to fulfil this vision: I put my head down, worked hard and got accepted into a reputable law school.
In my third year, I was accepted into a one-day training program at one of the top-tier law firms in Australia. I vividly remember walking down the ‘Paris’ side of Collins St into a grand building, riding the elevator up to the 30th floor, and nearly keeling over in excitement when I saw the marble floors and glass windows. The rest of the day was a blur of endless cups of coffee from the firm’s shiny coffee machine, small talk with overly-friendly grads about the company-culture, and bottomless glasses of wine. A part of me knew this was only an illusion. The firm was pulling out all the bells and whistles to woo us into applying for a job. But as I sat in the conference room overlooking Melbourne’s beautiful skyline with white wine in one hand and a canape in the other, I remember thinking to myself, ‘this is what success looks like.’
Those of you who have been here for a while know this isn’t where the story ends.
Shortly after the training program, I landed an internship at another law firm where I was confronted with the mundane day-to-day realities of the job. While sifting through the firm’s convoluted correspondence with a client, I experienced a heavy, overwhelming feeling of dread at the idea that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. So I thrust myself onto a new, seemingly free path; one that would ultimately let me call the shots and label myself as a creative professional.
From there, my definition of success evolved to look like me winning coveted business awards, being profiled in reputable business magazines, and yes, pulling in six-figures into my bank account. When I subsequently signed on a client that gave me the opportunity to punch my one-way ticket to ‘success’, it was like the cherry on top of my chocolate ice-cream sundae.
What I’d quickly forgotten was that I hated cherries — especially ones on top of sundaes. Although it looked decadent and luxurious from the outside, it tasted bitter and rancid. While I was on track to get the vision I always wanted, it came at a great cost to my happiness and mental health. I saw the extent some people were willing to compromise their values and integrity to achieve their definition of ‘success’, and I learned the painful way that reality never really lives up to the fantasy.
It’s easy to adopt the world’s definition of success when all you see are the Kylie Jenner’s and Elon Musk’s of the world splattered across magazine covers. It’s easy to set out with grand plans to ‘do good’ and then get swayed by the siren call of shiny trophies and accolades along the way. But it can come at a great cost. Left unchecked, our blind pursuit of success can take us so far away from the person we set out to be that we can barely recognise ourselves.
Jim Carrey famously puts it like this:
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
I don’t write this to discredit these kinds of aspirations, but to gently ask: is this the version of success you truly want? Or are you desperately in search of something beyond material wealth — like security, love, or self-actualisation?
I finally understand what people mean when they say ‘success is a journey, not a destination.’ Life is a continuous pursuit of destinations. Even when we reach our version of ‘there’, we’re always going to want more.
Now I know it’s not about the accolades or fame we get at the end of the road – it’s about the person we are along the way.
Now, I like to ask myself:
Am I living a life that’s aligned with my values?
Am I leaving people better than I found them?
If I were to leave this world tomorrow, would I look back and be proud of my actions?
When the applause and praises die down, will I be able to look in the mirror and say I’m happy with the person I am today?