What does success really mean? And why are we so scared of failure? What would happen if we weren’t fearful of failure – and if we redefined what success means?
For all the rational thoughts we know are the right ones to fill up our psyche with, there’s a deep need within all of us for external validation. We’re scared to fail because we’re terrified of what people will think. It’s irritating that we need others to tell us we’re ‘good’ before we believe it ourselves. Why can’t we just pat ourselves on the back? Why is it that we get ten positive comments and one negative one, and then let the negative one ruin our day? Or sit on social media, scrolling mindlessly through posts by hundreds of people we’ve labelled as successful, paralysed by inadequacy. The reality is we have no idea what is going on in their lives, but the comparison still creeps in. If we keep comparing, we’ll never win. Ever. Success is about living your life and not comparing it to others (I’m sure Adam agrees).
Society tells us success is money and power. If you have those two things, you’re destined to be happy. Only you’re really not. It’s so much more complicated than that. Some of the world’s wealthiest people are miserable (mind you, a private jet to a private island does sound rather nice). ‘Defining success is one of the most powerful things you can do as a family, as a couple, individually. There is a default definition that is “money, materialism, accomplishment, and achievement”. So, if you don’t come up with your own subversive definition, there is a default,’ Brené said.
To start to define success and what it means to you, you also need to define failure. Because, while none of us plan to fail, inevitably we all will at some point in our lives. I have, and you probably have too. We all do. When I interviewed Jodie Fox, the co-founder of Shoes of Prey, we talked a lot about rapid success and what happens when you fail. It’s something Jodie is well versed in – her bespoke shoe company Shoes of Prey raised over $35 million in venture capital in its first two years. Its concession store in David Jones’s Sydney city store did double its forecasted revenue in the first 12 months. At its peak, the business had over 220 employees. ‘I never felt particularly present with it,’ she said of success. She’s not alone; many of us arrive at a dreamt of accomplishment and it doesn’t feel as we imagined.
We’ve given everything to success. We’ve worked day and night. We’ve sacrificed time with our loved ones, hoping they’d still be there when we achieved triumph. Then, it finally comes and we lack contentment because we’re so burnt out. In August 2018, Shoes of Prey went into administration. It failed. It hurts to fail. Then there’s the shame of failing. People admire you when you succeed. They praise you. It’s impressive. Failing makes people uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say. ‘Do you know there are still days that I’m navigating it now?’ Jodie said to me. ‘That’s the honest truth … I was so embarrassed and ashamed.’
Shame. Humiliation. Disappointment. There are so many emotions tied up in failure because it’s the thing we aspire to the least. We want success. ‘When there wasn’t this clear thing that I needed to be doing every second of the day and there weren’t fifty meetings jammed in and 500 emails to reply to, which I never get to the bottom of, I felt lost and purposeless. So that really was thrashing against this loss of identity. I’m not going to walk into a room anymore and be like, “Hi I’m Jodie Fox from Shoes of Prey.” I’m just walking in and saying, “Hi, I’m Jodie, it’s nice to meet you.”’
If you look at the failure rates of businesses, approximately 90 per cent fail within their first year. Here’s the thing: we only ever truly fail if we use failure as an excuse to stop trying. If we give up and give in to fear, we fail. If we keep going, no matter how many times we get knocked over, isn’t that the greatest measure of success? I think so. Jodie got back up, became a mother and a speaker and wrote a book – Reboot: Probably More Than You Ever Wanted to Know about Starting a Global Business – detailing her experience. She’s one of the most successful people I know.
When I interviewed Nikki Gemmell – the best-selling author of thirteen novels and four works of non-fiction – we spoke about her career. Even with all her success, she opened up about rejection. ‘It’s a life full of rejection,’ she said of being a writer. ‘I still get rejection. I’ve been a writer now for thirty years and you’ve just got to be someone who’s resilient enough to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep on going,’ she told me.
Having the courage to get back up matters. It really does. ‘I think writing is 99 per cent grit and discipline and hunger and focus and maybe 1 per cent talent, if that. I think the writers who succeed are the ones who just keep on at it, who keep doing it, who are motivated enough to keep on going, despite the slings and arrows, the criticism, the rejections, the heartache, the heartbreak, because that’s what the career is. But when it’s flying, when it’s working, there’s nothing like it. I just feel so grateful to have been able to have a career where I do what I really want to do in life and that’s write,’ said Nikki.
When I was building The Grace Tales, I had no idea how to build a digital media business, but night after night I tried. Often people would tell me I was lucky to run my own business, and I wondered if they realised that I spent most nights glued to my laptop after my babies went to bed. Success isn’t about being lucky. It’s not easy. There’s no shortcut. It’s just pure grit. Whatever your dream of success is – raising a family, building a company, becoming a Buddhist nun, adopting a child, advocating for something you believe in, travelling the world – none of it comes about without hard work. There were many times I failed, and the rejection stung. It was because of the meaningful relationships in my life that I kept going; the relationships that supported me then and now.