Let me tell you about a very successful man. He’s a good guy, in his mid-40s and a senior VP at a large bank; he’s one of their top people in London. For many years, he successfully navigated his way around – and up – the organisational hierarchy. His values of loyalty, shrewdness and caution were magnificently aligned with those of his employer, and had served him well: he was likely to be given a major promotion within the year.
Like many before him, he struggled to balance the needs of his career with the needs of his family. They wanted to see more of him. His wife was a successful political blogger, and they had two children under the age of ten. The activities of his bank were coming under the scrutiny of his increasingly politically-aware children. For example, they would not describe the bank’s investments in African infrastructure (railway construction and dam-building in particular) in the same glowing terms used in the bank’s annual report. Indeed, the very basis of capitalism itself was now being challenged by the family it had supported for so many years. This guy struggled with the tension between his own shifting values, and those of the organisation to which he had devoted his working life. After all, these values – along with the handsome salary and sometimes extravagant bonuses – had paid for the family’s beautiful regency house; not to mention the holidays, expensive schooling and live-in childcare.
This man’s sense of identity, his very essence, had – since leaving school – been defined by the tradition, discipline and rules of his job; he had learnt to measure both his professional and personal success in these rather narrow terms. But he’d come to realise that, inside, what he really wanted to do – his big dream – was to escape to the coast and become a full-time kiteboarder.
Thanks to the shrewd interventions of a close family friend, he found himself beginning to question whether he really wanted to be the person he had become. When he voiced these concerns at work, he found himself being ostracised. His definition of success, which he had slavishly worked towards for decades, was changing. And his work colleagues were scared by this, to the extent that on one occasion, during such a conversation, his cycling helmet was damaged by a senior colleague.
Of course, this is not the story of a real person. It’s the updated story of Mr Banks, esteemed banker and father to Jane and Michael Banks in the Disney adaption of PL Travers’ Mary Poppins. But the struggle is, as they say, real. And enduring. For all its saccharine, the movie pointedly forces us to question what we mean by ‘success’. The first time I watched Mary Poppins again, as an adult in my late thirties, I cried. Big, sobbing, blubbing tears. Professionally, I was surrounded by Mr Banks’s; and at some profound level I knew that I was in danger of becoming him, too. And that wasn’t who I wanted to become. But moving away from that felt impossible. Society was judging my success, and I had internalised those measures of success so that they became my own. Measures with which I could beat myself stupid, at times. I hadn’t realised just how unhealthy it was to define my success in such narrow terms: job title; house; car; money in the bank.
It’s not like this is a new phenomenon. Dickens created Scrooge expressly to warn of the perils of getting one’s priorities all wrong. But it’s not easy to escape: as a society we seem simultaneously drawn to materialism as a measure of success, whilst hating ourselves for it. There’s something about the ‘I’m very successful but I wish I’d focused on the important things in life’ motif which we can’t resist. In this era of fake news, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the hoax story that did the rounds in the years after Steve Jobs’ death. This story told how, when Jobs died in 2011, he left behind a deathbed disquisition, in which he reappraised his life with the insight afforded him by his impending death. The letter apparently began “I reached the pinnacle of success in the business world. In others’ eyes, my life is an epitome of success. However, aside from work, I have little joy. In the end, wealth is only a fact of life that I am accustomed to”. The treatise was exposed as a hoax within days, although that of course was too late to prevent the story from circulating widely on social media. Even Richard Branson was drawn to the message, which he found – and still finds – inspirational.
So in my late 30s, I found myself having a genuine Steve Jobs moment all of my own, without the inconvenience and unnecessary drama of dying. It was this that led me to slowly change my career path to one which I hoped would be less stressful and ultimately more fulfilling. My values were changing. How I defined myself – and even saw myself – was changing. And yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I was doing, by stepping away from conventional ‘success’, somehow signified failure. It fed nicely into my existing fears and shame of not being good enough – good enough for what exactly, I did not know. So strongly had I internalised the ‘rules of success’ as dictated by what I now identified as a mercenary, low-empathy world, that I felt totally inadequate. Fast forward ten years, and my life and career have changed beyond recognition. I do a job that I (mostly) love, that plays (mostly) into my core values of what’s important to me, and that others (mostly) value. I have flexibility to spend more time with my daughter. I am intrinsically happy. I live in a modest house. Whereas Mr Banks learnt to fly a kite, I learnt to play guitar. I notice the seasons. I am surrounded by love. I have a purpose. Yet I earn around a third of what I was paid by my last employer. Even now, merely typing that sentence fills me with a sense of shame that I must fight with all my heart: such is the power of societal pressure about what ‘success’ looks like. The unhelpful little voice in my head whispers ‘Am I really only a third as successful as I was when I worked in the City’?
These days, I am skint a lot of the time. The days of buying the latest in anything I wanted are over, although I’m still reluctant to admit this (ah, the power of self-imposed shame!). But I love my job, and the freedom it gives me to work how I want. I have also learnt that it is up to each of us to create our own definition of success, and to live life in such a way that we meet our definition. A quick google shows that there are many aphorisms about how to achieve success. But there are few that really question how to define it, or that challenge society’s narrow view of what constitutes success. Bob Dylan comes close in my book – “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do” – but my favourite is Einstein, who is quoted as saying “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value”. To do this, we each of us must first try to understand what it is that we truly value. Just like Mr Banks.