When I was in my early 20s, I had a very clear definition of what success looked like. It meant having a job that impressed your relatives at Christmas and earned you enough money to live in a converted warehouse and holiday annually in Paris.
For my friends and I, success wasn’t just a recipe (prestigious job + good income = successful life), it was also a simple pass or a fail. You either were a “success” or (brutally) you were not.
And so we spent our 20s furiously trying to be successful. Putting in long, enthusiastic hours at work, coming up for air to holiday somewhere cool, but making sure the house-deposit savings didn’t cop too much of a dent. Or that our career progress wasn’t interrupted.
But as we’ve neared and reached our 30s, that definition has started to wobble. I look at one friend – a lawyer who works in a big city firm – who isn’t sure she wants to keep working 80-hour weeks to burn out like her seniors. Another is wondering how to combine an investment banking career that took her to London and New York with a new baby. A third is looking at doing volunteer work one day aweek, as she has realized that her job as a government policy adviser doesn’t make her happy on its own.
Somewhere along the way, success has morphed from something we could just “tick off” into something that is a lot harder to pin down.
One could argue that it’s entirely normal – ideal even – to reassess priorities as you get older. But as my friends and I think about which mix of career, love, family and lifestyle will add up to “success” at this stage of life, an international movement has come along to shake up the term altogether.
Spearheaded by Arianna Huffington – best known as editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post – The Third Metric aims to redefine success.
Up until now, says Huffington, the workplace and how it measures success have been defined on male terms – namely money and power. Not only is this too narrow, it is leaving both women and men stressed, burnt out and sleep deprived. With The Third Metric, Huffington is arguing for a more “humane” and “sustainable” definition of success that also includes wellbeing, wonder, empathy and giving. She is even billing it as feminism’s newest mission: “The first revolution was about women getting the vote, the second was getting an equal place at every level of society ... The third revolution is changing the [workplace] world that men have designed.” Huffington is not the first to advocate a healthier approach to the office (the concept of “work-life balance” has been around for years). Nor is she the first to argue that competing in a “man’s world” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (hello, Germaine Greer).
But The Third Metric push also comes as our office lives take up more and more of the rest of our lives, thanks to a nonstop, technology-fuelled working culture that glorifies “crazy busy”. And, as the (small) number of women in many types of top-level jobs appears to have plateaued.
But what is success?
No matter what the official definition is, it depends on whom you ask. For my friend Keshvar*, 31, success is a range of things: “It’s being healthy, physically and emotionally, a job that earns good money – but doesn’t define me – and my child coming home with a smile on his face.”
For 33-year-old Alice*, it has been about a law degree, a Harvard MBA and competing in the corporate world – as well as starting a family. “I really like working with intelligent people,” she says.
And whether you’re a Keshvar or an Alice – or someone entirely different – your level of ambition or definition of success is determined by a range of factors.
Psychologist Dr Tim Sharp says that a combination of genetics, early formative life events and attitudes instilled by parents or role models play a part in shaping what “success” means to you, as well as “conscious decisions” we make in the present.
Life coach Shannah Kennedy, who works with CEOs and elite athletes, says that along with our personal definition of success, we need to have a “well thought out plan” of how to get there.
And while successful people come in all shapes and sizes, they tend to share certain psychological strengths, such as perseverance, flexibility, optimism and a sense of gratification. “Successful people focus on what they have rather than what they don’t have,” reveals Dr Sharp. “They say thank you more often.”
Does gender play a role in defining success?
Some experts believe that gender plays a role, too. It is a thorny and much debated idea – that men and women approach success differently – and one often wheeled out to explain the shortage of women CEOs or MPs. Maybe, the argument goes, women simply don’t want these high-pressure, high-status roles.
Feminists such as Tanja Kovac, convenor of political action group EMILY’s List Australia, dismiss this kind of talk as “rubbish”, saying it obscures the real issues, such as discrimination and the difficulties of combining work with motherhood.
However, US-based gender analyst Barbara Annis believes that men and women see success differently. She argues that men define success as “winning”, while women want to be valued as well as to win. Other studies have suggested that while women are just as ambitious as men, they’re more selective about when they engage in competition. In other words, they weigh up the cost of competing in a way men don’t. Others believe that if this is the case, it’s because women have been socialised to act this way.
For her part, Huffington – who, as a global media entrepreneur, best-selling author and one-time political candidate is no stranger to success – is not advocating that women opt out. The Third Metric is about empowering them to work smarter and healthier. She believes it’s up to us as women to change modern working culture because we came to the business world later, and therefore have the clarity to see what’s not working
Her own epiphany came after she fainted from exhaustion in 2007 and broke her cheekbone, resulting in a self- described “journey” re-evaluating the meaning of our working lives. “It’s not enough to enter the world of men now,” Huffington told Forbes magazine. She believes the next wave of the women’s revolution must “change the metrics of that world” and “reshape the way it functions”. She explains further: “This time, we’re not just fighting for a space in the world, we’re fighting to change it.”
The message has already found a receptive audience – Huffington has hosted three influential summits on the topic in New York, London and Munich in Germany, with more in the pipeline, and is currently writing a book about the “success myth” slated to be published in March 2014.
A new view of success
Dr Sharp, who heads up Sydney’s Happiness Institute, agrees that it’s time we start looking at more sustainable, “multidimensional” models of success. He argues, “The wealthiest person is not successful if he or she does not have their health or good-quality relationships.” He also thinks it’s a message people are starting to get. Seeing clients in the wake of the global financial crisis, he has noticed a significant number who want to expand their definition of success beyond making money. He points to the “wellbeing epidemic” – the growth of gyms, yoga classes and even juice bars – as a sign that people are looking for “something more”.
Kale smoothies aside, at an individual level, he says, the best thing we can do is to decide what success means to us personally: “Where we get into trouble is when we try and copy other people.”
And as Huffington advocates, it also helps to be kinder to ourselves, too. I haven’t managed to snag that warehouse, I’ve been to Paris once and my family is more confused than impressed by what I do for a living. Lucky then, that succeeding at success is a lifelong project.
Judith Ireland is a journalist for Fairfax Media in Canberra.