June 14

Escaping the tyranny of success

Will I be missed?

A hospice nurse once told me that this is the sentence she hears most often from people on the threshold of death. And it still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.

Will I be missed when I die?

Will you?

We all know it – that the most important thing in life is to be loved, and therefore missed when we’re no longer around to love or be loved. That’s the massively, howlingly banal truth, unless you happen to be starving or homeless.

And yet… the way we’ve organised modern life, this idea has stiff competition from an array of other areas where we’re expected to perform. For two years I have been lecturing on modern society’s relationship with success and failure, and I have identified fourteen areas where we take for granted that we will be sweepingly successful. And where the bar for success is much higher than ever before…

In no particular order:

  1. A fit, BMI-friendly body.
  2. A healthy, sugar-free (yeah, right!) diet full of veggies.
  3. Being well groomed (with healthy teeth) and caring about your appearance.
  4. A good relationship.
  5. A good sex life (preferably with your official partner!).
  6. A good relationship with your children (read: being a good, accessible and attentive parent).
  7. Having a rich social life.
  8. Living in a beautiful home.
  9. Education (and ideally continuing education afterwards).
  10. A meaningful job (preferably a career).
  11. Keeping up with social developments and the news.
  12. Being reasonably on top of social media and the digital world.
  13. Having control over your finances, with a pension and only acceptable debts (by which I mean a mortgage or similar).
  14. Holidays!

These fourteen areas are a generalisation, of course. On top of that, everybody has individual interests. Like gardening, for instance. Or golf. Or brewing beer. Try glancing over the list again. Did you end up out of breath? Certainly I find it pretty exhausting! It just becomes so obvious that the ideals I’m (subconsciously?) trying to live up to are completely impossible. But despite that I’ve still never felt compelled to drastically reduce the complexity of my life by packing up my bike, moving to the woods and living in my wellies. Quite the opposite: I keep thinking I’d be better off if only I had more of a handle on my priorities. Which means I’m constantly falling behind on my own life. And my own understanding of myself.

It’s the curse of modernity that we’re amazingly good at setting ourselves up to fail! On several levels, in fact. Purely in terms of everyday life, most of us are used to putting more tasks, meetings and social events into our calendar than we can (or can be bothered to!) manage, so day after day and week after week we shift things we ‘should’ have done further into the future. Sound familiar? I once took a ‘time optimisation course’ (and why was that, I wonder? J) where the teacher told us that we should leave forty percent of the time in our calendars empty if we wanted to accomplish everything we had planned.

If there’s one thing that’s worse than the daily grind it’s our dreams. We live in an age where we’re all expected to dream big. And big can never be too big. If you can dream it, you can do it! they say, so in our hyper-individualistic era we dream for all we’re worth! The unfortunate consequence is that many people feel thoroughly unfulfilled. Rather like failures, in fact. Not just in a calendar-related way but in terms of identity. And that’s a problem! Because, in reality, those same people often have pretty great lives. Maybe not of the so-glam-I-need-to-Facebook-it-now variety, but good, stable, well-ordered and meaningful lives that make the small difference we all dream about.

So I think we need to overthrow the tyranny of success, under which far too many of us live! For a start we can enjoy all the things we actually have managed to achieve and experience, feeling grateful for the people who bring love and companionship to our lives. Then we can begin to make our dreams more realistic. We can’t all be Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, Kim Kardashian or Kanye, Aung San Suu Kyi or Gandhi, Serena Williams or Djokovic, Oprah or Steven Colbert, can we? So stop eternally waiting for the wow-factor and the four million likes; instead dream a happy dream about your next job or your next trip. And enjoy the fact that you’re already a very lucky little so-and-so!

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