What is Success?

Some years ago, I was at a conference for sixth form students, aimed at encouraging them to apply to top universities.  As I sat at the back, listening to the speakers, one terrifying statistic caught my ear.  It was the unwelcome news that, on average, Oxbridge graduates seven years post-graduation were earning approximately three times my salary.

It was a good thing I wasn’t in possession of a megaphone at that point, or I would have yelled into it, “WELL I WENT TO BLOODY OXFORD AND I DON’T EARN THAT.  DON’T BELIEVE THE LIES, YE INNOCENT YOUTHS!”

Or on the other hand, perhaps I wouldn’t.

Perhaps I would have just slunk down into my seat, feeling like a total failure and returned home from the conference remembering only this one fact, and brooding on it for weeks thereafter, wondering what lucrative opportunity I must have missed to not be earning megabucks.  Was I in the bar when all the jobs were being given out, downing a few pints of Fosters, as was my student custom?  Was I sitting in my student bedroom bemoaning the state of my love life?  Was I spending that morning watching MTV, as was my other main life activity at the age of 19?

Tonight, again, I felt the heavy feeling of failure, when I received a phone call from an unknown number.  It was a jolly teenager calling from my old Oxford college, apparently to update me on the college news.  This is well known to be a ruse to try and get alumni to donate money to the college.

At 19, I assumed that all these alumni were rich.  They worked in the City, they were High Court judges, they probably spent their weekends out hunting with dogs, riding horses across the English countryside in their red coats and jodphurs, waving sticks in the air and yelling “Tally ho!” as they charged through the Home Counties on their faithful steeds.

I did not imagine that they were single mothers in the process of breastfeeding their toddlers to sleep in a bed in their parents’ council house, the same house where they grew up.

“Is now not a good time?” the teenager enquired (thankfully us Oxford types have a modicum of intelligence, and this one had quickly figured out that I wasn’t entirely happy about being cold-called in the middle of the bedtime routine).

“Well, I’m, er, trying to get my son to bed.”

Does one admit to being sat there in pyjamas with a boob hanging out, or is that bad etiquette when on the telephone to someone you’ve never met?

“I could ring back at about 9.30?”

“Well, er, I’ll….I’ll still be getting him to sleep then.”

WHY DO I FEEL GUILTY ABOUT THIS?  Is it because I am not a high court judge and have never ridden a horse?  You are talking to a teenager for Christ’s sake!  Why do I not just admit that I co-sleep with a tiny child and go to bed at the same time as him?  Am I supposed to return to polite company downstairs, dress for dinner and host a cocktail party whilst entertaining the Ambassador of a Central Asian republic?

I was suffering with The Fear, the Fear that I would be judged as a failure, for not making a success of my life and having bucketloads of cash to donate to the college’s latest new building fund, the Fear that I would disappoint this poor student by alerting her to the reality of life as a thirtysomething Oxford graduate, where she too might find herself living back at home, dreams of grandeur as yet unfulfilled, wondering whether she should have done more networking at that Goldman Sachs recruitment dinner in her final year, rather than just poking the free food and commenting, “ooh this is nice.  Is this a souffle?” before telling everyone that you’re not interested in investment banking as a career anyway, and really you’re just here for the food.

But then, I wondered, what is success anyway?  What the teenage me considered to be success-a job with one of the multinational companies that frequently courted us at university events, a public school-educated husband with impeccable manners and artfully disarranged hair, a conservative yet chic work-appropriate wardrobe from Reiss-might not be success after all.

What if success is something else?  The ability to choose your own destiny, to create a life you love, to be surrounded by those who love you-even if they are your supportive and ever-present family, rather than the proverbial public schoolboy husband who never materialised.

Next time the college call, I will not try to avoid telling them my new address just in case they realise it’s the same as the one I had when I was a student fifteen years ago.  I will proudly tell them my news, rather than try to avoid the subject in case they find out the awful truth that I’ve not yet published a seminal work of intellectual scholarship on early Japanese literature, I don’t live in a stately home and I still haven’t managed to learn to drive a car, let alone master the dying art of riding side saddle in a vintage dress from the 1890s.

Success is whatever makes you happy, right?

The Secret Diary of Agent Spitback


Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday
Two Tiny Hands

57 Comments Add yours

  1. Tori says:

    Oh, this made me laugh! I agree that success is finding your own happiness, and that is doesn’t always materialize like we assume it will. Life is messy, but it’s more fun that way!

    1. Min says:

      You’re absolutely right. Life would be boring if it always ended up exactly the way we expected.

  2. Pen says:

    Success is absolutely whatever makes you happy. I know many an Oxbridge grad who lives for work. It is a sorry state of affairs.
    Pen x #passthesauce

    1. Min says:

      I agree. Just need to keep telling myself that!

  3. k murray says:

    You are so right, a happy successful life is whatever you choose it to be!
    Well done for being proud of you and where you come from.
    The problem today is, and actually since the late 1990s, young students have been sold a lie. University is not for everyone. It is the right place for any profession like, legal, teaching, medicine, arts, science etc. but if you don’t know what you want to do in life, it’s better to go out into the big wide world and experience some real life, then choose Uni at a later date if you still want to.
    Governments just want schools to fill a quota, they don’t focus on who University is right for. Then many students end up disappointed or disalusioned, especially when they don’t walk into a top paying job and realise you still need to start at the bottom. Sad but true.
    As a parent of 2 girls, now in their 30s, we helped them make good choices, letting them know there are many ways to get a happy working life with or with out Uni. They chose different paths and have found success for themselves in good careers and love their jobs.
    So success is what you choose for yourself, not what others choose for you.

    1. Min says:

      That is very true. I think we grow up having an image of success as having a certain life and it all coming relatively easily, then we slowly start to realise that 1.) life isn’t going to be as easy as you thought, and finally that 2.) that’s actually OK, and success is different for each individual. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Success is being happy with your lot 🙂

    1. Min says:

      It is! That’s a very Buddhist thing to say.

  5. MMT says:

    It seems that the piece of paper we cried blood sweat and tears over, doesn’t necessarily equate to the high flying career then? Interestingly though Min, I’m thinking about my return to work (aargh) towards the end of the year and am thinking of taking my Biology degree, and (maybe) looking into teaching? I’m thinking this could be my chance to get out of the corporate world and seek a little more ‘rewarding’ career options. Any thoughts?! Teaching gets a LOT of bad press…
    PS thanks for linking up to #coolmumclub…

    1. Min says:

      There are a lot of pros to teaching as well as cons. You’re right it does get a bad press, but if it was that awful, I wouldn’t still be doing it; or maybe I am just under the illusion that it’s OK and really I am trapped? It’s one to think carefully about. If you’re expecting something easier than the corporate world I would say you’re unlikely to find it in teaching, but it could be potentially more rewarding, although I have to admit I don’t exactly feel like Mother Teresa. I do love working with teenagers though-they are very funny and often inspiring.

  6. Ellen says:

    Aha this is great. Success is definitely being happy!! I have always thought that universities (particularly the prestigious ones!) place too much emphasis on a particular type of success eg corporate or being a doctor or lawyer, and that really isn’t for everyone. I always knew I wasn’t going to end up doing some top level grad job but still felt a little awkward writing ‘bartender’ on my alumni survey thing. Silly really! #stayclassy

    1. Min says:

      It is silly when you think about it. Another case of worrying too much about what people think, I guess, and the chances are that most of the time, they aren’t thinking anything at all.

  7. I love this post. I can so relate to what you have written. Your measure of success is exactly what makes you happy, and not what other people think will make you happy. I have also learnt to look forward and never backward. Success is when you can sleep soundly and deeply at night, and still able to dream. Thanks for sharing with #PasstheSauce

    1. Min says:

      Looking forward and never backward is very good advice, but yet so difficult to do sometimes. Thanks for hosting and commenting.

  8. Michelle G says:

    Absolute word.

    Before I had my little girl, I measured my worth, my value to society, through my career, my voluntary activities, my qualifications. She changed everything. Now, the main drivers of my success are her….her smile, her giggles, her almost-words. I look at her and think ‘bloody hell, I did something right,’ and that thought blows me away with pride and love.

    1. Min says:

      That’s lovely! Thanks for commenting. I think we all feel that way.

  9. Karen says:

    Oh gosh yes, if you are happy I would say you are successful! I loved my uni years, it gave me life experience, not a job. I’m happy with that! I gained so much confidence at uni that I wouldn’t have got from staying in my home town working in Argos! I’d say we are all successful! #KCACOLS

    1. Min says:

      Exactly! Success is whatever you want it to be and whatever makes you happy with your life. I never saw university as the key to a particular job-it was much more about life experiences and the opportunity to study something I enjoyed.

      1. karen says:

        Just dropping a reply to say, I still agree with you! Thank you for linking up to #ABrandNewDay! I’ll go and tweet this for you now!

        1. Min says:

          Thanks! 🙂

  10. Emma says:

    Yes success is doing what makes you are happy and you are a success and one that you should be proud of! I would be telling the uni that next time they ring. In other news I have heard that they do this that they ring past students to try and get them donate money. I’m not sure how I feel about that…Hmm. #KCACOLS

    1. Min says:

      Thank you! Yes, I have always known that my particular college is always trying to get alumni to donate money-sometimes successfully. It’s the way of the world I guess!

  11. Kat says:

    I love this! Whilst I would no way say I’ve MADE IT BIG or anything silly like that, I do feel like I’m mildly successful at what I do because I feel like I’m good at it and I know I’ll get better. Success, to me, is being happy and craving more because you love it and it makes you happy. Does that make sense? #kcacols

    1. Min says:

      Yes it does. I think ultimately if you’re happy, that is success in itself.

  12. I can totally relate to this. I often feel like haven’t really accomplished much career-wise for an educated woman in her mid-30s. But if I think about the fact that I’ve created another person (a pretty massive accomplishment) and am living abroad (something that’s hugely important to me), I guess I’m kind of successful. Maybe. #KCACOLS

    1. Min says:

      Well both of those sound pretty successful to me!

  13. I like this post. As a single mother I have in the past asked myself the same question sometimes feeling a failure as my life has not continued on the path it seemed to be heading in. However I came to the conclusion that success is personal to each and every one of us. Success for me is – that I am there for my daughter, not a stranger looking after her. I do not miss a day with her and am a part of her development. Who would I rather give my time too? A company who won’t give a sh*t if I die or my child. Raising a child is hard, so damnit we are massive successes (Steps off her box) xx #kcacols

    1. Min says:

      We certainly are! Success is whatever you want it to be and whatever makes you happy, so yes you sound pretty successful to me!

  14. Sarah says:

    Yep, I would say if you are happy, them you are supremely successful 🙂 #KCACOLS

  15. Love this post! Reading as part of #KCACOLS. You’re absolutely right about it all and shamelessly I had the same teenage aspirations. I didn’t go to Oxford, but I did go to university and as I’ve grown up I’ve realised that I value a work-life balance. Those who earn the true mega-bucks sacrifice a lot as a result. I’m still striving to feel like I’ve ‘achieved’, when maybe I should stand back with job, home, partner and healthy child and shout “Yes! I have achieved and I am a success! Screw anyone who tells me different!”

    1. Min says:

      That is very true about work-life balance. There is certainly no earning big without big sacrifices and hard work. Success is different to each of us and very subjective anyway. Thank you for commenting!

  16. Absolutely, and success is different for everyone. And what we deem to be success can change too. #passthesauce

    1. Min says:

      Yes it can-what I saw as success when I was younger is definitely different to how I see it now. Thanks for commenting.

  17. This is a tough one. I’d love to agree that success is what makes you happy, but complete happiness is hard to achieve and the term ‘happy’ is very grey. So maybe success is just being able to look at life as half full? Having a healthy, positive perspective on your life and your goals, with some tough days in between. I think even people who have their dream job (i.e. are doing something they love) struggle to be happy all the time. But I’m veering off on another subject…

    This post is excellent, very thought-provoking. I would like to think that I would tell the teenager on the phone that I am breastfeeding and to fuck off, but sadly I would probably lie as well. We should be proud of our accomplishments, even when people don’t understand them (AKA I just put the baby to sleep in the actual crib WITHOUT rocking, bouncing, swaying, singing and he fell asleep in 5 minutes!). That is my success for the day. Thanks for sharing with #StayClassy!

    1. Min says:

      I think happiness is never constant and the idea that we can be happy all the time is a myth, and I agree that having a positive perspective on life definitely helps. Actually I would say I’ve never been happier than I am at the moment, and I think a large part of that is my attitude. Thanks for commenting!

  18. Sucess is what makes you happy in life, whether you are stay at home mum or a brain surgeon. Sucess is personal to each individual xx


    1. Min says:

      Definitely true! x

  19. I got a place at Cambridge and then didn’t get my target grades….I often think about whether I’d be more successful if I hadn’t failed my physics practical (stupid pendulums) …but then I probably wouldn’t have met lots of people I love…I might not have my babies. Success can be measured in so many ways. You seem really pretty successful to me. Great read, as always 🙂 #KCACOLS

    1. Min says:

      Thanks! It’s a bit Sliding Doors isn’t it? I sometimes think things like that too-what if I had done this or that differently, but you just make the choice that seems right at the time.

  20. Absolutely! People seem to judge success as materialistic sense. A Head of a some important job title; what car they drive; where they live; etc. It is such nonsense. Success is is whatever makes you happy – too right! Thank you again Min for sharing your wonderful post with us on #FabFridayPost xx

    1. Min says:

      Thank you for hosting and commenting! x

  21. The Pramshed says:

    Hi Min, thanks for your second post in this week’s #KCACOLS. I think you’re right success is what makes you happy, not how much money you earn, although if I was at that conference I would feel the same as you. When I finished university I had the same aspirations that by 32 I would be earning a little more than I am now, and further up the career ladder. But, I am happy where I’m at in my career and also happy that I have a little one, and that defines success for me. Success is what you make it, and your success shouldn’t be judged by others. To me I love your blog, and posts, and advice on #tribalchat and that’s a success in itself. Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS. Hope you come back next Sunday. Claire x

    1. Min says:

      Aw thank you, that’s very sweet of you! Thanks for hosting and commenting. I’m going to be giving this co-hosting a go myself (though on #StayClassy not #KCACOLS)

      1. Oh that is so sad Min as I would’ve loved to have you co-hosting with me too! If you change your mind just let me know, 😉 xxx

        1. Min says:

          Maybe another time! Thanks Franca. 🙂

  22. A really lovely, thought-provoking post. I’m sitting here wondering if I class my own life as ‘successful’ and I wonder if we ever do feel like we’ve ‘made it’. Perhaps we just all need to be a bit kinder to ourselves, think back to our biggest achievements and remember how fabulous we all are in our own right. No regrets, that’s what I say x

    1. Min says:

      I totally agree. I guess in a way, never feeling like you’ve made it can be a good thing-keeps us trying hard I guess!

  23. I totally agree! To me, success is about finding happiness and love in your life. I think so often in life we plough through, trying to be ‘successful’ but we don’t always consider what that actually means to us. Your post really brings it home for me – there are so many successes in my life, not necessarily what I might have viewed as success as a teenager, but things that make me proud in my life now. #KCACOLS

    1. Min says:

      Yes, and with happiness, it’s definitely realising that that is found in the journey, not the destination (God I sound like one of those inspirational quotes I’m not fond of!) Thank you for your lovely comment.

  24. Right! I don’t think there is a set success, its what each of us classes as success. Thanks for linking up to #justanotherlinky xx

    1. Min says:

      Agreed! Success means different things to everyone.

  25. I agree too! Recent changes in my life have given me thoughts of am I failure? Shouldn’t I be more successful by now but I am happy and that in itself is success! Lovely post #kcacols

    1. Min says:

      Absolutely! Anyway, even if we do fail sometimes, that doesn’t mean we always will, and everyone fails sometimes!

  26. Savannah says:

    You are so right! Those who find true happiness really are successful, as happiness is so difficult to find. There are so many who are extremely successful in the eyes of society (great job, lots of money, etc) who are completely and utterly unhappy with their lives. #justanotherlinky

    1. Min says:

      Absolutely! Thanks for commenting.

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