We all want to be successful in life. But what does ‘success’ really mean? So often, we’re influenced by other people’s ideas of what it means to be successful – our parents, teachers and bosses – that we forget to ask ourselves what we really want out of life. In Molly Flatt’s The Charmed Life of Alex Moore, the protagonist finds that sudden success brings its own challenges. Here, Molly tells us how despite building a successful career she was unhappy with her life, and how the birth of her baby led her to reconsider her priorities and redefine success for herself.
Success is a swindle.
It’s a tease, a temptress, a liar. At first glance, it looks like a sunny peak of achievement; a glossy magazine cover; a gold-plated first-class arrivals hall. Dig beneath its shiny skin, however, and you’ll find far less glamorous roots, planted in the Latin verb succedere, which means ‘to come close after’.
That’s right. Success isn’t, it turns out, a fixed and balmy state loaded with socially-endowed value judgements. It’s simply whatever the hell we do next.
When I was a kid, my definition of success was remarkably, rebelliously close to the Latin. In my early years, success simply meant the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do next (reading, eating salad cream sandwiches, running about in the garden acting out stories) rather than being forced to comply with other people’s opinions of what that might be (chores, homework, sitting in rooms interacting with actual humans outside my head).
Somewhere along the line, however, an abrupt and radical reversal occurred. By the age of ten or so, through some invisible, insidious act of internal magic, success had stopped being defined by me and started being owned by those heretofore laughable others: parents and teachers. Then friends and films and magazines. Then blogs. Then bosses. Then banks.
It took me almost two more decades of servitude before the chains began to itch. I was an excellent slave, after all. My ability to deliver someone else’s ‘what next’ led to all sorts of pleasant upsides. Praise, travel, a company credit card. Except for the one benefit I used to enjoy in abundance: happiness. Because big-S Success may promise peace but in fact, it delivers the opposite: uncertainty as to how we’re going to keep it up, and fear of the inevitable fall.
Thankfully, as soon as I committed to finishing my first novel, the whole deceit was blown apart.
How could I be so successful yet fail so spectacularly on a daily - hourly - basis? How could I speak in front of 10,000 people on stage in Colombia yet seem unable to put one word after the other in a way that didn’t make me want to throw up? How could I have spent my life loving nothing more than books yet be so utterly unable to produce a story half as good as the ones I wrote when I was eight?
Then I had a baby, and the last fragments of the fraud crumbled away. For all my education and all my achievements, it turned out I couldn’t feed, dress or make this creature happy with any degree of ‘success.’ And for once - for the first six months at least - I couldn’t fall back on my old mainstay, relentless work. The foundations of success I had bought into now seemed not just impossible, but dangerous. They were made of sand, not sun-bathed rock.
What on earth was I supposed to do next?
The first step was to chuck out the ‘supposed’. Doing things the supposed way hadn’t worked well for me, either in writing my book or raising my child or - if I was honest - in actually producing a self I wanted to hang out with. I decided to ditch it once and for all. Instead - slowly, gingerly, like a snail stripped of its shell - I began to explore what sort of success I might prefer. One that didn’t just prioritise productivity, but play. One that considered being busy no more virtuous than being at rest. One that valued such embarrassing, self-indulgent things as meaning and craft. One that kept food on the table, but not at the expense of my body or my mind.
Unsurprisingly, my novel - The Charmed Life of Alex Moore - turned out to be a story about success. It doesn’t start with a life falling apart. It starts with everything going right. But as Alex soon finds out, being the heroine of your own story is much harder than playing a bit part. She has to ask herself what success really looks like for her, beyond the Instagram images and the Netflix dreams. She has to ask herself what she’s willing to sacrifice to get there. And she has to be brave enough to look her limiting self-beliefs in the face, and keep striving despite - or even because - of them.
Success for me now feels very different to how it did before. It feels like getting enough sleep so I’m not a monster. It feels like finding time for a walk. It feels like spending time with my daughter without once looking at my phone. It feels like listening to people without interrupting. It feels like getting lots of shit wrong on an hourly basis, but not making a big deal out of it, and continuing to try. It feels like juggling my various bits of freelance work so I can afford one precious, luxurious, uninterrupted day to write - a day that feels just like those days I used to spend running about the garden, making up stories. Except this time around my sandwiches are Marmite, not salad cream.
When it comes to success, there’s only one question you need to ask. What do you want to do next?
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