Eyes off the prize: the secret to success

The very best job I ever had was one nobody wanted.

The job was aged care in an Aboriginal desert community and there were no other applicants. Aged care isn’t sexy or competitive; even less so when it involves living in the middle of hot-and-dusty-nowhere. The grandmothers I worked with had breasts that reached their belly buttons and could spit-roast a goanna. They taught me how to pee in the bush if my quadriceps ever stop being able to hold a squat. Step 1: Wear a floral full length dress. Don’t wear underpants. Step 2: Stand up with your feet a little apart. Step 3: Pee. Once we went fishing and an old lady hooked a crocodile. She turned to me and suggested I go sit on it while she reeled in.

It wasn’t exactly the career I had planned when I graduated top of my class.

The thing is, graduating top of my class was one of the most disappointing days of my life. When I walked across the stage and collected an armful of book prizes, few people applauding had any idea what it had taken for me to get through high-school.

I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue when I was 16, which is medical jargon for We have no idea why you’re always in pain. Every joint in my body inflamed until my hands were swollen and red, my feet painful to walk on and my muscles knotted and angry. I slept fifteen hours a day and still woke up exhausted. Crawling through high school took every ounce of willpower and Advil I could lay my aching hands on. Walking across that graduation stage should have been a magnificent triumph.

But the applause died almost immediately. After I exited the stage I snuck out a side door and lent heavily against the wall. A strange laugh choked out of me and a strangled voice whispered, Was that what it was all for?

I only ever read two of the prize-books they gave me. After prize giving night, it was never mentioned again. It’s awkward and irrelevant to slip into conversation. Already by the next day there is the next thing; the college to get into, the next grade to achieve, the job to get, the promotion, the raise. It doesn't end, there’s always the next piece of cheese being held out. As Lily Tomlin puts it, ‘The trouble with the rat-race is even if you win, you’re still a rat.’

Illustration by Kate Gillett

Natalie Portman has a few things to say about success. She doesn’t display her Oscar because she says it’s literally a ‘false idol’, and she recently told a group of Harvard graduates that she selects movie roles for the experience she’ll have making them rather than any potential box office success. She seems to have turned her back on the measures of success in her industry and it frees her to focus on something much more important— living.

Like Natalie Portman, I’ve become skeptical of modern ambition. I don’t believe a certain salary is going to finally feel like success. No matter how much I earn, I’ll always think just a little more will make me more comfortable. I doubt that getting published is going to give me lasting happiness. After the first book, I’ll start thinking about the second. Even if one day the spotlight is on just how awesome a job I do, the light will always move on and leave me in obscurity. Then what? Do I go chasing after it?

I think we need to redefine success and let ourselves simply do what we love, and love what we’re doing. The outcome is irrelevant. If we accidentally jag a top grade, an award for our work, recognition of our awesomeness, so much the better. But do what you do because you cannot help but do it, because you love to do it, because it feels valuable to you.

Out in communities no one has ever heard of with women the world has forgotten, I experienced a deep delight. There was no award, no fame, no promotion to be had.  But women sang to me in languages of the most ancient living culture of the world; they stretched out their arms and told me the ancestral stories of the land. In long hours of quiet company, I discovered that the stuff of friendship is unspoken and learnt that by being still, life could awaken.

Taking my eyes off the prize helped me see that success wasn’t a place to get to and the real achievement was showing up fully for life erupting just here, right now.

* This post initially appeared on the I Am That Girl blog:


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