Success & Failure

As I have mentioned a number of times previously, I enjoy listening to a podcast called “How to Fail with Elizabeth Day” in which minor celebrities discuss their battles with failure, how they have made peace with it and how it might have changed their lives. However, for a while now, there has been a niggle in the back of my mind about the whole premise of the podcast.

It bothers me slightly that all the people on the podcast are minor celebrities. It bothers me that all these discussions are with people who, by the reckoning of any “normal” person, would be considered to be significant successes. They have published books. They have topped charts in music. They have received recognition in their fields whether that be feminism or medicine.

It’s fine to only discuss failure when you can introduce the person first with a list of fabulous achievements so that the interviewee sits snug in her chair, knowing that she has been proved successful after all. But for the average listener the definition of the word success is less obvious, less quantifiable. So tonight I sent Ms Day the below email. I am very curious to see if she will reply. I don’t really expect her to.

Hi Elizabeth,
I am Australian and a big fan of your podcast. Since last year, I have listened to nearly all the episodes.
But, although I love hearing people’s stories and relating to their troubles, I struggle with the one-sidedness of the discussion. All the people you interview are what an average person would call “very successful”. You can find something about pretty much all of them on the internet. They have made names for themselves in their fields. I (of course) include you in that list. So for the average person, living an average life, I think it’s kind of important that you address the question of what “success” is as well. One of your failures which you discuss a lot, is your “failure” to have children. I have had two children but I don’t consider that a success. I consider it to be my good fortune. I am a writer but not a published writer. I have had no career and have been a stay at home Mum for the last 8 years. Where do I look for success in my life? My point is, most people can list their failures. But some people find it pretty hard to list their successes. Don’t you think that’s an important second side to the work you have begun?

The two achievements in my life of which I am most proud are: going to China for a year to teach English; and having a second child. Both of those are related to overcoming fear. Going off to a foreign country where I knew only three words in the local language was terrifying. And having a second child after a pretty tough first birth was also a big deal for me. So those are two cases where I have overcome my fear and, in that sense, I suppose you could call them successes.

My only other way of defining success is to rate my own performance in areas I think are important. For example, I rate kindness very highly and would like to think that, in general, I am a kind person. Of course, that’s hard for me to judge. I am also incredibly anxious about Climate Change and like to think that I am doing my bit towards the fight against it. That is an ongoing battle in which I rate myself pretty harshly. And, of course, I would love to think that I am a good mother. But again, the rating system is a little hard to navigate.

What do you think? Do you think success for the average person is about pay rises, job offers and careers? Or can we find success at home as well? What defines success?

19 thoughts on “Success & Failure

  1. You raise a really good question. On one hand, we’re told that our personal and personal growth is the best “success” we can have, but there is no measure for that. As a society, we think in terms of our successes as being something tangible or something that can be seen with the eyes, but I’d rather have a happy conscious with who I am than how big or how fancy my house and car is. I don’t have a darned tangible thing to prove I’ve succeeded!

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    1. Yes that’s how I feel. And I certainly imagine we’re not the only ones. And if that’s true, it’s stupid of me to listen to these interviews and think about them. Those people represent maybe 10% of society.


  2. Really interesting and thought provoking! I think the conflict between instinct and intellect is central to the problem with “success”. Evolution favours competitiveness – so instinctively, success is the pay rise, the bigger office/house/car etc. But it doesn’t take a lot of thinking to realise that there is always going to be someone with a bigger whatever, so defining success that way is not likely to lead to happiness. Or be sustainable for the planet. So intellectually, it makes sense to define success as being satisfied with enough of what makes you personally happy – and that includes enough living up to your own values. Like going off to China for a year and having a second child! 🙂

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    1. Well said! It’s interesting that when I started reading, I thought the instinct and the intellect would be the other way around. I wonder if the first is instinct or if it’s drummed into us by society. Anyway, I think you make a fine distinction.

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  3. This is such a profound philosophical question that I have had to consult Dauphy on the matter. He assures me that success is directly proportional to the number of people who love you for who you are and not what you have. He is only a dog, but I think he may have a point.

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    1. Oh dear. I want to rearrange your thoughts! But I can’t of course. Anyway, by whatever measure you judge yourself a failure, there are other measures to consider as neatly encapsulated by Ingrid and by Dauphy and by anotherkatewilson. It never even occurred to me that there was “the failure”. Only that each of us embodies a myriad of both things we deem as failures and things we celebrate. But even the things we deem as failures can be viewed in other ways

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  4. I think you’re right, it depends on how you define success and failure. Most people are both. To that end, just the name of the podcase is a turn-off for me, but I’m happy that you enjoy it. It conveniently excludes any frame of reference whatever.

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  5. I don’t know how I missed this one but the issue you raised is VERY important; measuring ourselves against celebrities is always going to be a losing game: you did right to pat yourself on the back for going to China and having a second child, for they were important goals for you. Both achieved. Success! when you start getting things published, you can feel success as a writer but remember you have to submit first 🙂

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  6. I hear you. I feel like there is this success narrative that everyone wants to hear – like take risks and boom, success! But lots and lots of people fail and lots and lots of risks don’t pay off. On the one hand, I get the assumption of “who wants to hear from someone who isn’t successful?” but on the other hand, it would be more realistic and relatable to hear from just an “ordinary” person. And the narrow definitions of success are also quite limiting and irritating

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    1. Absolutely. If you don’t want to feel like a failure you have to set realistic goals. Instead of “I want to write a novel that sells like Harry Potter” maybe I need to say “I want to try and write one chapter of a novel.” (Note the word try – feeling like a failure is not boosting to productivity. My husband keeps telling me this). So then if I attempt it I have succeeded. But actually my writing goal is to try and write a poem every day – or at least something bloggable. I don’t succeed every day. But I succeed more days than not. And that feels good.

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