• Simply Slow

    Slow Success: A New Definition

    12 January, 2018

    At this time of year, as we set our goals and intentions for the days ahead, there’s often one all-encompassing, intangible thing that we’re striving for: success. Whether it’s an ambition that’s spoken aloud or one that guides decisions silently from within, the notion of being successful or making a success of something can be a powerful driving force. But, if you’re totally honest with yourself, can you really pin down what it means? What it would look and feel like to be considered ‘a success’? Perhaps you can, or perhaps you’re even already there, but my guess would be that the holy grail you’re searching for is proving to be as elusive for you as it always has been for me.

    In part I think that’s because a never-ending quest for self-improvement is simply part of human nature. If you’re like me (raise your hands, fellow perfectionists) then nothing is ever quite right and there’s always another milestone on the horizon, which means definitive ‘success’ continually remains just out of reach. But could it also be that we just don’t really know what we’re working towards? And that the true meaning of success is so intensely personal, and so varied from one person to the next, that it’s almost impossible to describe at all?

    The concept of success is something I’ve struggled with for a long time, and I truly believe the version of it with which we’re presented from an early age is totally wrong. To explain myself, though, I’m going to have to rewind and get personal. (Remember when I told you in my first post that the meaning behind the name A Slow Adventure would become clear over time? Well, consider this a contribution to the background story.)

    Throughout my school years, I was always a high academic achiever. I went to a private girls’ school in Oxford, which I loved, but which also shaped a mind-set that left no room for failure, and carved the attainment of grades into a peg from which the cloak of self-worth was hung. That was fine, though, because my winning streak continued into my university studies and I graduated at the top of my year with a first class degree in History of Art. I don’t tell you this to boast, but simply to paint a picture of a girl whose sense of success was entirely dependent on high marks, glowing comments, and little green ticks in the margins. My perceived value, and ultimately my happiness, could only be sustained for as long as I kept achieving.

    And then everything changed. I decided to follow my undergraduate degree with a masters, and suddenly I wasn’t top of the class anymore. I’ve never been able to work out why, but the course just didn’t make sense to me. I felt as though I was living in someone else’s brain, trying to unravel thoughts that weren’t my own just to re-write them in different words. I struggled, I failed, I couldn’t get the grades and I didn’t enjoy the work. All my previous accomplishments seemed irrelevant: my ability to achieve was gone, and with it my sense of who I was. I panicked, and quickly sank into an 18-month period of anxiety, depression, and crippling self-doubt. I’m not going to dwell on the details of that time, but I do feel it’s important to acknowledge its existence.

    I moved back home to Oxfordshire and, with the help and support of my incredible parents, the insight of a wonderful cognitive behavioural therapist, and the unwavering love and support of the man I would go on to marry soon after, I made it out the other side. The problem then was that I no longer knew what I was aiming for.

    Alongside battling with the masters course itself, I had also come to the conclusion – for many reasons – that a career in the art world just wasn’t right for me. I went back to working in a gallery for a while to see if this decision had been too hasty, but that only confirmed my doubts. I had a go at being a librarian. Not for me either. A development assistant at an Oxford college, maybe? Definitely not. I felt disheartened, defeated, lost. How had I gone from being top of the class to not even knowing what I wanted to do with my life?

    And then, one evening, when Jack and I had been out for dinner with friends, a chance detour to avoid the crowds gathered at the annual fun fair in town led us down a side street I’d not cut through for years. We stopped to admire a shop. Objects of Use. It had a beautiful old-fashioned frontage and, although it was closed and dusk was drawing in, by the warm glow of the lamp that had been left on inside we could see that it held a treasure trove of carefully-curated homeware. There was a sign in the window. “Help Wanted.”

    I applied and, despite never having set out to work in a shop, three years later I’m still there. Why? Because the people I’ve been lucky enough to work for, and with, have taught me more about the true meaning of success than I ever learnt from those little green ticks in the margins of my essays or the grades on the front of my exam papers. They showed me that it’s ok to be intelligent but not want to take over the world. That if you’re to be judged by something you make, let it be your choices rather than your money. That a good business is one that values people over profits. That time with our loved ones is the most precious commodity we have. That done is better than perfect. That happy is enough. That success can be defined on our own terms.

    Have you ever looked up the dictionary definition of success? Don’t bother. All you get is references to accomplishments, fame, wealth, and status. And the media’s no better: every day we are presented with a version of reality in which our perceived success is routinely judged by the job title on our CVs, the money we make, and the things we own. In books and on social media we’re bombarded with ‘motivational’ quotes designed to inspire all kinds of greatness on our way to the top. Work harder. Aim higher. Think bigger.

    But what if greatness isn’t what we’re looking for? What if we don’t want fame, or fortune, or a house full of stuff we don’t need? Defined by the traditional terms, those of us who choose to stray from these societal conventions can never hope to be considered truly successful.


    This is not ok. And we don’t have to accept it.

    It’s taken me a long time to reach this simple conclusion, and at the heart of this blog lies the journey that got me here: my slow adventure. On the path between past and present I’ve taken wrong turns, I’ve retraced my steps, and at times I haven’t known where I was on the map at all. But, starting this year, I choose to write my own definition of success. And so can you.

    I haven’t got it all figured out yet, and I can’t tell you what your version of success might look like or how to get there. But I can share with you some tips I’ve gathered along the way, which I’ll do in the second part of this post.

    For now, remember:

    “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” – Albert Schweizer

    What are your thoughts on the idea of success? How have they shaped your goals and experiences?

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Slow Success: A New Definition

    • Lucy says:

      Soooo interesting to read as an academic high achiever who was “the clever one” and has spectacularly “failed to achieve anything”! Measuring success in other terms is very important!

      • Maddy says:

        Hi Lucy, thank you so much for your comment! It can be so hard feeling that way, can’t it? Even when we know that what we’re doing makes us happy and possible even has a positive effect on the world in some way, if our achievements can’t be held up to the traditional markers of success then they so easily become “not good enough.” I hope you’ve managed to lay down your own path, and that you feel happy and confident in yourself. x

    • Annabelle says:

      I have to be csreful not to ramble here, but the thoughts , insights and experiences you shared here really got to me! I can relate to so much of what you said, and I’m so happy you found a way that works for you, and such a wonderful work environment. I’m a law student, and over the last semester it started to dawn on me that this is no longer what I really want to be doing. I don’t enjoy uni anymore, and I’m not sure I’d enjoy working in the field later. I’m thankful you shared this!

      • Maddy says:

        Thank you so much Annabelle! Lovely to see you here 🙂 I totally understand how you’re feeling, because that was the situation I found myself in during my masters, too. It goes without saying that it’s worth being 100% sure before you make any big decisions, but if you know you’re not happy then you shouldn’t be afraid to change things. How long do you have left on your course? If the end is in sight then it might be worth carrying on to get your qualifications so that you always have a way back into law later on if you change your mind, but if it’s a long time then perhaps you could take a year out to figure out whether you want to do something different? Or, if you’re already certain that law isn’t for you and you know you want to walk away then I’d suggest talking to someone close to you about it who will understand and can give you an external perspective – for me it was my parents, my fiancé and the tutors at my university. Above all, though, just remember that you know yourself better than anyone else. I really hope you can figure out your path soon without too much of a struggle, and wish you every happiness for your future…whatever it may hold! Sending hugs, Maddy x

    • Mélodie says:

      Thank you for this powerful (and lovely!) article. It speaks to me in many ways. I have a similar background (good grades, history of art, disheartened by the world of galleries, saddened by the fact that I actually don’t really know what to do with myself!). Anyway, it is nice to see on the internet a motivational post that’s not about achieving more, but about taking your time to achieve happiness. And for that I thank you. Xx from Paris!

      • Maddy says:

        Hi Melodie! Thank you so much for taking the time to comment – as much as it makes me sad to know there’s someone else in the same position, it’s definitely a positive thing for us all to know we’re not the only ones. The art world is a funny thing, isn’t it? Achieving happiness is exactly what it’s all about for me. I hope you find yours soon! x

    • What a beautiful blog and post. You express yourself so well, and I believe you are on the right track. I look forward to more of your blog.

    • Demelza says:

      Oh my god Maddy. This is one of the most beautifully written posts I have read, possibly ever. ❤️

    • Hannah says:

      I love what you said if your going to be judged by something let it be your choices and not your money. I’ve chosen to define success by Loving God and Loving others. Beautiful post I so enjoyed reading it!

    • Sara says:

      I do wish I had been abl to read this when I was younger. However I have always been a slow burner and now at the age of 52 I have reached a point of acceptance of who I am not who I think I should be. It has not been a bed of roses but I am so happy and thankful that I had been gifted the time and space to be. I think I am going to love your blog and wish you all the very best with it.

      • Maddy says:

        Hi Sara, thank you so much for your lovely comment. I wish I’d realised it myself a bit sooner too! It’s so good to hear you feel at peace with yourself, that’s such a wonderful thing to have achieved. x

    • Chelsea says:

      Fascinating read… And a fabulous conclusion. I’m glad you got through your testing times. I come from the other end of the spectrum. I was home taught (I hated education) and I did not leave school with grades or go to university. I instead made it my mission to learn and flourish in my adult years and to the best I could. I’ve worked for myself for nearly ten years now and I think if I would have carried on in the education system then I wouldn’t be where I am. That said, I don’t mean it in a material way. I’ve come the conclusion as you. I’m at my happiest in nature and with my pup. I do want to learn more about minimalist and apply it to my home.

      • Maddy says:

        Wow, so interesting to learn more about you Chelsea! And isn’t it amazing (and wonderful) how two people with such different backgrounds can end up in pretty much exactly the same place: writing, trying to live a simpler life, and enjoying as much time outdoors as possible? So happy to have met you on Instagram, and can’t wait to catch up in person some day xx