‘Success’ Doesn’t Look Like This
After a talk I gave last week, one of the participants came up to me – Adam, a few years out of university, on the leadership track in a large public sector organisation.
“Cathy,” he said, “I’m really interested in what you said about success. It sounds totally different to what I’ve been told by other people. Can we talk about it?”
Adam had already been through quite a bit of traditional leadership training, and he had the expectation that he needed to know exactly where he was going. That he should have his destination firmly in his sights, never wavering from it. That he should be stepping boldly and consistently to the place in the future that his colleagues and mentors were defining as ‘success’.
I’d introduced an alternative perspective, and he was curious.
The Alternative Timeline
“What if there is no timeline?” I’d asked. “What if we don’t know, and have no control over what’s ahead of us? Would we act differently? Would we put our focus elsewhere? Choose other actions? Make different decisions?”
I’d talked to the room about how I could make up, as I stood with them that day, that I’d still be doing the same work in a year’s time. That I’d have clients, I’d be teaching seminars, perhaps I’d create more online training. That life would look like a version of what I was doing today. I could even create plans and strategies, make up targets and start to monitor results.
Whereas most people would see this as real and a good place to aim (or at least a reasonable place to expect to arrive), I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that my world could change in an instant.
Mum’s Crazy Ideas
I told Adam that I’d been in the car with my youngest son a couple of days previously, as my son had been musing about his university plans.
“Mum, I’m thinking of taking a year out before I go to university. What do you think?”
He then started to list the places he might go, what he might do, whom he might travel with.
As he talked, I found my mind wandering. ‘Wouldn’t it be great,’ I found myself thinking, ‘to go with him? To have some mum-and-son time, to spend a few weeks or even a few months in each of those places he’s listing?’
Now, if I voiced that idea I expect my son would have been horrified. Or maybe not? I didn’t tell him what I was thinking in that moment but I tell you because it illustrates that ideas come to us all the time — whether we go looking for them or not.
We Don’t Need to Act
I probably won’t go travelling with my son but, now that my imagination has started to see something that feels like a good idea, who knows where it will go. Maybe I will do something with that year. Maybe I’ll travel, maybe we’ll move house, who knows. I can play with the ideas as they arrive; I can choose which ones to let go immediately and which ones to try on to see whether I like the fit.
While this may look like ‘daydreaming’ to you, thinking up mad ideas I’ll never act on, I know that this is actually how life works.
Everything comes from (seemingly) nowhere. Whether it’s the unexpected job offer, the unwelcome redundancy or the random new idea, our circumstances are in perpetual motion.
We can choose to plan for a future that doesn’t exist, but planning doesn’t make that future real.
This was the conversation I had with Adam.
What’s in Your Future?
I’ll ask you what I asked him…
How do you know what ideas you’ll have in the next weeks, months or years? How do you know what opportunities will pass in front of you, and which of those you’ll feel inspired to take?
It seems to me there’s a lot of fun to be had in imagining a future, but there’s very little point acting as if it were a final destination because life has a way of moving us the way it wants, not the way we want.
In the words of John Lennon,
“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.”
Sometimes I think of this like being on a river. We can choose to set our own direction and to battle against the current. Or, we can take advantage of the flow, we can take the forks and backwaters of ideas and opportunities that are put in front of us. We can see life as a game, as something that happens to us, where we are part of a larger whole.
The More I Look at Life This Way,
the Easier It Gets
The more I look to success as being about how I live now, rather than something to aim for, the more I seem to achieve.
The future is always uncertain; the best we can do is to respond in the moment. Perhaps we’ll like the destination, perhaps we won’t, but we can be certain it’s the one that was intended for us, even if it wasn’t the one we aimed for.
P.S. I’m curious how you see success? Are you aiming for something in the future? Does it feel as if you’ll ever get there? Can you imagine a different definition of success based on the conversation I’ve talked about here? I’d love you to let me know.