When I took the leap to go freelance, one of my first roles was helping flesh out the blog of a branding agency. The company I was working with, Motto, is a visionary agency who help their clients realise, embody, and communicate their purpose, vision, and values.
One of the most defining and memorable lessons on what success means, was while helping the aforementioned dynamic duo with a blog post about the book Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big, by author and former Inc. editor-in-chief, Bo Burlingham.
It’s no secret the pressure to scale and sell is rife in the startup and tech world. For many founders, it’s become their driving focus and definition of success. Raising, scaling, growth for growth’s sake, hustling toward a six-figure valuation is, for many, the aim of the game.
The Book is a showcase of companies who chose to stay small, often despite pressure to the contrary. In the post, we focused on Burlingham’s interest in those who went against the grain.
His obsession was with brands who could have sold but chose not to. Brands with a thriving business, and who were perhaps even presented with the opportunity of plunging into growth-mode, but instead decided to do great things—usually on a more local community level.
There’s something special about these brands. I remember, Sunny and Ashleigh often referred to them as “Rare Breeds”—companies that carve out their own path, choosing to do what’s right for them and their vision of the future, in spite of external pressures to grow or sell.
The unabashed commitment to their purpose inspired me and still makes me question my own idea of what success really is.
The appearance of success
In the past, I’ve been guilty of defining and measuring success in the same cliché way many young executives do—a new car, fancy house, and hefty bank balance.
For a long time, I believed that obtaining the things that make you look successful to everyone else meant I’d actually succeeded. Like I’d somehow “won life”. I think it’s an idea that stems back to my childhood—though I’ve no doubt it’s reinforced by modern society on a daily basis.
We didn’t have much when I was a kid. I was a child of a broken home—though save your violins, I’m over it. My mum struggled to make ends meet. The cupboards would often be bare, save for a bag of sugar and a jar of budget brand coffee. And for much of the time, we were trapped in debt cycles while living off welfare.
We existed under the poverty line for the vast majority of my youth. Though I say this more for context than pity. Poverty is relative. We had a roof over our heads and running water. And we usually had a meal each day, so I can’t complain.
To me, that was the opposite of success. That was all out failure. It was embarrassing. And I hated it.
You see, we lived on a council estate that had been dropped in an otherwise wealthy part of the Devonshire countryside. It was a scar on an otherwise beautiful part of the country.
Many of the kids and families I encountered day-to-day belonged to “successful” families. Their parents went to work every day. They had big houses and flashy cars, and all the popular, new, shiny toys that cool kids had back then.
I wanted what the other kids had—I guess I was supposed to. I wanted the traditional family, the birthday parties, new bikes, and clothes that weren’t hand-me-downs. You get the idea!
I suspect that’s where my first definitions of success came from, envy. This envy fast translated into a hustle hard work ethic. By the time I was 13, I was working 2 part-time jobs on an hourly pittance, as I found myself buying into the idea that hard work makes you successful. Given the circumstances, it made sense, at least to my 13-year-old brain.
Ranting on the toxic notion of the hustle —or Hard work != Mo’ Money
It’s fair to say, my definition of, and approach to success has changed massively over the past twenty years.
When you find yourself working all the hours under the sun, giving up your social life, and have very little to show for it, you begin to question the legitimacy of the “hustle harder” rhetoric.
Now, I find myself at odds with much of the content I read and see, overflowing with ideas about “hustling”, “grinding”, and “killing it” as measures of success.
When did we decide to celebrate a toxic hustle culture instead of one that promotes happiness?
Just this past week, I saw a post on LinkedIn asking
“What is more important: A higher salary or a work-life balance?”
It was surprising how many responses believed salary was more important. Though, I guess it’s ingrained in our culture of seeking accumulative wealth. But what’s most frustrating is the suggestion that the two are mutually exclusive.
To me the idea that to get a higher salary you need to sacrifice your work-life balance is a little out of whack.
I think that salary should be based on the quality or merit of your work, not on “hustle”, or how many hours you clock in.
Let’s face it, tech CEOs aren’t working 2,496 hours a day, despite earning 312 times that of the average worker. Why should a workers wage be dependent on the hours they work?
After writing the blog post on Small Giants, I still struggled to come to terms with what success really meant to me. In fact, I think I still do, now and again.
Reading about how these small companies took charge of their own vision, and their own definition of success was an eye-opening moment. They found their purpose and used that as their guiding light, in many cases putting people before profit. And I could do the same.
Not necessarily as a brand or a solopreneur, but with my life. I realised I spent the vast majority of my life trying to conform to other’s definitions of success. And it made me miserable.
It’s easy to point out what success isn’t. But it’s much harder to sit down and think about what success actually means to you. For me, it’s not how much money I earn, what car I drive, or what postcode I live in.
I didn’t want to be the wealthy white dude rushing from business meeting to business meeting, pulling in a £100k salary, owning fancy cars and a Chelsea townhouse, but never seeing his family. I’d be far happier as the guy renting a small cottage, getting by writing blog posts and doing marketing from the comfort of his home, who spends every non-working moment with the people he loves.
So, I do that! And I measure success by how happy I feel, and now also the happiness of those around me.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with those other measures of success, they just aren’t my measures. And that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make here.
As individuals, we don't have to conform to everyone else's definition of success. We can take charge and define success on our own terms, by our own measures. Just make sure you’re living your best life.