Redefining Success: A Sanctuary For Exhausted Souls

by | Jan 18, 2023

(Image from Izhar Cohen)

Whose definition of success are you following?

Do feel the pressure of life speeding up, the relentless struggle to keep on top of things?

Do you sense some kind of burnout or breakdown looming?

Do you ever wonder when this relentless juggernaut is going to stop?

Please consider these words that follow as an invitation – an invitation to slow down and tune into an inner sanctuary for your exhausted soul.

I was inspired to write this article when, at the end of 2022 I saw my news feed filling with people listing their successes – launched a podcast, wrote a book, sold a business, got one million subscribers on Youtube. At first, I felt a pang of not enough, and a feeling that I needed to try harder, work harder and achieve more in 2023. 

But then I felt pissed off. I was pissed off that no-one was declaring: ‘I smashed it in 2022, because I spent 50% more time with my child/partner/in nature.’ I was also pissed off because I too get hooked on these cultural messages that tell us the only way to find meaning in life is to ‘slay’ more (as the kids say), create more content, have more followers, be more productive. These dominant stories about success are like a global virus, spreading from one body to another and creating a world of exhausted souls.

Well, I am tired of chasing someone else’s definition of success. I am tired of being dragged away from my own sense of what is right and true. My soul is exhausted.

We live in an achievement society. The idea of success entrenched in our culture is about the lone wolf, the individual hero who has battled against the odds to rise to the top. We celebrate the influencers, the big hitters, the bestsellers. Have you ever heard the term ‘blitzscaling’? It is a term promoted in a book and podcast by Reid Hoffman, co-founder of Linkedin, to promote an idea that the only way to be successful in business is to pursue aggressive growth at all costs. I think this term sums up the cancerous nature of our current paradigm of success. 

Behind the veil of our blitzscaled, achievement obsessions lies a different story – a story of collective burnout and breakdown. We destroy our habitat chasing infinite growth. We destroy our minds and bodies chasing infinite growth.

In this mad world, whatever we can do or be is never enough. In The Burnout Society, philosopher Byung-Chul Han says that ‘Depression reflects a humanity waging war on itself. The complaint of the depressive individual, “Nothing is possible” can only occur in a society that thinks, “Nothing is impossible”.’

When will it ever stop?

Many people I work with in my therapy practice have been brought to their knees chasing someone else’s definition of success. Fame, money, status, and even impact have not brought them to the promised land of everlasting joy. Surprise. Surprise.

I used to support an ex gang member who was setting up his own charity to dispel the myths around the life of a gangster. His slogan was ‘selling dreams, delivering nightmares.’ The same applies to the ideals of success that infect us today.

As we compulsively chase success, ramping up our productivity, we negatively impact those around us.

We surround ourselves with successful people, and lose touch with old friends.

We are so busy trying to scale our business, we don’t notice our child has been self-harming.

We are so focused on ‘growing our community’, we don’t help the elderly neighbour next door.

We grow our personal brand, and lose touch with our true self.

Enough is enough, I say!

We need to stop, gather together, and take time to redefine success in a way that feels true, authentic, and sustainable.

I don’t have all the answers. But I do know we need collectively to begin a gentle but radical inquiry into the roots of this deep and harmful pattern. We need to create an inner sanctuary for all the different parts of us that are engaged in this burnout dynamic.

So where do we begin?

Well, it helps to accept some basic facts about our human beingness. We are mimetic creatures, which means we desire what others desire, even if it’s not fun, not what we really want, and even if what we desire is actually bad for our mental health and bad for our planet. Philosopher René Girard called this ‘mimetic desire’. Let me explain it with a little story about my daughter Rose Gaia.

I once took Rose to a soft play in London’s Finsbury Park. This place had the best toys, hamsters you could feed, and a machine with two big, bright, red-and-green buttons that rocketed balls to the other side of the room. As Rose scanned the room, her eyes latched onto a green tractor in the corner. This was a supremely dull, coin-operated toy that rocked back and forth making dull, tractor noises. But . . . there was a boy on it, and so Rose wanted what he had. Rose ran past all the really fun activities over to the green tractor where I had to repeatedly stop her from climbing onto the machine. Eventually, the tractor stopped rocking and the boy dismounted. Now Rose finally had a seat. I put 50 pence in the machine. The tractor began its dull rocking motion, making dull tractor noises. Rose sat there looking a bit confused. She had been desperate to get on this machine, but now she was on it, she was clearly not having fun. But she refused to get off, she couldn’t get off the tractor, even when the tractor stopped its rocking motion, and even though the other children were clearly having loads of fun elsewhere.

We want what other people want. It is deeply ingrained in us. What green tractors are you riding in your life? I believe many of us are riding a massive green tractor called ‘success’. This tractor isn’t that fun, it leaves us feeling depleted and it takes us away from the things that can really nurture our soul. I suspect if you have read this far then you sense this to be true. But, it is hard to break out of the pattern. Words are cheap. We can say: ‘Oh let’s all just slow down, be more present, smell the roses.’ But this is not easy to do when the environment around us is speeding up, when our nervous systems are being relentlessly activated by messages leaving us feeling anxious that we are not good enough.

Here is a good question for you: How do we know when we are enough? How do we know when we have worked enough? Achieved enough? Grown enough? Healed enough?

We carry over from the industrial age the idea of an eight hour work day. I personally feel that if I haven’t worked a minimum of eight hours, I haven’t done enough. But now I want to deeply question these beliefs. What if an ideal day is spending four hours doing deep creative work in service to those who need it, followed by two hours of personal recreation and at least two hours spent with family, neighbours, friends, volunteering. Does this sound crazy or unrealistic to you? If so why?

I do realise I’m writing this from the privileged position of someone who has been able to set up a freelance life, where I can choose when I want to work, and don’t have anyone to report to in terms of how I spend my time. This isn’t possible for everyone, at least not immediately. But I do know that the same mimetic desires cut across our culture. When I ran a therapeutic school for teenagers with complex trauma, there were a group of boys who were obsessed with a brand of designer jeans called Ringspun Allstar. These jeans cost about £100 a pair, even 10 years ago. The boys couldn’t afford the jeans, so they got rip off ones instead. And one day they told me that a young boy in their hood was robbed for his Ringspun Allstar jeans, and got stabbed to death. 

It hasn’t always been like this. In Cannibals and Kings, anthropologist Marvin Harris explained that: “In most band and village societies before the evolution of the state, the average human being enjoyed economic and political freedoms which only a privileged minority enjoy today. Men decided for themselves how long they would work on a particular day, what they would work at—or if they would work at all.… Neither rent, taxes, nor tribute kept people from doing what they wanted to do.” This clearly a time before the internet, instant messaging, and always-on culture.

It hasn’t always been like this. The late anthropologist and activist David Graeber once said, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and could just as easily make differently.” How might the world look differently, if we started to move into a different, more gentle, more collaborative, more self-and-other-and-planet-loving definition of success?

I have been particularly interested in the spiritual idea of the Sabbath. A day a week where it is prohibited to do any work at all. A day a week where the emphasis is on spending time with family, in community and in communion with the spiritual realm. I feel envious of orthodox Jewish people who completely switch off for a day a week. It is hard to do this on your own. Much easier when you have signed up to a community or an institution with clear rules and prohibitions. Without supportive community, it is really hard to make these changes. I loved hearing this idea that the Sabbath is a mutual non-compete clause. A sacred space and a time where a group of people decide to step outside the rat race and just be with one another. How might we nurture the seeds of a new non-compete clause with each other not just on one day of the week, but across our lives?

I have more questions than answers. I know that’s not the done thing in our current world of success. I’m supposed to have figured it all out, to have a list of 10 steps to redefine success, a proven formula that you can rinse, repeat, and scale. But I am content for now to sit with questions. There are a few in this article, and I will leave you with two more for now. I recommend taking some time to reflect on the questions, let them percolate, journal about them, dance with them, there is no rush to find the perfect answer, and in that sentiment perhaps there is the thing we seek.

  1. What are your biggest fears about letting go of your current, unhelpful ideas about success?
  2. What does your heart most long for?