How to stop striving for success

In the early years of public school, we’re asked to write down, draw or paint what we want to be when we grow up. This educational ritual is meant to set us on a path to success from a very young age and help us better determine the milestones we need to hit along the way. 


But this trajectory is stunting and harmful. Asking children to make such distant and overarching plans for achievement doesn’t propel them forward, it blinds them to the myriad of open doors available to them. It diminishes one of the untainted magical elements of childhood – possibility. It harnesses it. Cages it.  Draws a perimeter around an otherwise wide open universe.

Inevitably, children’s dreams will shift and transform as they age. These juvenile sketches of ballerinas and rock stars become college applications and job resumes, and youthful visions of the future emerge into 1, 5 and 10-year plans. In other words, in our teenage years, society takes us even deeper into hypnosis. It gives us tunnel vision that no longer points toward success but “realistic” success. It wrenches even more opportunity from our helpless clutches and closes even more of those aforementioned doors.

So how do we break free from this pattern? Whether we like it or not, we live in a world that ultimately chooses our path for us. Sure, those paths vary and yes, we do get to make choices here and there. But that’s the extent of our freedom in this society. We get to choose between college, university, or work. We get to choose between success or failure – nothing in between. No happy-medium. Like players on the board game of LIFE, we get to make decisions. But those decisions are both limited and predetermined. So I ask again: how do we break free from this pattern?

woman in grass

1. Start enjoying your own grass.

We’re all familiar with the old adage “the grass is always greener on the other side”. For some baffling reason, our generation isn’t particularly good at being happy in the moment. We achieve one thing, and automatically start making plans for a subsequent achievement. Our end goal is open-ended, and that’s extremely problematic. It’s so vitally important to keep in mind that you will never get to where you’re going, folks. And that’s not meant to be a dejecting statement. It’s meant to be uplifting. It’s meant to remind you that where you are right now is an accomplishment in itself. Rather than going over your to-do list for tomorrow, take a few moments at the end of each day to go over everything you’ve already accomplished – today, this week, this year, and overall! Your grass is SO green.

happy family

2. Draft your own measures of success.

Fuck society’s blueprints. To illustrate this point, I’m going to give a little shout out to someone who has become a big part of my life over the past couple years – my brother’s fiancé, Shelby. When I was first getting to know Shelby and asking her all my preliminary “are you good enough for my brother” questions (for the record, she very much is!) I asked her where she went to school. “I didn’t,” she answered, point-blank. And let me tell you, friends… I admired this response SO much. Shelby is a very successful person, by society’s standards and her own. She and my brother bought their own house a year ago and they’re only in their early twenties. She’s a smart, funny and extremely kind human being. And she’s a woman who didn’t go to post-secondary school. She didn’t want to, so she didn’t. My point? We spend hours upon hours in high school preparing for “the next step” in life – college or university. We’re inherently taught that “it’s the thing to do”. But that’s bullshit. Success shouldn’t be measured by the norm. The norm is boring. Be different and decide what your success looks like. Learn from Shelby’s example and define your own happiness rather than letting others define it for you.

happy woman

3. Speaking of happiness, start putting it on the front burner.

The generations before us went through a little phase that I like to call The Sheep Phase. Anyone who has ever taken a philosophy course will understand what I mean by this but, for the rest of you, just imagine a flock of sheep. Like a group of compliant livestock, our parents and grandparents (not all of them, mind you) did what they were told. Where one sheep went, they all went. There was a certain way to “do” life and, if you didn’t abide by that, you got left behind. No ifs, ands or bah’s about it. And you know where happiness ended up among that throng of people, all scrambling to follow the rules? It died. It got lost among the crowd – swallowed up by submission and obedience. But, like global warming, we have the capacity to change the ways of our predecessors. We can once again place happiness on the front burner, making our own individual joy a priority over procedures and guidelines put in place by… who, exactly? Bottom line: stop following and start living, people.

woman bubbles

Some people legitimately want success. They want the fancy, high-paying job and the big house. They want to be recognized when they walk down the street. They want their name in lights – or at least in print. And there’s nothing wrong with that… as long as it’s not a misguided dream. If you experience unhappiness on a regular basis (Canada and the U.S. didn’t even make the top 5 in a study measuring happiness across countries), take a step back and reconsider what you really want in life and, more importantly, why you want it. Is it because it’s what society says you’re “supposed” to want? Because chances are, you probably don’t actually want to spend the rest of your life working for promotion after promotion at your firm. It’s likely that your big house will end up being a bitch to clean. And achieving fame probably won’t be as glamorous as you think.

“Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.”

 – Arthur Ashe

Emily Watson is a freelance writer and certified yoga and medical Qi Gong instructor. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature and has been writing – creatively and otherwise – for ten years. Off the mat and away from the keyboard, Emily can be found hiking, camping and traveling with her wife and fur babies. She currently lives and works for a publishing company in Peterborough, Ontario.



4 thoughts on “How to stop striving for success

  1. Very true and an excellent write. I especially related to ‘drafting your own idea of success’ as a positive way of gaining control and not being led by the nose into continual disappointment. Though I went to a relatively good school as a kid, I do not recall being asked what I would be or do when I grew up. It is possible it was asked but it was not emphasized, and I come at it from the angle of one who half-wishes that it were emphasized because I went through school the exact opposite, not being able to understand the nature of competition which is necessary in this life, and not considering what I would do when the school system ended. I had very loose, ill-formed notions of what happened afterward, which to my adult mind, is shocking and embarrassing to admit but it’s the truth. I floundered because of this, not having any direction. Despite this I agree with what you have written here, as moving to the US I saw how competitive it is and how driven it is, sometimes in a negative way of over emphasizing notions of success that do not apply to the individual, your point is exactly right. Maybe like anything it’s about balance.


    1. Thanks so much for your feedback! I think you’re right – balance is key. Success and competition, to some degree, can help us achieve happiness, as long as it’s not the end goal. As far as school systems go, individual happiness should be emphasized over a single definition of success. As you said, these notions of success that don’t apply to the individual are far too prominent, and there’s something inherently wrong about that!! Thanks again 🙂


      1. You are a superb writer it does not surprise me that you do it for a living but many write for a living are not as eloquent as you, I wish you the best of luck with that because you really deserve it. You are very welcome I thought your post was excellent.

        Liked by 1 person

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