Why can’t I be more succesful? Why didn’t I amount to more? Why am I such a disappointment to the world? As much as it pains me to say it, these questions haunt many of us throughout our lives.
But maybe the problem isn’t you at all! Maybe the problem is the way that we are measuring success.
You see, our obsession with ‘being successful’ is one of the most harmful things about human society. For the health of the planet and for ourselves, we must learn to accept ourselves and turn away from toxic messages about who we are supposed to be.
The Training Begins
From the moment we open our eyes for the very first time, our training in ‘being successful’ begins. It starts with teaching us to be polite.
‘Be a good girl.’
‘Smile and say thank you.’
‘Go and give your auntie a kiss.’
Not that there is anything wrong with being polite. To be polite often walks hand in hand with being kind. But instead of being allowed to cry when we are sad or refrain from kissing someone we don’t feel comfortable around, we are generally trained to put politeness before following our instincts or building healthy boundaries.
Once we have been taught obedience, the training soon turns up a notch.
‘Do your homework or you won’t pass your exams’
‘Pass your exams or you won’t get a good job’
‘Work very hard or you won’t get a promotion.’
We are not generally told to dream of being happy, or gentle, or content with what we have. We are told to be good, and to be clever, and to aim for the stars. We are told that by getting a good job, we can buy a nice house. Then we can buy a nicer house and a flashy car. If we really hit the jackpot we can buy designer clothes and luxury holidays on the beach.
When you are sipping champagne in a Calvin Klein bikini, you will finally be deemed a ‘successful human.’
We are trained for success by the people that love us. They want us to be happy, and free from poverty. Whilst genuine poverty is a great cause of distress, so is the belief that our value can be pinned on how much money we earn.
Proving Our Worth
In reality, we are born worthy of love and acceptance.
Believing that we need to prove our worth with job progression and material possessions is a learned behavior. A learned behavior that is causing a global mental health crisis, and ripping apart the last wild places at the seems.
Being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), I always felt there was something terribly wrong me. I was so obviously different from the other children that I grew up around, and always believed I was fundamentally broken.
About 20% of the population has the trait Highly Sensitive Person trait. HSPs process sound, light, and emotions deeply. We can often get overwhelmed by the noise and violence of daily life, and are intensely disturbed by the suffering that we come across in our lives.
We are also extremely kind.
We are deeply empathetic and creative. We feel an unbreakable bond with animals and the natural world. When we learn to embrace our sensitivity, we can learn to harness all these strengths to live an extraordinary life.
The Spectre of Success
Instead of learning to harness and thrive on our sensitivity, we are taught to take medication and pretend to feel OK about framing our lives around the spectre of ‘success’.
Don’t cry so much, don’t laugh so much, don’t be so much.
We are taught to get a good job and make lots of money. We are told to keep putting fast fashion before the natural world and career progression over peace and quiet. Instead of asking if the way we are told to live might be the problem, we punish ourselves as ‘weak’ or ‘not good enough’ for being hurt by the toxic way that we are told we have to live our lives.
In theory, we are told that we are all unique and individual. In practice, we are treated like there’s something wrong with us when we can’t fit into the status quo of education, employment, retirement and, eventually, death.
Alarm Bells Ringing
To say that we aren’t interested by wealth or a career rings serious alarm bells in the people that love us.
‘What about your employability?’
‘You don’t want to waste you life drifting around do you?’
‘You’ll grow out of this, it’s just a faze!’
It took me a long time to see the beauty in my differences. To realise that living a gentle life was no less noble than one which consumed a load of resources. To accept that my suffering was a rational and reasonable reaction to the society that I was forcing myself to live in.
Now I understand.
It is not that millions of people in this world are mentally sick. It is that the world itself is sick.
You see, it is not a healthy society that puts money before happiness and development before harmony with the natural world. Nor is it a healthy society that continues to treat the earth’s resources like candy when the global spread of pollution, climate change and habitat loss is threatening our very existence.
To feel like there is something terribly wrong with your life doesn’t make you delusional. It means that your eyes are open.
I am never going to be someone that can bite my lip and fit in. I tried it. It got ugly.
After finishing university and getting a job in end of life care, I suffered an enormous burnout. It had been heading my way for a long time, and I’m honestly surprised that I came out the other side.
The Beauty of Failure
I found my peace by turning away from the lies we are told about success. Finally, I stopped caring about pretending to be anyone other than myself.
I headed to Scotland with a two-man tent, a few hundred pounds, and a man that I had known for 4 days. We camped for 3 months in the wind and the rain and the wild. It wasn’t always pretty. I pulled juicy tics from between my toes and ate more rice than any one person should see in a lifetime.
I am a freelance writer now. I am really poor and I don’t go to parties or wear designer clothes. Sometimes, I don’t see anyone apart from Florian for weeks at a time. I live a quiet life that does as little harm to the world as it possibly can. I don’t buy new clothes, I don’t take flights, I don’t eat meat.
I live in an off-grid van that is powered by solar and I have holes in my jumpers and trainers and dungarees. In every sense of modern life, I am a failure.
I think it’s time to redefine success.
Don’ get me wrong, success can certainly include material wealth. But the wealth should be a tool to help us get closer to our goals, not the end point in itself.
It’s time to measure success in terms of happy people and a healthy planet. Otherwise, what was the point?
I hope you enjoyed this article!
The thing is, you could earn a billion dollars and still feel like a failure if you cannot leqrn to love yourself. Here are some really useful books that helped me with that process:
- The Gifts of Imperfection
- The Self-Love Experiment: Fifteen Principles for Becoming More Kind, Compassionate, and Accepting of Yourself
- You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life
Why not try reading some more of my work?
On Alternative Travel:
- The Inseparable Health Of People And The Earth
- The Future of the Vanlife Movement
- The Inconvenient Truth About A Life Of Travel
- A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Wild Camping
If you think you might be a Highly Sensitive Person, you might like to join my Highly Sensitive Book Club!
Thank you to Florian Roquais for the photos!
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