Updated: Mar 3
When I was growing up, I was taught to reach for the stars. That to achieve at life was to be at the top of the game, the boss, earning lots of money. Success was measured by your income, the car you drove, the house you lived in and the holidays you took.
I grew up in a small seaside town in South Africa, where the population swelled to fifty times its normal size in the summer as rich business folk from the cities poured in to get their annual dose of sunshine and relaxation. As a teenager, I would serve these powerful people in restaurants and witnessed first hand what I believed success looked like. And it wasn’t pretty. These wealthy people were often rude, their swollen egos and wallets somehow supposedly excusing their terrible manners and the way they treated the people around them. They drove Porsche’s and BMW’s and owned all the fanciest houses right on the seafront, while us locals bummed around in beach buggies and lived in humbler abodes further back in the bushland.
I can’t deny I wasn't wowed by these shiny, glossy people with their yachts and mansions but even with my impressionable young brain I could tell that being rich had its failings. They were loud and brash but were they happy? Did I really want to grow up to be like them?
The trouble is, it wasn’t just country bumpkins like me who were taught to think big. This was the narrative fed to all of us in the western world. We were told that if we worked hard, the world was our oyster. If you wanted to just be a plumber and never leave your home town well that was ok but actually you’d be a bit of a loser. More important to do well at school, go to university and work in finance or start your own empire.
Now I’m old enough and savvy enough to realise that this simply isn’t the case. Yes, hard work can take you places but a lot of the time people who get to the top of their game in whatever career path they’ve chosen do so through connections and luck. And they’re not always that satisfied either. They’re stressed, anxious, tired, miserable.
Apart from feeling like we were all fed a lie, I’ve also come to the conclusion that it was all so unnecessary in the first place. Why should we all wish to be at the top of the pile? Only a tiny fraction of us is ever going to be a millionaire, a boss, the best at whatever profession we’ve chosen so why should we all be constantly striving for it?
So here's my point: what is wrong with wishing to be mediocre? Not all of us are cut out to be leaders and that’s ok. We should be taught from the outset that being somewhere in the middle, which is infinitely more likely, is not only ok but actually desirable.
I first began thinking of this when I met my husband and his group of friends. Most of my South African friends in London had gone into jobs where within a few years they were earning piles of money. This is what entrepreneurial South Africans do. But Ed, like me, was a lowly journalist, getting by on peanuts. His friends all had “passion” careers – they were teachers, or worked in creative industries and most of them weren’t driven by money. It was an eye-opener.
Fast forward fifteen years and many of my contemporaries are now even more disillusioned with their lot in life. They’ve now worked their way up the ladder of their careers but are finding their jobs unfulfilling and are wondering what’s next. Many of them would love to quit their well-earning jobs and do something more meaningful: running a mountain biking shop in the woods or a café in Cornwall. But with kids and a mortgage to consider taking a leap into the unknown seems untenable.
We’ve all become so shackled to what we think we need to be living a successful life. We think we need more, bigger, greater. But the truth is, success doesn’t have to be measured in size. Surely its more about finding contentment in whatever you are doing at any given moment. In the yoga world we call this santosha. Being satisfied to lead a normal life, one that isn’t high pressured. It’s having a wonderful life partner who gets you and respects you. Healthy, adorable children. A roof over your head. The ability to take the occasional holiday. I mean, how lucky am I really? #sograteful ;-)
When I first became a yoga teacher, given my background as a journalist everyone was saying I should write a blog or write a book. Others felt I should run retreats. But all I wanted to do was teach people yoga! I hope to do those other things too - watch this space - but sometimes the pressure hangs over me and actually do I have to complicate my life to feel like I’m a success? No.
For me, having a job I love has always been so much more important than having a job that pays well and my children have already been taught that. They know that mummy and daddy do creative jobs that mean we can't necessarily pay for a loft extension but gives us oodles of satisfaction.
These days, I look at those around me and I find I’m often most inspired by my friends who have smaller lives and are happier for it. Those who aren’t what some might cast as traditionally successful. They don’t have big houses, fancy cars or fat bonuses every January. But they’re happy. They laugh a lot and drink tea in sunbeams and dream. Those are my people.