A Different Measure


My bestie and I went along to a screening of The Great Gatsby a couple of days ago, and had lots to chat about in our debrief about it on the way home. Our chat ranged in themes, but what stuck with me was largely how our society measures success. Gatsby is set in New York in the roaring twenties, during a time of enormous decadence, excess and ebullience. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t seen it or read the book, the central storyline revolves around Gatsby accumulating ridiculous amounts of money, in order to secure the love of a woman whose love he already had without it. Gatsby’s sense of self worth was largely pinned to how he appeared on the outside, regardless of the ways he went about getting said wealth. Watching it has had me reflecting quite a bit on the human condition and how it is that we as a species are overtly taught to measure success, happiness and who it is that wins in this game of life.

The focus is often so externally driven on getting, acquiring, accumulating wealth and various trappings – that we lose sight of what really creates feelings inside of us that are genuinely resonant of inner peace, contentment, joy and love.

Create a life

I’m by no means saying that getting or attaining all of this aforementioned stuff isn’t ever a worthy thing to do, and I’m the last person to advocate a life of austerity and complete minimalism (although more power to you if you do), but what I am saying is that it’s not going to secure you the feelings, state of mind, or sense of fulfillment that you’ve been led to believe. And funnily enough, we all know this, but it’s somehow perpetuated in our collective consciousness that this is how it all goes – the more stuff you have, the more boxes you have ticked, the happier you’ll be. But we know this isn’t true. Because if you measure success like this – nothing is ever enough. All there will be is mere moments of relief and ‘happiness’, but they will be fleeting – you’ll be looking for the next great thing to secure your hit.

Now I’m not going to launch in to a Marxist diatribe about the evils of neoliberalism and a critique of our capitalist economy – because this external focus isn’t just limited to ‘stuff’ – it’s also based on achieving certain milestones and what this supposedly says about each of us.

Take me for example. I had a picture in my head in my late teens and early twenties that the measure of success by the time I turned 31 (my current age) would be: a couple of degrees under my belt, a great career, oodles of money, married to a nice man, and perhaps a kidlet or two. My society’s norms had both explicitly and implicitly massaged in to my psyche that this is what it takes to be considered a successful woman in this world. So I can assure you that my (now in recovery) Type A perfectionist personality was honed in for a long time on achieving everything on this list.

But I find myself in the here and now having not achieved everything on this list. I don’t have a husband, or children, or arguably oodles of cash (although I live a very comfortable life). Does this mean I’m unlovable, a social oddity, or largely unsuccessful? This would have previously been how I may have posited what society ‘thinks’ in the face of my not having these things. Even typing this out and seeing this admission in writing is confronting for me and has me feeling pretty vulnerable. For quite awhile now though, I’ve come to realise how exhausting it is to live my life in accordance with what other people’s opinions or expectations may or may not be of me. What you or anyone else thinks of me is actually none of my business.

What I think of me is the most important thing. After significant (and ongoing) inner work and digging really deep within me, I now know it’s more important for me to measure my success on things that I actually do know bring me inner peace, joy, and a steady stream of happiness and bliss. If and when these external trappings come in to my life, that’ll be great – but I’m not waiting for them to arrive before I give myself permission to consider myself a wonderful and successful human.

There’s a great quote from the movie Cool Runnings, which encapsulates what I’m trying to say perfectly:

“A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without the medal, you’ll never be enough with it.”

So now my measures are:

Living in integrity. My thoughts, words, deeds, habits, and character are congruent and reflect my inner truth.

Doing work that spreads light on our planet. Channelling my energy in to work every day that contributes to our planet’s wellbeing.

Being present and in the now. Fully focusing on what or who is in front of me in the present moment.

Loving well. This often includes non-interference, and letting go of my compulsion to be excessively helpful.

Nourishing and nurturing my mind, body and spirit every day. I fill my well through meditation, writing, doing exercise I find fun, eating food that my body needs, connecting with my loved ones, being in nature.

Being open to the lessons that come to me, every day. Knowing that we are all presented with lessons we need to reckon with – and that these will continue to revisit us until they’re acknowledged and delved in to.

I don’t necessarily achieve success by these measures on a daily basis, but I do know that these are the measures by which I am able to cultivate my best life, and ultimately feel good inside, every day.

Ironically, the author of The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald, died thinking that his novel – often cited as the great American novel – was a dismal failure. It had mixed reviews and sold poorly initially. He passed away in 1940, just before a resurgence of interest in his work occurred – and without seeing his book become a staple on school reading lists throughout the world. It was on my school reading list, and I’m so very thankful that it was. But Fitzgerald’s perception of external judgements led him to believe he was a failure, rather than the writing genius and completely worthy human that he actually was.

If only he’d had himself a different measure of success.

How about you? Do you measure your life by society’s expectations or have you done the inner work to help you let go of this? I’d love to hear from you below.

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  • Caroline

    Absolutely brilliant post. You have an incredible mind, Ms Carly Stephan and I’m so proud to call you my bestie.

  • Nicole

    Carly, you are so right! It is a process that I have started, but won’t just happen overnight. I always thought that if I was skinnier I would be happier and my life would be great. The moment I let that go, and stopped comparing to others the moment everything just seemed to work out. I love your measures and I might start some for myself tonight.
    Always a pleasure reading. Thank you

    • Carly

      Thanks, Nicole! There are so many distractions tempting us away from looking inside ourselves for joy. So glad to hear you liked some of my measures, I hope you find they inspire you to craft your own. xx

  • Jessie

    Thanks Carly, for such an insightful piece on success, and a life worth striving for, and pointing out how our unhelpful measures of success often involve but also extend beyond material things.
    I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see the film, due to loving the book, but as a prompt to such a great conversation and post on what success means, I’m already grateful it exists 🙂

    • Carly

      Aw, Jessie. Thank you for your thoughtful comment (as always). I think you’ll find the movie is quite true to the story, but it’s got a very Baz vibe as you’d expect. Really OTT! Worth the watch though, in my opinion. xx

  • sue knight

    Lovely thoughts and words of wisdom Carly.

  • SJ

    My favourite post so far! In our society, the more you have, the more you want.

    If smarts is a measure of success you are rich beyond your wildest dreams!

    However as shallow & materialistic as the Buchanans et al are, I would still like to be teleported to the 1920s and spend a night at a Gatsby party, with Daisy’s wardrobe…just once… 😉

    • Carly

      Thanks, madam! You are too kind. And as soon as you find that teleporter, I’ll volunteer to go back in time with you for a partay. xx

  • Lauren

    A beautiful, honest and inspiring piece of writing. Thanks for writing it Carls xxxx

  • Kerri-Anne

    Hey Carly, what an amazing post and never a truer word spoken. It’s such a nice change to see people not confirming to society’s expectations… This is your life, your journey and no one can ever tell you what is right or wrong, but you… For 31yrs of age, you Ms Stephan are far more advanced for your years than you realise and for those unfortunate some, they will never understand what we know – It’s people that make us happy, not things… I admit, I am still a work in progress, but I’m trying… Look forward to reading your blog again soon…

    • Carly

      Thanks so much, Kerri-Anne! So happy to see you here and for your very kind words. I think we’re all works in progress, but what’s important is that we’re interested in the truth of what really brings us wellbeing, rather than what may be dictated to us externally. xx

  • Sal

    Love this post Carly – esp all your measures. And it got me thinking…I have definitely devoted way too much time/energy doing what what other people expected, ticking off the list etc. And yet, even though I have ticked off some of the more traditional aspects of the list, I don’t consider myself successful. In the slightest. And it’s only been in recent times that I’ve realised, I’m always moving the goal posts forward…So that’s something I’m working on, and I’m also getting to the point where I don’t care at all what others think of me. Definitely a work in progress!
    I saw Gatsby last night too and loved it. Keep up the great posts xx

    • Carly

      Thanks, Sal! It’s so amazing how ‘moving the goal posts’ seems to be so much a part of our psyches. A certain degree of striving is healthy, but I think we take it a bit too far a lot of the time. Thank you for sharing so honestly how you feel about ticking off your lists. I’d love to see you write on it! Love xx

  • Emma Shields

    Carly, I am a little speechless. One, your writing is truly beautiful. Two, this issue has surfaced for me intensely and I really resonate with everything you’ve said. And then you’ve added in a great review too – I haven’t read the book, and it’s now on my list, along with the movie! Love your work!! XO

    • Carly

      Thanks so much, lovely Emma! So glad that you enjoyed reading, and yes – add Gatsby to your reading and movie lists! Worth the read, it’s a timeless classic. xx

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