Nicola Roxon’s valedictorian speech to parliament on Tuesday got me thinking about success and how our definition of success can and should shift according to our changing circumstances.
It no longer makes sense to think of ‘success’ in terms of a straight, continuously climbing career trajectory in which we accumulate more wealth and power. To do so ventures dangerously close to the ‘have it all’ and keep ‘growing it all’ nonsense that’s preoccupied too much of our time.
That’s never worked for women and it’s not going to magically start working in the future.
After 15 years, including time spent as our first female attorney-general and the first female senior cabinet minister with a young child, Roxon’s leaving parliament to pursue the next chapter of her life – one that includes spending more time with her daughter Rebecca.
If Roxon retained an inflexible definition of success that was all about power, she may have stayed on to fight another term in Parliament. She may have continued chasing ways to balance raising a child and managing a high-profile career. She’s ambitious, young and has plenty more years to offer – but that didn’t suit her current life stage, nor what and who she wanted to be.
As Roxon said at the NAB Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards in March, the “buzz” of parliament and the changes she’s been able to enact have given her immense job satisfaction. And despite not really finding much life balance for herself and her staff over the years, her political career has been worth it.
She noted that what she’s achieved proves women can have high-profile, high-intensity jobs and be extremely good at them. But that doesn’t mean we have to do them forever. “It’s a trap for women and trap for politicians to think so,” she said.
I call it the ‘success trap’, the one we quickly find ourselves caught in upon finishing up our education and getting into the workforce. From day one we’re climbing, doing what we can to escape what we perceive as mediocre success in order to reach ideal levels of success – usually that means success defined by somebody else, or even popular culture. Not just money, power and a great career, but other traps like being the perfect mother, wife, friend, cook, home decorator and even that desire to be thin. These are the elements of an artificial construct of success that is frankly impossible and can leave us feeling unsatisfied and continuously striving for something we simply cannot achieve.
The above ‘elements’ might be great things to pursue, but they don’t need to be pursued all at once. Indeed, by focusing on one, depending on where you’re at with life, you may actually make some satisfying progress.
We can all readjust our lives, scale our careers up and down at different times, and move to the next thing once we’ve completed the previous project, according to Roxon. “Feminism was supposed to deliver opportunity and choice. I took that opportunity and gave it 200% — now I’m exercising my choice to do something else, to contribute in a different way,” she told Women’s Agenda.
And what a great opportunity that is.
By defining success your own way, you can determine what really matters to you. What makes you happy, keeps you satisfied, and allows you to contribute to the community, family and friends in a way that’s meaningful.
Chasing somebody else’s definition, or sticking to your old definition despite your life situation changing, will inevitably leave you feeling trapped.