As an executive for Fortune 100 tech companies in my early 30s, I had arrived – or so it seemed. The lifestyle I had in Sydney was all I had ever wanted as a child growing up on my mum’s monthly wage of $5 in China.
Yet it came at a cost. I worked 70 – 80 hours a week. I regularly put in a second shift after I had put my kids to bed. I worked 14 hours a day, beyond midnight, and sometimes joined global conference calls at 2am.
My jobs required me to travel across the Asia Pacific region, but I would compress my schedule so I could be home as fast as possible. And I would do all I could to do the school drop-offs and pick-ups, rescheduling meetings so I could be in the school hall for my daughters to see my face when they won a prize.
But no matter how hard I tried, I constantly felt I was failing – from being in a foreign city airport at 2am on my birthday, singing a lullaby to my three-year-old on the phone in another country, buying toys in every country to offset my guilt.
Once my eldest daughter woke up and said, “Yay, mummy, I finally found you!” She thought it was a dream, so she went back to sleep. I had actually got home early from another trip.
From the outside, it looked like I was winning but on the inside, I felt a deep sense of disconnect. I was fighting to stay above water, struggling beneath the weight of my responsibilities. My life had become a monotone existence. There was no joy and being; there was only doing and existing.
Is the cost of success worth it?
This is all I could think when I was rushed into an emergency operation. My mind was blank, but I remember asking myself: Is this it?
All the things I had cared so much about felt silly and meaningless. I would have traded anything to live, to be with my children, to feel healthy.
Later as I delved into the science of peak performance and positive psychology, I realised that many traditional ways of succeeding work in the short term, derail our performance and happiness in the long term. In other words, many people are high achievers but not high performers.
It’s not whether the cost of success is worth it, it’s whether the way we go about achieving success is worth it.
How do we shift to a healthier perspective?
For many, we place so much emphasis on external success, believing it will give us happiness, yet we overlook so much of what makes a good life. To feel alive, we need to feel our everyday existence is enjoyable and meaningful. Like a fuel tank, our energy must be topped up or it will run out.
Slowing down, taking care of ourselves, getting back to living, not just doing – these are key to a flourishing, productive life. Ideas come from being idle and innovation comes from curiosity. When we stop doing all the time, the world becomes wonderful again.
I continued my corporate career for many more years. The biggest shift I made was to focus on living every day in a more conscious, reflective way, instead of hurriedly marching towards the next destination. It took a lot of effort to change my unhealthy habits and learn a more optimal way to work and live, but I realised being successful while merely existing was not “success”.
One of my coaching clients, Sema Musson, is the General Manager of Governance at Allianz and the co-author of Being Brave. She eloquently captured how I felt:
“It’s easy to get caught up in the race. Before you know it, life is running away, you are tired and unfit. Sure, you have a bigger house and nicer cars, but are you a better you? I’m grateful I realised this and started to take steps to reverse the trend. These changes created space in my life for other meaningful things. I now feel happier, healthier and stronger.”
Ask yourself: If you had one year to live, how would you work and live differently?
We all want to succeed but do we want it to come at the cost of our happiness and wellbeing? Changing the way we achieve is key.