When will you have ‘made it’? When did you define what success meant to you? Do you have an age by which you have decided you need to have ticked off your list of achievements? When we were children, ‘success’ felt as though it would all slot into place at the ‘ancient’ age of 25. "I’ll be married with two kids by then," we would naively say, or "I’ll have my own house and an amazing job", or "I’ll have won the Academy Award for Best Actress by then" (just me?). We laugh about it now (probably with the bitterness of hindsight), but how much have we really changed? Do we not still, foolishly – and perhaps dangerously – believe that success is the preserve of the young?
“Yes, and quite simply, it’s social conditioning,” explains founder of Seven Career Coaching, Evelyn Cotter, of our fascination with ‘young’ success. “We have a collective adoration of what appear to be overnight successes on shows like Love Island and others, where very young people shoot to fame suddenly. This, and the rise of influencer culture, has contributed significantly to this idea that huge success can happen at such a young age. The reality is that these are a very slight minority, but the problem is they are the most visible and people then use the most visible as a benchmark.”
When our media consumption tends to be populated with the very young, it’s easy to see ourselves as failures by comparison. Think of Olivia Rodrigo becoming Grammy-nominated at 18, or Emma Raducanu winning the US Open at the same age. We have teenagers raking in millions on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, and influencers being offered CEO positions in their early twenties. What did we do at 18, we wonder, helplessly bemoaning our Grammy-less mantles or gazing at the boom of zygote-wunderkinds like Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Speigel?
“I think that has had a huge effect on us,” says Poppy Jamie, founder of the wellbeing and mindfulness app, Happy Not Perfect, of the rise of Silicon Valley stars. “We’ve seen 21-year-olds become billionaires, marry supermodels, change our social fabric. How could we not feel insignificant next to that?”
The social media they created is, of course, aggravating this issue; responsible for propagating the myth of youthful success through an algorithm seemingly designed to make us feel bad about ourselves. “In those moments, we're vulnerable,” says Jamie. “Back in the day we were comparing ourselves to the '90s supermodels in magazines and there felt like a healthy degree of separation. But now we are comparing ourselves to people who feel more like us, and actually market themselves on being ‘real,’ which makes us think: is it just me?”
“It has a terrible mental health impact,” Jamie continues. “Suddenly, we pass this completely made-up age where we're supposed to have our lives together and we see the difference between expectation and reality. We then start questioning ourselves and we erode our self-worth. We start to think that we're failures, that we’ve lost our chance and that we will be left on the shelf.”
Before we throw ourselves off that shelf in a fit of despair, it is worth noting that we can take action to combat this narrative – on social media and elsewhere. “We are in a hugely ramped up consumerist culture, where the biggest consumption is actually information,” stresses Cotter. “This is mostly cultural conditioning driving retail consumerism, and it is based around narratives; information that is meant to create need, expose gaps and voids in ourselves, and drive down self-worth to drive buying. Most people are running unconscious programming they’ve unknowingly consumed related to what success should be. We need to re-wire that.”
One of the first ways to do this, is to realise the myth of success which is being presented to us. We need to take a step back and realise that the images we're faced with rarely depict the full picture. We do not see the struggle, the hard work or the million failures that may have led to this one moment of success. “There’s also rarely a true overnight success,” explains Cotter. “When you see a stratospheric rise to success, the amount of true time that individual may have spent honing their craft behind the scenes isn't what's presented; only the shiny surface-level achievement is shown and the real reasons for their success are kept hidden. Even when people share behind the curtain, often we don't want to know – we prefer the fairy tale and find it easier to keep ourselves feeling comfortable in our mediocrity.”
We should also be striving to radically recalibrate success. What does it actually mean to you? Do you really want a Grammy? Or a Boohoo deal at 19? Can you even play tennis? You may not even want to get married and have kids, when you really think about it. As Cotter notes, even without rampant commercialism, our social conditioning has led us to think we should want things more than we actually do.
“Success is a word that means something different to every individual and most people have never understood the need to take a step back and work out what exactly it means for them as individuals,” says Cotter. “We need more role models showing others it is possible to live according to your own definition of happiness and success. We should be measuring our happiness and success only according to what we want.”
"Expecting to succeed at a young age in a way defies logic,” Cotter continues. “Why would you be likely to succeed at a young age, when experience, maturity and expertise are most commonly the ingredients needed for the generally agreed idea of mainstream success?” We need to reframe our view on this, she advises, and start looking at age as an asset, and not a meaningless metric. “Logically, success would seem to be more realistic as we grow, evolve and become more skilled and knowledgeable. So logically, age seems to be more of an asset in helping us create success. So many eastern philosophies talk about 40 being the age we reach full emotional maturation as an adult, and for many that rings true.”
It would help, of course, if our media was more awash with older, wiser icons than teen idols. Thankfully, we may be seeing a trend in that direction. Just look at our obsession with JLo and Ben Affleck, making 50 (and falling back in love at 50) seem the sexiest damn thing we ever did see. Look at Jennifer Aniston - single and fabulous and arguably more successful than ever at 52 - or the success story of Julia Hart of My Unorthadox Life, who became a CEO in her forties. And look at Adele, resolute in her desire to speak to her generation as it ages.
"Who's making the music for my peers?" she said in a recent interview. “I will do that job gladly. I would rather cater to the people that are on my level in terms of the amount [of time] we've spent on earth, and all the things we've been through. I don't want 12-year-olds listening to this record. This record is for 30- and 40-year-olds who are all committing to themselves and doing therapy. That's my vibe. I'm more concerned with how this record can help them."
Seeking out older success stories and influences is crucial to combating the erroneous notion that we have failed by 30. Remind yourself that Vera Wang started her career in bridal design in her forties (without any prior experience of the wedding market), that Martha Stewart wrote her first book on entertaining at 41, that Charles Darwin was 50 when he wrote The Origin of the Species. “Right now, I am making a conscious effort to seek out people in their 60s and 70s who inspire me,” agrees Jamie. “They have so much more data on life that they can share. I think that most of these individuals will have had greater successes later in life and it makes me excited for the future. If we think our time is used up, what have we got to look forward to? Hopefully, our life is long, so why do we think it’s already over at 25?”
So let's all agree to make a conscious effort to remind ourselves of how personal our journey to success is. Not all of us will be ‘winners’ at 18, but we may be at 40, or 50, or even 80, and – honestly – what is wrong with that?
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