Words by Naomi Owen
Society values success in a way that doesn’t actually resonate with how we want to feel about success.
Everything went to plan until my 25th birthday. You know: the plan. The plan we make when we are kids with scrapes on our knees and no true idea of what being an adult entails other than extra height and lots of ‘responsibilities.’ The plan which reflects what both our parents and society expects, which winds itself into our thoughts via small, everyday occurrences; through throwaway words, gestures signalling approval of high marks and clucks of despair when someone in our circle does something untoward. The surreptitious conditioning we all experience which, like a virus, permeates our ideals and sets our expectations of self. You know, the plan. The plan that I didn’t consciously question or even acknowledge until it all went careering off-course. My plan for success was simple: married with two children by 27, with a career that I excelled at and the ownership of an exceptionally fluffy canine called Hawkeye. Life had been easy – I found school simple and achieved high marks with little effort. My attendance at University was presumed, the outcome guaranteed. With a number of kind boyfriends behind me and a strong friendship circle, I entered my twenties full of self-confidence and assuredness: the world was mine to take! The first hint that perhaps my plan was not quite right was when I switched out from an exclusive University program designed to fast-track you into the Diplomatic Corps, to the more banal BA/BSc. Or, as I blithely explained to others, “the double degree for those who equally use the right and left sides of the brain.” Sure. At 20, I met and fell head over heels for a man who was ten years my senior. He was exceptionally bright and the funniest person I’d ever met. We were inseparable for five years and I genuinely assumed we would be together forever and that Hawkeye was about to be barked into existence. The plan seemed on course. However, by the time my 25th birthday rolled around, I was single and broken hearted. Unable to find work in my newly chosen field of Environmental Science, I felt dismayed at my chances to achieve ‘success’ and subsequently shocked to find myself in such a predicament. Suddenly, a great gaping hole had appeared between my reality and my ‘plan.’ This gap only widened throughout the rest of my twenties which saw me move cities to begin again, fall into a career in HR and grow more and more unhappy with myself and who I had become. I managed to build up a strong career in HR and ultimately achieve what some would call ‘career success.’ However, I felt hemmed into a life that I didn’t think of as truly mine. Although technically ‘successful’ (which made it hard to complain about) it didn’t (and still doesn’t) feel successful to me. I think this is because our society values success in a way that doesn’t actually resonate with how we want to feel about success. Success is linked to external components such as; being seen to be ‘busy’ (the new currency of success); acquiring material goods; professional careers and non-optional extras such as partners, kids and furry friends.
I appreciate and respect my journey from those early heady days to where I am now, and I am comfortable in what that means.
To me, these seem to be the Bingo elements of external success - tick-boxes I diligently pursued in my twenties. I felt, especially as a woman, that unless I could triumphantly yell “Bingo!” and tick all the boxes, I would always be deemed unsuccessful. In my case, the pursuit of the perfect husband eluded me and became the focal point of society’s method of judging my ‘lack’ of success. No matter how many promotions I received, my single status was my Achilles heel, sure to be picked at unmercifully by those around me who incessantly cried: “you’re being too picky,” or “you don’t have much time left, you know” and, my personal favourite, “men don’t like strong women.” The damage that these comments did to my soul still lingers today. Consequently, my late twenties were spent in a state of dejection, bewilderedness and the fog of self-dislike. The ‘plan’ felt further askew than ever and felt both unobtainable and also, perhaps, no longer representative of what I wanted – which beggared the question – what happens when the ‘plan’ fails? The distance I have mentally travelled since those days has been profound. Now, in my late 30s I have achieved very little of my plan: no husband, no children - not even a fluffy companion. The plan is awry and although I have come to terms with my reality and do not judge it or myself for what it is, there are still days when I daydream about the life I had planned. The life that, by now, would see me with a couple of teenagers in the home and a dazzling career outside of it. I hope that in this alternate reality, those things bring me joy. Instead, I have found peace and perhaps my truth. I have found adventure, excitement, self-respect and, most importantly, love: I truly love myself. All of my delightfulness and all of my delicious flaws – from my need to be right, to my unbounding empathy and generosity. I appreciate and respect my journey from those early heady days to where I am now, and I am comfortable in what that means. It means freedom from expectation, a renegotiated definition of success to mean being true to myself, and an acknowledgement of the distance travelled to get here. Perhaps, had these expectations not wormed their way into my being, I would feel truly satisfied with my current life. Or perhaps I would be on a completely different path, one which felt truly mine. Perhaps the true awakening comes once we acknowledge that no one plan fits us all. We are all free to create our own plans, go on our own journeys, create our own expectations of self and define what success means to us as individuals. Indeed, it appears I owe several debts: to the man that broke my heart; to the degree that never became a career; to the career that never became a calling. For these were all pushing me to go on my own journey and force me to consider societies expectations and question how they fit into my life. Today, I look around and see a home which reflects the distance travelled – photographs from eye-opening trips to beautiful locations; impactful books stacked about the place; a huge bunch of gorgeous yellow tulips centred on the kitchen table, which is heaving with a meal lovingly prepared for all our wonderful friends who have gathered together on this happy summer morning. And the man of my dreams is pouring me a drink and smiling at me. Bingo.
Naomi is Melbourne based, although she would love for one day that to read 'Naomi is an antipodean'. Always planning the next trip, Naomi is never happier than when jetting off to new and exotic places. When not travelling, you'll find Naomi out exploring the nightlife of Melbourne, cocktail in hand, or at home rustling up some culinary delights. She is available at: naomizowen.wordpress.com or follow the adventures by Instagram: @themodernrambler.
The purpose of Artemis is to increase the range and diversity of stories shared and written by women. Therefore, Artemis has one rule, nominate! To write for us you must either nominate someone or have been nominated, so if know you a woman who has a great story to share, fill in the details below!