For the first twenty two(ish) years of your life, you are shepherded along a pre-determined pathway; our education system.
You follow a well-worn route, knowing almost exactly what you expect to find at each turn; GCSEs here, A-Levels there, a degree, or two, or maybe three, or whatever qualification you’ve decided to get – if you’ve decided to get one.
You know that if you work hard enough, you’ll get that A or B or C you were predicted; that you’ll do your best at that essay or in your next exam, and that you’ll get that grade, qualification, the badge of honour at the end of it all. Something to show off with pride, if you like. Something that defines you. Something that proves that you have achieved something, reaped the rewards of your hard work, that you succeeded and hit that milestone.
You know where you stand. You know what marks are good and bad. You know when you’ve failed when you’ve tried, and when you’ve surprised yourself with your skill. You know when your teacher, parent, friend, or tutor is proud of you. You know this when you get into your university of choice; you know when you get your first job.
And then, suddenly, you’re in the real world, and after two decades of external validation from assessments and set guidelines and standards…you have to work it out for yourself. When you’ve succeeded, and when you have failed. What you’re good at, and what you’re not.
The grades and markers that defined your worth for decades are gone.
How on earth do you know if you’re succeeding or achieving if there are no grades, marks or assessments along the way?
It’s nearly five years since I graduated from my postgraduate degree. Writing that out makes me feel a little bit sick, actually. Since then, I have been trying to work out what I want to do with my life. I worked hard throughout my entire education; I never really stopped. I knew what I needed to do, tried my best, and somehow got here, battered and bruised. I can look back at the steps I took and feel proud; I have, so far, something to show for my dedication and focus.
Now that I have to find my own definition of success, it’s harder to feel like I’m making progress. I’m no longer sure of what I am working towards, and it’s making me a little…lazy.
Suddenly, there’s no definitive way for me to know how well I’m doing. There’s no set grading system in adulthood; no A*s in the office, no final results, and no certificate or qualification at the end of the year. You don’t get told how you’re really doing at a parent’s evening, and you don’t graduate when summer rolls around.
It seems that the grades I once worked hard for – which determined my own self-worth – have been replaced by milestones which don’t always appear on everyone’s path through life.
The usual markers of achievement in adulthood normally arrive in the socially acceptable form of marriage, babies, home ownership, promotions, fancy holidays and high-flying work perks. I have none of these, and can’t see any of these things happening any time soon, either. So how the hell am I meant to know if I’m succeeding in life if I have none of the above?! Where are my As and A*s and Distinctions going to come from?
If I’m not hitting those next ‘natural’ milestones, I must be failing…right?
Failure, for me, was never an option, but it seems ever more prevalent in my vocabulary in recent years.
After a while thinking about all of this, I’ve realised this might be exactly what’s been troubling me and causing me to feel so unsettled and discontented over the last few years.
I am so used to having my progress and achievements followed, assessed, tracked and eventually celebrated throughout most of my life, I am finding it hard to feel proud or successful about anything I’ve done because I don’t have the concrete evidence to prove it.
It’s in my nature, I’ve discovered, to need confirmation of my progress. I need to be told I’m doing a good job. I need external validation, a pat on the back, or a thumbs up. I have had this mentality instilled in me that if there are no results, no grades, no qualifications, then I can’t be doing very well, and I must be doing something wrong.
My need for validation nowadays comes in all forms; from being unable to keep things to myself (as soon as I write something, I need to see if someone else thinks it’s good) to my incessant need to please people, and my addiction to social media.
Honestly, watching and waiting for likes is a serious problem for someone as needy – who cares so much about what other people think of them – as me.
And that’s no good at all; because I will never feel like what I do is good enough if I am trying to grade my own life against criteria designed for someone else.
From now on, the only person who can really set out what those grades should be, and define how ‘well’ I’m doing…is me.
It’s hard to feel like you’re succeeding if you don’t know what success looks like.
And so, if you’re in any way feeling the way I feel (and I am hoping that there are many of us out there!) here’s my proposal. It’s not groundbreaking, but it is an important one to remember.
It’s time to start focusing on what we call success as individuals, and how to celebrate our little achievements in life. What do I want to do? What would I count as a successful milestone now? What is an achievement, in this path I have chosen (or found myself upon)?
Moving into my own (rented) place; that’s a milestone. Learning to cook carbonara from scratch; that’s one too. Getting something published on an online magazine; completing a work project; finishing your first 5km run; ticking another European city off your list; learning to wire a plug; going freelance; going on just one date…
These are all milestones.
Just because you’re not meeting the criteria we’ve been taught to keep up with – just because you’re not engaged at 30 like you thought you’d be, or living with a partner, or putting a deposit on a house, or adopting your first dog, or fitting into the size 10 jeans you’ve hoarded for years, or celebrating yet another promotion…it doesn’t mean you’re failing. You’re just taking a completely different exam to everyone else, and you’re damn well nailing it. Tick, tick, tick.
And, if I say so myself, this little revelation is worth a B+ at least. Wouldn’t you agree?
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