When I was younger, I used to measure success by other people's standards; this shaped my entire life. For me, it took a long while to understand that success is a very personal thing, it might not look the same to everyone, and that's ok.
Fifteen years ago, I would have told you that success was being chartered, winning awards in my field and getting promoted.
Seven years ago, I would have said success was growing the business from a micro to a small, increasing turnover and profit, hitting clients targets.
Now, success looks very different.
It's being able to create work that demonstratively helps people and organisations — having my research recognised by my peers. Working with clients I like, and doing work I enjoy. Being able to work flexibly so that I can spend time with my son.
When I was striving for success on the terms of other people, I was never fulfilled but always busy. I felt that if I could just achieve the next thing I would eventually feel successful and maybe slow down a little. However, whatever I did was never enough, how could it be?
I placed myself under extraordinary pressure and set incredibly difficult goals believing that if I accomplished them, I would finally feel like I had achieved.
Looking back, I find it interesting that I managed to start a business that went from a turnover of £10k to £350,000 in just four years. At the same time, I retrained from a site manager to specialist in fairness and equality. I published peer-reviewed research and contributed to government papers. I was asked to sit on industry boards and spoke at the South Bank Women of the World Festival. My newsletter had an opted-in subscriber list of 6,000, and I was accepted onto a PhD course at Loughborough University.
All this and so much more, and still I never felt like a success.
In 2015 my business took a massive hit, we went from a full-time staff of eight down to just one over a very short period. I felt like an absolute failure, even though I had never felt like a success.
I'm not alone in this, most successful entrepreneurs fail on the first few attempts. In fact, failure is a word we should all get a bit more comfortable around; I've always learnt the most when reviewing why I failed – but that's a topic for another blog.
As I began to rebuild my business, I realised that I didn't need it to look like it had before. Since I was 16, I had been simultaneously in education and work; resulting in my rarely working less than 60 hours a week. I started to think that maybe this could be impacting on me negatively.
I took the time to focus on where my previous ideas of success had come from and what success really looked like for me. I surmised that I had been guided by other peoples views, which were likely informed by other people opinions before them and not what anybody actually wanted from life. Many of the outcomes I was chasing were in direct contradiction to the things that drove real value for me.
For example, I know that for some people, my business being small is not a sign of success.
However, it gives me the freedom and flexibility to choose clients I enjoy working with and work I love creating. If my business were larger, I might not be able to make those choices.
That's not to say I won't grow my business again, I might, but only if it feels right for me and aligns with my three new success measures.
Working with clients I enjoy working with
Creating demonstratively useful work
A healthy work-life balance
I now have those things; Clients I genuinely enjoy spending time with, and who value the work I do for them. Work that gives me energy and scope to create projects like The Duck Project that I feel can make a difference in people lives. Finally, of course, time with my son, who lights up my life and smashes me in the face with objects in equal measure.
The point is that if you don't know what you want, you might end up doing all manner of exhausting and stressful things - but never really getting anywhere. To change this, you need to work out what success looks like for you, but be warned; you might be surprised to find out the answer. I certainly was.