I have had reason to think about the concept of success lately. As with everything in my life, I find myself comparing the me of today to the me of twenty years ago. People seeing me and my current group of friends and colleagues would probably call me successful. I would agree, and I am certainly successful in a conventional kind of way. I have nothing against success per se but am aware it is a concept which can be a bit fraught.
Let’s go back a few years to see where all my apparent success came from and why I don’t generally get overwhelmed by it and try not to get ahead of myself. I turn 41 this year so let’s pop back in our metaphorical TARDIS to 1995. Jeanette who was just about to turn 21 was a vastly different manifestation of Aspie than her almost 41 year old self. She had just been released from prison, had her life savings of $4000 stolen by a ‘friend’ who took off to Queensland and justified the theft with some nonsense and displayed no remorse. Previous Jeanette had also been dumped by all but a tiny remnant of her pre-prison friends. She had been given a diagnosis of ‘nerd’ (or Asper-something) which she didn’t understand or want to admit to. She had moved in with her drug dealer – one of those ‘felt like a good idea at the time’ deals. The drug dealer and housemates decided that rent was an optional thing as were bills (so no phone). Jeanette’s daily activities consigned of getting up around noon, drinking coffee and smoking a lot of marijuana. Once a week she would buy an absolute luxury – a falafel roll from the BP service station. It cost $3.00 – a fortune after all the rest of the money went on weed. Jeanette had just had her stereo, TV and VCR stolen by ‘friends’ and was becoming quite unwell mentally. Within three months she will be psychotic, even more impoverished and homeless but that’s a story for another day.
On Jeanette’s 21 st birthday, she has $30 to her name. She spends the whole day looking for a gram deal of weed, knocking on the door of every drug dealer in her home suburb of Richmond. At 6:00pm she scores a deal. She miserably packs a bong and says to the acquaintance (for drug addicts have no friends, only contacts) ‘it’s my 21st birthday.’ The contact replies ‘well, you’re celebrating aren’t you.’ 21 year old Jeanette has no friends and has lost contact with family for the time being. If someone said to 21 year old Jeanette that she would earn a Masters degree, write two books, have a number of solo and group art exhibitions, work in Government administration, own her Autism diagnosis and speak about Autism to a huge variety of people, she would have thought you had got into the magic mushrooms. Soon to be homeless Jeanette will eventually come to own her own home and be a formidable manager of personal finances. People have told soon-to-be 41 year old Jeanette that she is a role model for their kids, an icon in the Autism world, an opinion leader.
20-something Jeanette is with me always, tempering my attitudes and confidence. I decided to be successful. It was more organic than tossing the drugs down the toilet, throwing out the address book full of criminals’ phone numbers and saying ‘I want a career and a house please’ but it wasn’t too far removed from that. For me success has been an series of incremental shifts, gathering of wisdom and insight and learning from errors and adversity. And it did not occur to me that I was successful in any way until recently. The funny thing about having a dodgy past is that in some ways it anchors you to the past for far longer than it probably should. I spent at least 10 years after I escaped from drug use, criminality and homelessness seeing myself in relation to that time and feeling a strong influence from it.
Success is far more broad than conventional or material success though. It is what is in your mind, your character that makes you successful. I know successful people who have never worked or gained qualifications or any other thing. I talk about ‘conventional success’ when I speak of myself. What I mean by that is that society tends to views sorts of things like how much one is paid, whether one has higher education qualifications or ‘achievements’ like writing a book or giving a TED talk as denoting success. I would suggest that it is not necessarily the case that success has to be this kind of success. Success is a loaded thing. I judge people on whether they are a decent human being who respects and values others and themselves, certainly not by the size of their income.
For me the measure of personal success is how good I feel about the things I am doing, how content I am with life, the kind of people I have in my life and the nature of those relationships. And I honestly don’t know how I got to be the me that I am. I wish I could tell my 21 year-old self that her misery won’t not last and people won’t always look down at her. It amazes me that she managed to overcome her significant challenges without the knowledge of where she would end up. One of those magical, perfect things. I am eternally grateful that I became the me who I am now.
Almost 11 year old Jeanette…..