“Do you feel successful?” That was the question I asked five smart, funny, diverse women in this month’s Marie Claire magazine. With careers spanning law, hospitality, marketing and information technology, and incomes ranging from 20K to 500K, the twenty- to forty-somethings spoke anonymously about their failures, their fears and the true break-throughs that have defined their lives so far.
The result is a startlingly honest portrait of a new generation of women making their own choices: older mums prioritising work above children, singles pouring every moment into their start-up dream, wives valuing their marriage more than anything, freelancers loathing their job insecurity, new mums turning their back on ambition.
For me personally, the story was a chance to take stock of my own career path – which has veered from full-time to freelance work – and reflect on whether I feel successful or not. The answer? Well, not yet. But as writer Judith Ireland points out, success is a life-long journey. Plenty of time yet.
Nina, 38, waitperson and bookstore manager, 35K, husband and two children. Do you feel successful? “Yes”
“My life might not be what some people would call “successful”. But I believe we’re here for a good time, not a long time. I don’t earn lots of money but I love my job and the party atmosphere at work.
I live in an area where everyone has massive houses and fancy cars. But I’ve never been interested in a high-paid job in the corporate world. Sitting at a desk all day is not for me. I see women come out of their office jobs carrying their high heels and holding their lunch containers and I just think ‘What do you do all day?’ That life seems so predictable.
My husband and I live in a two-bedroom apartment with two loud, testosterone-fuelled boys, and that’s fine. Do we want a bigger place? Yes. Can we afford it? No. Maybe in a few years we’ll work something out.
This year my husband was diagnosed with third stage bowel cancer. It’s treatable, but it’s really, really hard. But our marriage is so precious – the biggest success in my life – so I just keep my head up and make jokes.
I feel successful in myself – I’m good at what I do, I’m a good mum and a good wife. Money doesn’t come into it.”
Sasha, 38, business owner, 500K, husband and one child
Do you feel successful? “I wish I could say yes – but I often fall short”
“A successful person to me is someone who’s fully engaged and fully involved in what they do. I’m career-driven and competitive. I set really high goals for myself and, even though I often fall short, that motivates me.
I work 80 to 100 hours a week and I’m happy with that. Could I be successful if I gave work less time and energy? Probably. But if I gave my business less, it might not be as good as it could be and I wouldn’t be happy coasting, knowing I could be doing a better job.
Working so hard means that my husband is the primary carer for our son. We’re a team, but we’re not an even team: I don’t do the shopping, I don’t do the cooking and I don’t shuttle my son from daycare or swimming lessons. I miss spending time with him, but I have no parental guilt whatsoever. It’s my decision to work so hard and I take responsibility for it. Besides, I often get the best time with him, change things if I choose. For me this is the right mix, right now, but I don’t think it would work for everyone.”
Yasmin, 28, freelance digital media consultant, 25K, no children
Do you feel successful “No – I thought I would have achieved more by now”
“When I was at uni, I thought that by 28 I’d have my life together. I thought I’d have a great job, a steady relationship and maybe own a cool, inner-city apartment. I can’t believe how naive I was.
This year I was made redundant and a week later the lease on my house ended. I’m getting a lot of great freelance work, but it’s difficult when you’re always reading about smart, wealthy, beautiful young women starting their own businesses.
At school and uni I was always a high achiever and I thought that if I worked my guts out in my 20s, I could build something special, and then sail into my 30s. I never expected to have setbacks and always thought that putting in 14-hour days would pay off – but actually, sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve never looked at salary as a measure of success – I always ranked job satisfaction higher. But as I get closer to 30 and my friends have started buying houses and going on fancy holidays, I realise that a low income is hard to overlook.”
Eloise, 33, freelance copywriter, $60k, lives with husband and baby
Do you feel successful? “Yes, though some days more than others!”
“Being a freelance writer is a fragile, precarious existence. You’re only as good as your last story, so one day you can feel successful and then the next you might not. I am ambitious in my job as a writer, in that I always want to keep growing. But I’ve never wanted a high-powered job. I’ve never wanted to be a CEO or the Prime Minister. I imagine that those kind of jobs would take over your life, and I’m just not interested in that.
For me, success is about doing something I love and having freedom and flexibility – and I think a lot of women feel that way. In the media, though, the conversation about success tends to be framed by women like Sheryl Sandberg and focused on making more women CEOs.
My husband is your classic, ambitious, successful guy – he went to a good university, has a great, well-paid job. Recently we argued over who is more ambitious. He says he is. But I put tons of energy into having a full life. I have lots of dinner parties, I put a lot of effort into cooking for my family and friends, I’m really ambitious about going to cultural performances, about speaking to my sister three times a week. I put more energy into life than my husband. It’s just that his ambition is all channeled in one direction, his job. Does that make him more successful and ambitious? I don’t know.”
Eliza, 36, lawyer, 165K, husband and one child
Do you feel successful? “Yes. But my definition of success has changed since having a baby”
“Before I had my son, success, for me, meant achieving at work. It was about being available 24/7. I always had my eye on the next promotion, the next payrise.
I measured my success through my salary – and I was financially well-off enough to afford the things I wanted: meals at good restaurants, nice clothes. I think that anyone who says money isn’t related to success isn’t being entirely honest with themselves. The other thing that made me feel successful was the positive feedback I got at work. When someone else says you’re doing a good job, that’s definitely one of the boxes you tick that says ‘I’m successful, I can do this’.
But then I had a baby, and now it feels as though everything’s changed. I’m more focused on home. I love organising things for my family to do on the weekends and I don’t want to overcommit to work.
There’s a colleague at work with two kids who works non-stop – she’s constantly on email, she works late nights and hardly sees her boys. I don’t want to get to that point because that’s not what success looks like to me.
Success, to me, has come to mean achieving a certain level of comfort – which is funny, because, pre-motherhood, I didn’t consider myself successful unless I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Sometimes, at night, I wonder my old self would think of my new life and lack of ambition. But that’s the thing about success – as you age, your definition of it can change.”
Kate, 28, CEO and small business founder, 120K, no children
Do you feel successful: “Yes”
“Ever since I can remember, I have always wanted bigger and better – but not in a material way. I work seven days a week and every morning I wake up at five o’clock with no alarm. I’m always the first one in the office and I love it. I believe life is short and success comes when you’re working at your optimum.
I feel as though I am extremely successful compared to people my age – but that’s mostly because there aren’t many women in their 20s who are doing something they love.
I have big plans for my company. I admire women like Sarah Blakely, the founder of Spanx, or Natalie Massenet who started Net-a-porter. She exited her company with a substantial shareholding, something around the 100 million dollar mark, and that’s something I aspire to. I want to build a brand that women will know all around the world.
Right now I’m single and I love the freedom it gives me, but if I met someone truly amazing who was on the same page as me that would change. Having a business is an emotional rollercoaster, so it’s important to have a supportive partner that believes in you and can understand that.”