From 2004 to 2007, I earned the label of ‘adventurer’. I earned it not by discovering a new continent or exploring outer space, nor, in fact, doing anything that hadn’t been done before. I earned it by putting on a pair of shoes and walking up to forty kilometres a day, every day, until my feet had led me over 12000km through eight countries, and across one very large desert.
The ‘adventurer’ label was not one I sought. In fact, I actively fought it. I had not begun walking to become an adventurer/speaker/writer. I began walking because I wanted to write books about all sorts of things, myself being the last of those things, and I wanted an audience for those books, and I thought that a big, bold, hairy adventure, as a friend of mine likes to call expeditions, was the best way to do that.
But the label stuck. And I became an adventurer/writer/speaker. I felt the power of my own words, and they were and remain true words. There were times when I stood on the podium and spoke from my heart and felt the chills crawl down my spine, the words coming from somewhere outside of myself, and in those moments, I could feel the joy of the journey once more, and the way it touched others.
I used the magic and the drama of my journey across Europe and the Sahara to speak about success, and what it means to achieve it.
I framed my talks around a particular question:
“What does success mean for you?”
That question was the fulcrum around which I worked. Success, I would say, means something different for all of us. It looks different for all of us.
As a former teacher, and lover of structure, I wanted my talk to have a beginning, middle, and end. So I would begin with what success looked like for me, when I started the expedition. I ended by illustrating how the manifestation of success often looks different to what we think it will; ‘crossing the Sahara from West to East’, for example, versus ‘truly experiencing the desert and it’s culture as do those who live there’.
Success itself is a truly nebulous concept. One of the reasons I used the above question was that many years ago, my father had asked me the same thing: ‘what does success look like to you, Paula?’
I went away and thought about it, and much later, I told him: ‘success for me means achieving at something I admire.’
Recently, I realised that I had confused the term ‘success’ with ‘achievement’.
‘Achievement’ is something we can measure. We can know what ‘achievement’ looks like. It looks like you either got to A or B, or you didn’t. Plain and simple. Either a goal is achieved, or it is not. Achievement is black and white and very clear. Achievement is beloved of those who measure their success in the eyes of others.
I admired great expeditions and adventures, and those who did them. I admired people who stuck to their word and their goals and did what they said they would do. I admired authors. All of this added up to how I would judge my own expedition.
In my case, I did not achieve the goal I set out to. I did not walk across the Sahara from East to West. I was stopped by a civil war in Niger, and was unable to return. Nor did I write a novel, but rather two books about myself.
I did not achieve my measureable goals.
Ergo: I failed.
For many years, no matter what anyone said to me, that was what my Saharan walk represented to me. Not success. Not even close. Failure.
It made my world dark, and promoting myself impossible. How was I qualified to speak on success, when I felt I had failed?
I was recently in India, launching the two books I wrote about my expedition. I was listening to Sucheta, a young Indian woman who recently walked across the Gobi desert.
“It was the hardest thing I have ever done,” she said. “And it felt like such an achievement at the end.”
She didn’t use the term ‘success’, I noted. Just ‘achievement’.
For the first time, I used that word in a talk. I didn’t speak about success. Instead, I mentioned that my expedition had been a great ‘achievement’.
And it felt good. I am not so blind that I do not see the achievement that the expedition was, and it was wonderful to be able to claim it at last, to talk about it with genuine acceptance and humour, and without trying to label it the terrible ‘S’ word.
I didn’t think on it too much at the time, but this morning, I was mopping the floor of my new business. Raw frankincense from Oman scented the air. Gentle music played, a water fountain tinkling in the still dawn.
Anticipating the stupidly busy day ahead, I felt a wave of contentment and excitement sweep over me. The thought of every one of the upcoming tasks, mundane or creative, filled me with an absolute sense of joy.
The last time I felt this, I thought, was when I was walking.
And then it hit me.
When I was walking, I had felt like a success. Every day, with every footstep, I felt I was creating my future, and I loved every single moment of it.
But when I stopped walking, without reaching the point where – from my very achievement oriented brain – my goal would end and my success would begin, all of that success disappeared. The feeling was gone.
And in the years after the walk, I couldn’t bring myself to try to recreate that feeling. Like someone who has created a great work of art and seen it smashed to pieces, I had no desire to create a new piece, from inferior substances. I didn’t want to walk across Australia, or through another continent, or ski to one of the Poles. I watched other adventurers carve a career out of living on the edge, and it didn’t appeal to me one bit.
I wanted, I realised one day, to build something that could not be smashed to pieces.
This morning, as I mopped the floor, feeling a ridiculous sense of joy, I realised what the source of that joy was.
I feel like a success.
Not because my business is wildly successful – it is new, and still in its infancy. But I will build it, step by step, just as I built my walk. And this time, no matter what is thrown at it, I will find a way around it, because I can. Because a business is a dynamic, fluid entity, that can alter and change shape, can respond to a challenge and become something utterly different than what it was yesterday.
And most important of all, a business is something that can give something to others. Not through raising money for charities, although that too can be a worthwhile part of it. But truly give back – every day, in every way. Through employing people. Through helping others begin their own small businesses, and supporting them as they grow. Through creating products and services that make a measurable and positive difference in people’s lives.
I don’t want to stand in front of a crowd and tell them that they, too, can walk across a desert. Perhaps they can, but that is neither important nor in any way a measure of success.
I want to stand in front of a crowd and ask them to close their eyes, and remember what it means to feel joyous, and excited, and anticipatory of every minute in the day; and then I want to say: go and do that.
I would define success very differently now to what I once did. Not in measurable goals, or achievement, or by the accolades of others.
I would say instead that for me, success lies in using my knowledge, skills and innate talents in a way that is meaningful and rewarding, both for myself and the wider community.
From saying I never wanted to do another expedition, I now find myself planning a walk through the Thar desert in India. Not because I want to get to the other side, but because I see it as an opportunity to bring together women from cultures and religions around the world, and walk as a group, fostering mutual understanding and learning from each other, and hopefully inspiring others to become the best they can be. I want to talk to young people about success versus achievement, and take them away from the inhibiting notion that one is tied to the other.
Every day that we live a life of joy and inspiration, we achieve an important goal. Every time we bring joy to another, we achieve an even more important one. And every time we allow ourselves to feel that sense of joy, we achieve the most important goal of all.
We feel successful.
May all your days, and all your footsteps, feel like success.