“Where do you see yourself in XYZ years?” How much I hated this interview question! And I still do. As a young graduate, I got so fed up that my standard answer became: “I want to be on the front page of Forbes, have an airport named after me and have a Barbie doll modelled after me.” It was a joke. But sometimes, I was not sure if I was really joking. I was caught in a hamster wheel. Top of the class, magna cum laude, Forbes “30 under 30”, “40 under 40” – the list of achievements expected from young graduates is never ending. And for the longest time, I thought I had to come up to it.
The dominant understanding of success in our society is two-fold: on the one hand, it is success in monetary terms, on the other, it is external validation – what people think about what we do and if they deem the job or company prestigious. You only make it into the “30 under 30” or equivalent rankings, if somebody else deems you and your work “worthy”.
Studying business was good for me from a content and experience perspective. From a social perspective, I am not sure if I should recommend it. The course asked for a certain amount of competitiveness and selfishness to make it through. Paradoxically, we were later on all asked in job interviews, if we were good team players. It also led to a constant competition between students, which left marks on most of us. Even long after graduating, I see the focus of some fellow graduates on this two-fold monetary and external understanding of success. How much money do you make, which position do you hold, which car are you driving?
I felt like I had to collect seal after seal, get the approval of parents, friends, society, media, sometimes even strangers. I pushed myself to the limits – partly because this is who I am, but partly because I was seeking that external validation. I had a clear career/life plan: driving a sportscar before the age of 30, owning a closet full of designer clothing, being a board member of a listed company under the age of 40 and maybe a guest lecturer at university or sit on some expert committees. All these were “performance indicators” making my success visible to others. What this plan did not consider was my happiness.
For years, I had felt that there was something truly wrong with the understanding of success, but for the longest time I had played by these rules. Breaking out of corporate and starting a tech business was the first step of re-defining my own understanding of success. But the measures did not seem to change: The success of tech start-ups was measured against if they had investors or exited the business. Only if a start-up was consistently covered in the press, or the founder in the previously mentioned rankings was it a success. (Funny side note: Some of these business never made any money.)
Stepping out of this hamster wheel in any city in the world is tough, but it was a particular challenge in Hong Kong where my peers made crazy amounts of money as lawyers or bankers. The start-up community was dominated by a few players backed by millions. My small company which was bootstrapped by myself was just not regarded a success. I struggled with this perception – I had worked hard for the money I could put into that business. I was 27 and unless the founders came from money, I did not see anyone like me who was able to bootstrap to the same extent. Nevertheless, I was given the petty looks that I did not have an investor (even though it was my deliberate choice not to take anyone on board). Furthermore, almost no one in the start-up scene (in Hong Kong and Europe) understood that my definition of a successful start-up was not its exit. I wanted to create something which lasts. The business grew and so did the user base on the platform. But I did not see it as a success. I was caught up in the wrong beliefs and system of values.
I was born in the eighties, and the picture of the “yuppies” also dominated my understanding of success. I saw myself in a smart business outfit, running to my flight in high heels and shattering glass ceilings. I do not blame anyone who does not understand that we can be successful even though we might not look like the yuppies anymore and do not need to go to a big office. Over the years, I have gotten almost used to comments by people who just do not get what I am doing. “She is only lying by the pool the whole day.”, “She left that great gig for… this small thing?”, “When are you going to get a real job again?” – are just some of the examples which I repeatedly get to hear.
But ultimately, none of these comments matter. It is important to internalise that (I am reminding myself of this on a daily basis). What matters is how you feel about it. Do YOU really want it? Are YOU happy with your choices? One of the biggest mistakes about my tech business was the way I looked at it – a way which was influenced by other people’s opinions. Very often, these people would never ever dare to do the same, step out of their comfort zone and take the hard path.
I guess there is no “one size fits all”-definition of success. Part of life is to explore what success means for every single one of us. It took me a long time to adjust and re-define my own definition of success. While there will always be a certain monetary aspect to success (and yes, sometimes we like to buy nice clothing or a nice car), I see success as a more complex construct. Pushing myself constantly out of my comfort zone – trying new things, starting new businesses, travelling to new places (often on my own). Not giving up when things are very hard. (And they are, even though the media try to only show us the glossy pictures of entrepreneurs.) Being able to spend time with my loved ones. Creating change. These are just some parts of what has become my definition of success.
If I had kept my “old” understanding of success, I would have probably done the “typical” checklist career – switching departments, countries, positions or taking on an investor just for the sake of ticking a box on a checklist. Maybe it would have been interesting. And for sure, from a monetary and prestige perspective it would have been deemed a success by society. On days when I have slump, when I ask myself “why am I doing this?”, I try to remind myself of the “why”. Because I made this choice. I wanted to create something and I wanted to have an impact. I decided that money and status are not the only things I want to be chasing for the rest of my life. I have met so many interesting people along the way, I re-connected with many people I had lost touch via The Pink Lookbook and Pelagona. I learned to see things from various different angles.
When I work on Pelagona, the biggest driver is the change I can create with it for the artisan partners and their families. Through the website, they have received access to a bigger audience to sell their amazing products and make a sustainable income. Similarly, with every single article I publish here, I think about how can I create value for my readers? And judging from the feedback I get for these two platforms, I know that I must be doing something right. I always wanted to shatter glass ceilings – and these two vehicles hopefully not only let me shatter them myself but enable other women to do the same and, consequently, create even bigger change.
And maybe the re-evaluation of my definition of success was a success in itself? Who knows…