Diary of an ex-ex-writer: defining success

Like most of us, I have been pondering how I define success all my life.

What should I have achieved by now? Should I be earning more money? When will I get promoted? What do other people think about my job? Am I doing enough for society? Is life really all about my CV? How do I be happy and fulfilled and pay the bills?

Wavering over what “success” means to me, seems to have been a hallmark of my life I presumed superstar cyclists didn’t struggle with. That was until I interviewed mountain bike legend, five-time winner of Cape Epic, Ariane Luthi about a year ago. She told me her biggest bouts of depression, came after her biggest wins. I’ve been confused by that ever since.

I’ve been trying to figure out; why doesn’t getting what we want, always equate to feeling the happiness we desire?

Whilst debating this, I bought a book about re-framing success. The Long Win was recommended to me by a sports psychologist because it’s written by a three-time Olympian (easy to define as successful) who believes that we need to take a broader approach to how we think about “winning” and “success”.

I’ve only read a chapter so far, and despite it being a fantastic chapter, it hasn’t massively helped me unpick the term “success”. Because like always, my search for personal success has gotten in the way of me focusing on one thing I’m interested in, and I got distracted and read a book about creativity instead. I just finished Big Magic (I hate this title). It takes a lighthearted view of the creative process, and despite being a bit cheesy, I’ve actually found it very helpful.

Anyway, I digress. I started pondering this “success” thing again when Jai Hindley crossed the finish line on stage five of the Tour de France after riding himself into the yellow jersey. I had been willing Jai on with every fibre of my body and was ecstatic he made his (and all other Aussies) wildest dreams come true. It was a phenomenal achievement that was celebrated by virtually everyone.

Perhaps because his success was so unexpected. It made it all the sweeter.

Jai will always be one of my favourite cyclists for his use of the phrase “we’re not here to put socks on caterpillars” in the Giro!

When we reflect back on the biggest race of the year, Jai and Bora will be ranked right up there as having an awesome Tour. Tadej Pogačar and UAE on the other hand, will be deemed to have had a bit of a disappointing one. The same goes for Annemiek van Vleuten in the Tour de France Femmes. Although they were both top five in the biggest races of the year, all talk of their performance will be tinged with a slight sigh, because they didn’t come first. Their success at the highest level was expected, demanded in fact.

Which got me thinking, at what point do we shift from the joy of success, to the pressure of it?

Currently, I feel pretty unsuccessful. I have quit my “proper” job as an analyst, in search of something that brings me happiness. I’m thrilled, but also terrified by that. I’m working part time to earn some pennies in possibly the nicest farm cafe in the world, and I love everything about it. I love the children, the animals and even the uniform.

But do I feel successful? Sometimes yes, but mostly no. I’ve more than halved my salary and without an obvious path of direction in front of me, I feel a little lost. I know I want to write, I know I want to do something with the psychology masters I’ve just finished, preferably in the sports space. But translating either of those things into one great sentence I can say to people when they ask what I do for a living, is a little bit trickier.

As far as my writing goes, I now, like Tadej and Annemiek, have an expectation around what I can, and therefore should achieve.

It used to be a phenomenal success to speak to someone/anyone in the cycling world. My first interviews made me giddy. I couldn’t believe the likes of Alex Dowsett, Matt White or Lizzie Deignan would ever speak to me. And yet they did. I was overjoyed, because I had zero expectations from either myself or others. Now, I somehow have this expectation that I can publish a book about these people, and it’s all a little less fun. Every interview I do is still exciting, but hovering over me is the thought that one day it all has to lead to something. Otherwise I will not feel successful.

I know how limiting these thoughts are, but getting rid of them is difficult. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says “no one else is thinking about your shit, they’re thinking about their own shit”. And that’s so true. I’m not so delusional I think that others are thinking about my success, or lack of it. Saying that, I did announce to the world I was off to pursue my actual dreams, rather than my monetary dreams, and now I guess I feel a bit of pressure from that too. But I’m desperately trying to shake off that pressure.

Yesterday as I walked through the fields near my house, listening to the birds and the sheep, and I realised I need to work harder in re-framing what I deem successful. I need to practice what I preach and lean in to a world where I have less money, but more joy. Less challenge, but more time for myself. I feel like as a cycling fan you are conditioned to believe that good things only ever come from true suffering. But actually, maybe it’s OK to just have an easy time every now and then.

I realised I have to shake off expectations and try just being. If I can somehow rid myself of whatever it is I think I should be doing, then maybe I can once again be as happy as Jai stood on that podium in yellow. Whether Jai wore the jersey for a day, or three weeks, certainly doesn’t matter to me. I will always remember the race he rode, the day he won, and how he inspired us all. He was successful, despite not gaining the ultimate accolade of being the overall winner.

And as for me, maybe I did fail at being an analyst in the corporate world. And perhaps it’s strange that I’ve got three degrees and yesterday my most difficult task was separating foam and plastic balls into their respective ball pits in a children’s soft play area. But you know what, I smiled all day long. I sharpened colouring pencils, I made a little girl’s day by making her a sickly sweet farm shake, I watched piglets suckle from their mum, I litter picked. I saw so many people laughing. The day had so many tiny moments of joy.

There’s no doubt about it, transition is difficult. I just wrote a 7,000 word dissertation on how difficult it is for cyclists to transition out of professional sport after all. And now I am getting to experience my own strange, difficult and wonderful transition.

But saying that, the best part of every day now is the ten minute cuddle I get from my cat before I leave the house for work. I now leave at 8.50 to walk five minutes down the lane to the farm, meaning I have enough time for a hug with my little love bug Chibi. I never used to have time for that in the morning. I would be out the door at 6 am, stressed and anxious about what the day held. Now, I look forward to the day.

Which now that I really think about it, means that I should be feeling more successful than I do. It proves that success doesn’t always look how you think it should. And if you can just learn to relax and let go, it can mean something entirely different.

Maybe, contrary to our beliefs, winning is actually the curse. And failure is actually the blessing. Perhaps we should all go and see what we can fail at. I’m starting to believe that’s where the real success lies.