'The End' - I never thought those words would be a beginning. But as I added them to the last page of my first novel that’s exactly what they were. Now I wanted what was next. And I’m not alone. For millennials and Gen Z it seems 'success' is the destination that never quite arrives - and it’s having a serious impact on the way we live our lives.
It was only a few years since I had first told my best friend that 'write a book' was at the top of my bucket list (we were drunk and 'finding ourselves' in Thailand, okay?) But just like our trip, once I had enjoyed it, boasted (aka, posted) about it, my eyes were set on a new goal: now I wanted an agent.
Like many millennials, I’m ambitious and proud and (at the risk of sounding like a Disney princess) I think everyone should follow their dreams. Being successful is not the problem. The problem is that in our age of constant comparison most of us are still waiting to feel it. It seems the restlessness of getting to the next is robbing us of our contentment in the now.
"Do you think you are successful?" I asked my (always too few) Instagram followers. The majority echoed one response: 'Not really, I’m not rising quickly enough.' Not quickly enough. But who is setting the pace? Once again, social media has a lot to answer for.
"We now have the opportunity to compare our progress with anyone and everyone from family and friends to relative unknowns at the other end of the globe," Consultant Psychiatrist Dr. Sarah Vohra (aka. @themindmedic) tells Cosmopolitan. It used to be enough that you were the best in your class, or village; now the pool of competitors – subconscious or otherwise - is global. Global and filtered.
Not only are the photos people post carefully curated to show their best, but it seems we have our own inbuilt filtering system: one that will hone in on those just one step ahead of us on the journey to whatever milestone we want to meet next. "Our social media highlight reel then becomes a constant reminder of what we haven’t yet achieved," Dr. Vohra explains.
It also affects the role of approval in how we view our achievements. "We often present our successes to others via social media and their approval comes in the form of likes, follows and engagement," Dr. Vohra shares. "If we achieve none of those things we doubt the merit of our success; a personal sense of success and achievement can suddenly become plagued with self-doubt because we perceive others don’t recognise it as such. This can be detrimental to our self-esteem; the way we feel about ourselves and our abilities." Just as a new level of so-called success brings a new pool of people to compare ourselves to, when we feel we’ll be content with 100 likes, we long for 1,000, and then 10,000…
"When we seek external validation, our decision to celebrate becomes dependent on someone else's measure of success"
Chasing outside approval for our achievements may sound trivial, but the impact can be crucial: "When we seek external validation, our decision to celebrate or commiserate becomes dependent on someone else's measure of success," Dr Vohra continues. The result? "We ride the highs of feeling validated, accepted, of being successful but are hit hard by the lows that leave us feeling dissatisfied, less motivated, possibly anxious at persevering and potentially even throwing the towel, which can confound our feeling of failure.
"For some, these feelings may be more chronic, and they may develop symptoms consistent with depression and anxiety." No wonder mental health issues seem to be more prevalent among younger generations than ever before.
As if this wasn’t hard enough, this upward comparison isn’t confined to career success. Our goals-oriented mindset infiltrates the way we see our friends, relationships and other aspects of our lives. "Learning to be content with the season my husband and I are in and not comparing our marriage with others' is very hard," photographer and Instragrammer Corina Straub shares with me about her first year of marriage.
"Before, when we were dating long distance, all I wanted was to be together. When this finally happened, I found myself comparing our marriage to other people and couples; those already buying a house or travelling, or maybe even having babies. It felt like we weren’t 'there'."
So, are we millennials and Gen Z destined to be discontent with our success? To chase goalposts just to watch them move? Will we ever reach our desired destination?
Well, no - but maybe that’s the point.
'Not rising quickly enough'. 'I’m not really where I want to be'. 'I’m just trying to get to the next stage'. Common amongst most of the answers my simple Instagram question welcomed was a shared sense of motion, of going somewhere, somewhere better, somewhere other. And though our 'post-it' generation has fallen into thinking in definitive moments uploaded and shared, success actually has a great deal to do with movement.
It’s thought by many that the word 'success' actually shares the same origin as the word 'succession' – literally meaning 'following one after the other'. In this way it makes sense that we're not content dwelling in our present position for too long. Success by its very nature moves forward. But for many millennials, we don’t feel this movement is happening quick enough and comparison might not be the only reason. The fact is: we hate to wait.
"When we look at successful people we tend to just see their present. We don't see how they got there"
In mere minutes we're now able to order an Uber and book tonight's dinner, tomorrow's next-day-delivery and the day-after's date - all from the back of the cab. As a Londoner, I know I would rather sit on a tube for fifty minutes than wait for one for five, for the simple fact that one feels like progress, going places, moving forwards. Our instant world may have heightened our productivity, but it has decreased our ability to deal when our instant gratification doesn't come.
One young professional who spoke to me agrees: "I think there is this subconscious understanding that if you do well at university, you’re going to do well in life. And it sounds like that will happen immediately," he shares. "When we look to people we deem successful we tend to just see their present; we don't see the no-man's land that stretched for miles between where they started from and where they are now."
Could it be that our post-it portrayal of finite moments in photos, captions and tweets has actually altered our understanding of success?
Many of us have started seeing success as a series of posts or stops along the way. Anything else feels like waiting for another stop to come. And when it does, there is always another stop before our destination. Viewed this way: success is the place that never arrives. Clearly, if we want to regain contentment, we need to recapture a proper definition of what success is.
"Success, or rather working towards success, whether it is personal or professional can give us a sense of purpose and direction in life," explains Dr. Vohra. It is the working towards something that gives us purpose, the moving forwards, the sticking at something when it’s hard, the grit and determination in-between the 'post-it' moments that few ever see.
Researcher and author, Brené Brown has much to say on how valuing the journey can change our view of success for the better: "The middle is messy," she explains, "but that’s also where the magic happens."
Maybe when we start to see success as the journey rather than the end, we will start to find more contentment in the messy middle and far more joy in our milestone moments? I for one want to settle into the journey enough to enjoy the ride.