What I’ve learned: Redefining success and finding meaning in the everyday

Words by Madeleine Dore
&
Art by Amelia Goss 

Like many at the beginning of a New Year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what shape I want the next twelve months to take.

For a few years running, I’ve aimed to avoid making resolutions that fixate on changing myself or my flaws, but instead focus on how I can grow in my work, my relationships, my inner landscape. Yet it’s precisely here that I seem to have stumbled – despite the intended positive lens, through focusing on growing I have inadvertently been focusing on becoming more successful, more accomplished, without properly defining what that means.

Actor John Malkovich says accomplishment or success is the result of either ambition or drive – the former of which, he claims he doesn’t have an iota.

“I never really had any [ambition] – I don’t have a hugely high opinion of ambition. I think of ambition as the need to prove something to others, and the need to be recognised. A need for rewards outside of the work.”

Where ambition is tied to the external, drive is usually linked to the internal.

I never really had any [ambition] – I don’t have a hugely high opinion of ambition. I think of ambition as the need to prove something to others, and the need to be recognised. A need for rewards outside of the work. Drive motivates you to do whatever it is you’re doing as well as you can. That’s an important distinction.

“Drive motivates you to do whatever it is you’re doing as well as you can. That’s an important distinction."

I decided to apply Malkovich’s metric to my goals for the year ahead – what was I doing in the hope of eliciting a perception of success from others, and what was I doing (or avoiding) that was linked to what I really wanted?

It occurred to me that one commonality amongst the creatives that I admire and have had the pleasure of interviewing is that their projects, their art practice, their businesses, their everyday lives are rooted in drive – with success often coming as a surprise or an afterthought.

Along the way, many of these artists, writers, illustrators and creators have had to redefine what success means to them in order to find resilience ahead of challenges or uncertainty, avoid the trappings of the ego, and stay focused on what drives them.

Here’s a collection of those learnings on redefining of goals, ambition, and success to help us all uncover what it means to live creatively.

1. On the universal experience of uncertainty…

“You have to trust that life goes on and you don't always know why or how. Of course, it is much easier for someone who has flexibility or is comfortable to say things like that, and if you are not feeling that you might read these words and hate it, but eventually everything makes sense.” – Adam J Kurtz

2. On how very few artists make work all day…

“Because I’ve spent the morning either mixing paint or really studying what I need to do, I can get straight into it. I don’t stop painting for two or three hours, so you can imagine how much I can cover – it's like a marathon. I think a lot of people can spend all day in their studio and not do much work – it’s almost impossible to paint all day, and a lot of it is spent procrastinating and thinking. I am doing that thinking while I’m still working in the shop.” – Alesandro Ljubic

3. On the trap of perfectionism…

“I think I spent a lot of my life wanting to jump over progression straight into perfection. I didn't want to have to go through the part where you only get incrementally better and it was crushing my self-esteem and really messing with my self-confidence, too. I just got to a point where I was like, why be your own bully?" – Ashley C Ford

4. On needing space…

"We do ourselves a disservice when we allow ourselves to be crowded out with the white noise of other people’s agendas, we need to have a bit of space." – Bill Henson

5. On how the seemingly small goals add up…

“I set myself the goal of doing at least three post-it notes a day and my brains seems to have become much better and quicker at doing that. It almost becomes mathematical in a way – you can come up with the idea, then the framework, and then combine it. I’m still very used to working in architecture where you spend all day creating these large scale drawings and when you finish for the day you can visually see what you have accomplished. But now the sum of all my work for the day is three little pieces of paper, which can be frustrating. The actual drawing part doesn’t take too long once you’ve got the idea sorted out. It's the idea that takes a long time to develop, so even though I'm getting better at forcing inspiration, if there’s nothing happening it can be best to get out of the house, go for a walk, go down to the pub, catch up with friends, talk some shit and see what comes up.” – Chaz Hutton

6. On the ebb and flow of creativity…

“Sometimes my personal creativity is just barren and sometimes it's really fertile. Right now, I'm in a very bountiful time, writing and a lot of illustration work, which I'm really excited about." – Debbie Millman

7. On not pushing yourself to be an artist…

“If you are a young, aspiring, creative practitioner and you do have a lot of blockage, then maybe it's not the right journey for you, actually. It might sound a little bit ruthless, but I feel that if you can live without your work you will be a happier and more fulfilled person living without it. But if you can't live without your work, then you just have to fucking go for it and trust the work and give everything to the work and it will find a way, I really believe that.” – Del Kathryn Barton

8. On feeling good versus ticking boxes…

“I’m such a fan of my mum, she is a special lady and everyone thinks that, it’s not just me! She is a hard worker and always said you can have a career in the arts as long as you work hard. "You can get the money and the fame and feel like you’re not there at all or there is no satisfaction. You have to ask what you feel good about versus what just feels like ticking boxes." She said to me quite recently that maybe I should spend some time thinking about what success really means to me. I experienced the stock standard “success” – money and fame and all that crap – when I was young, but that doesn’t always match your individual definition of success. You can get the money and the fame and feel like you’re not there at all or there is no satisfaction. You have to ask what you feel good about versus what just feels like ticking boxes.” – Ella Hooper

9. On how we can be who we want to be…

"People want to put people in boxes… it doesn’t have to be that way – we can be who we want to be, and you can use all the skills you’ve got to fashion the person you want to be and the career you want as well." – Jacob Nash

10. On doing something we aren’t good at…

“Ice hockey is my main passion outside of work – and I’m horrible at it! Even though I’ve been playing my entire life, I’m still really bad. But I think it’s amazing to keep doing something you are terrible at. Being humble and wanting to get better at something is really important. Something like playing hockey is so tied to the physical limits of what you can do, so it’s a challenge trying to get better.” – Jeremy Wortsman

11. On staying humble with a farting gnome figurine…

“When you finish a painting, and you are walking out the door thinking what a clever boy you are, that’s when the gnome farts.” – Ken Done

12. On how there is no such thing as “behind”…

“Wanting success to happen right away is so much part of our instant gratification culture – but we live many lives and do many things and there is no reason to panic when you are in your 20s or 30s or 40s, or at any age.” – Lisa Congdon

13. On how success comes and goes…

“Everyone’s got this idea of what should be happening, or how they should be doing it. At the end of the day, success comes and goes, but if you’re still doing something – even if it’s hard – you’re meant to be doing it.” – Lisa Mitchell

14. On how perspective takes time…

“Things get murky and confusing at any age. But you can’t have the kind of perceptions that you have at sixty-five when you’re twenty-five and I don’t think it would even be good to have that kind of wisdom – it might prevent you from doing all the stupid things that you should be doing!” – Maira Kalman

15. On passion, not success, as the barometer…

"Passionate people inspire me to create good work, be a better person and are a constant reminder for me to be aware of the things I love about what I do (and to cut out the things I don’t)." – Mark Lobo

16. On having your eyes open…

“There is no perfect. It’s not just about forgiving yourself as a mother and allowing yourself to do the things that are going to make you happy, but having your eyes open to every situation. You have to be flexible and fluid, and have your eyes open to what is currently happening, and future opportunities.” – Maryanne Moodie

17. On the varieties of resilience…

“There is a fine balance between being sensitive and resilient as well. I’m not talking about a tough kind of resilience, I am talking about a resilience that is able to accept failure. Because out of failure is where you learn the most important things.”– Matt Wilson

18. On the luck of knowing what you want to do…

“If I wasn’t an artist I really don’t know what I would be doing. I decided to be an artist when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I feel really lucky about that in a way. I have friends who haven’t known what they want to do and that journey can be really difficult. They have swapped and changed and felt like they haven’t found their thing. You are very lucky in this world if you know what you want to do and you can do it.” – Melinda Harper

19. On ignoring what others may deem possible for you…

“Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. That's ridiculous—you can do whatever you want! It’s all about you being motivated to do it, and nothing about whether people think you can.” — Minna Gilligan

20. On abandoning a project…

“It can be okay to abandon a project or admit something isn’t working, I reckon. You don’t have to read to the end of a book – or finish a terrible gin and tonic – out of obligation. Obligation stifles creativity and makes something onerous, which doesn’t help anybody.” – Oslo Davis

21. On the myth of “there”…

“I don't think there is any such thing as a 'there' that you arrive at in life – you are constantly dealing with uncertainty and being thrown a lot of curveballs. But that is a really important part of doing what you feel is your heart and soul, you have to be willing to be in that struggle." – Elisa Goodkind

22. On the cost of yes…

"There is my work, my family and then there are lots of things on top of that that are vaguely connected in one way or another. I want to say yes to everything, but I have keep reminding myself that every time I say yes to one thing, I’m saying no to something else – be it my kids, my job, or my sleep.” – Susan Carland

23. On the secret to being mediocre...

“You can always find solace in seeing people who aren’t very good at what they do succeed. There are lots of people who are pretty mediocre making a go of it, and that is mostly through hard work and a little bit of networking and just wanting it.” – Tim Ross

24. On how nothing is ever really lost…

“I once asked my Mum, what happens if everything falls apart? What if I lose everything? I’ll always remember her response: ‘Well, nobody gave you what you got now. You worked for what you have. So you have to believe that you can work for it again’.” – Yassmin Abdel-Magied

25. On finding ease… even if it means putting up a struggle first

“The thing you are probably meant to do is the thing that comes easily. Not everyone knows that, or they don't realise it could be something that they are not even considering. There might be someone who is trying to be a really amazing lawyer or accountant or something quite conservative, who happens to be a dynamo at cupcakes on the weekend – so do that! But it's risky and it's bold and it takes confidence, I think. It took me a while to leave full-time work and just do what I wanted to.” – Zoe Foster Blake

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