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“The important thing to remember about success is that it’s not all about the future”

28 July 2018, at 1:11pm

What is success? It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Success can mean different things to different people. The dictionary definition says it’s the accomplishment of an aim or a purpose. But how many of us have a conscious “purpose”? Society often measures success by the size of someone’s house, car or bank balance, but surely there must be more to it than that? 

For others, success is about “achievement” – whether that’s making a difference in other people’s lives or being recognised as “the best” at what you do. It’s often said that as vets, we are very good at delayed gratification and will put many things lower down our list of priorities to achieve the things we want to, such as performing an amazing act of surgery or being recognised as experts in our field. And that’s great, but the clue is in the word delayed – we don’t expect it to go on forever. At some point we would expect to reap some reward, whether that’s intrinsic or extrinsic. 

Sometimes that reward can be very far away – does it happen when we graduate, when we start our first job, when we gain the next step on the career ladder or when we retire? What if we never feel good about what we know or never feel we know enough? What if that time when we start to reap the rewards feels like it will never come? 

It’s one of the reasons why I think we need to look wider in our definitions of success and not just to define what success looks like for us as individuals but to stick to that definition no matter how society, peers or family might challenge it. 

Success is something I have thought about quite carefully. The things that matter to me are family, intellectual freedom and the chance to pursue interesting work on an equal basis and making sure that these values are shared family values. So sometimes my doctor husband has been a stay-at-home dad so that I can enjoy working with the BVA, representing the profession and being involved in formulating veterinary policies, and other times he has progressed his career and I have stepped back. 

Along the way, we’ve acquired law degrees at night school, played an equal part in bringing up our child and taken part in endurance sports events. We are tremendously privileged to be in a position to do that – and it’s not something that would work for everyone – but this is our definition of success and we have actively chosen to have a smaller house, only run one car and live a simpler lifestyle. For us, this means we don’t feel burnt out trying to reach a distant goal, but instead our goal is a work-life balance that allows us to pursue the work we want while spending time as a family and enjoying the outdoors. 

At times, we’ve climbed the career ladder, at other times we’ve climbed back down to achieve better work-life balance and at other times we’ve taken on things for the joy of them, not with any career goal in mind. So far, it’s worked out pretty well. We’ve felt confident about our decisions because they were aligned with what we wanted to do and who we want to be.

Family happiness overall is probably the top contender of how I define success

Family happiness overall is probably the top contender of how I define success. A close second is whether I have had a positive impact. Have I done things that I think really matter? Have I worked with people who are honourable and want to do good things? Have I made a difference? 

As a profession, we are not paid as much as equivalent professions and if we define our worth and success by monetary means, we may feel disappointed. If we also have to sacrifice our happiness, we will probably feel even worse. Trying to judge ourselves against society’s yardstick or being what someone else wants us to be can be limiting and can make us feel as if we have somehow failed at life.

Success comes in all shapes and sizes. The important thing to remember about success is that it’s not all about the future; it’s not a far-off dream or something we have to work slavishly forever to try to achieve – a successful life as we define it for ourselves is something we can and should live right now.

British Veterinary Association Senior Vice President
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