Book Review: The Success Myth by Emma Gannon
by Ali Boston
Why are we so obsessed with success and what can we do about it? In her new book, The Success Myth: Letting Go of Having it All, Emma Gannon charts society’s relationship with success and helps her readers explore what really matters. MeaningSphere’s Ali Boston reflects on how reading the book impacted her own perception of success.
I’ve always thought of myself as someone who has a pretty healthy relationship with success. I don’t care about chasing the corporate ladder. I prioritize my "personal life." That’s the internal narrative I’ve carried. But what have I been doing while my friends were up at midnight tweaking PowerPoint presentations, hoping it might all lead to that big promotion? I’ve been running home to work on novels, dreaming of holding the published work in my hands, my name immortalized in print. I perhaps haven’t been chasing the same flavor of success as many of my friends, but it's no different. I’m still desperate for some external validation that what I’ve been spending my time on matters; some acknowledgement that I’ve achieved something; that I’m good at what I do.
Emma Gannon has been there too. Chart-topping podcaster; bestselling author of five books; Forbes 30 under 30 listee – Emma knows a thing or two about what it’s actually like to have "made it". On her podcast Ctrl Alt Delete, she’s also interviewed hundreds of "Successful People" about their careers. And her conclusion? Well, it’s not surprising really: success sucks.
I know this, I hear you say. Money won’t buy happiness, etc., etc. We all know this stuff. Of course it makes sense that people who are successful according to all the traditional definitions of success – rich, famous, "award-winning," Manager/Director/CEO of A Very Successful Company – aren’t that happy with their lives. In fact, it makes us feel better to acknowledge that. But yet, somehow, we still can’t silence the voice in our ear saying: but wouldn't it be pretty wonderful to have a little taste of that success too? Success would be different for us, wouldn't it? I love working on my novels. It’s something I imagine I'll always keep doing because I can't really help it. But what's hard to admit is there's also a part of me focused on the day I can tell everyone on social media that I’m actually an Author with a capital A, published by a Very Important and Respected Publishing House soon to win many awards and accolades.
Clearly, I needed Emma Gannon's book. Whether you're listening to her podcast or reading her prose, Emma has a talent for making you feel like you're in conversation with a close friend or big sister. There's a calmness to her writing. She doesn't shout or make promises about how reading her book will transform you. There's an authenticity to the writing that the self-help genre often lacks and that drew me in. By the end, I almost felt I should pick up my phone and send a WhatsApp to Emma to discuss my reflections (obviously I don't have Emma's number and that would be strange).
What I also loved is that Emma acknowledges right up front in the book that we can’t solve everything that’s toxic about our relationship with success alone. Much of this is tied up in social norms and expectations that surround us from an early age. But starting with ourselves and understanding what we really want from our working lives is a start. In the book, she breaks down the different myths that inform our understanding of success, covering topics such as happiness, productivity, the notion that "you are your job," celebrity, money, ambition, tickboxes, and arrival. But all these myths surrounding success very often lead to a sense of emptiness. This can’t be it, we think, I must have to work harder, keep climbing, maybe then I’ll reach the top of Success Mountain and everything will be great.
Emma wraps up each chapter with a set of reflection questions to ask yourself. “Describe who you are outside of work,” she says, “Write a list of descriptors that has nothing to do with working, earning money or achieving anything.” This seemingly simple question floored me. As a millennial brought up on a schedule of CV-enhancing activities, from violin lessons, to Girl Guides, to swimming and tennis, I struggled to think of something. Reflecting on Emma’s question, I saw myself in my true colors: I’m obsessed with success.
Of course, as Emma acknowledges in her book, there is no magic wand. Reimagining our relationship with success takes time. It’s a challenge that we’re familiar with at MeaningSphere. In many ways, unpacking our relationship with success is part of the process of trying to understand what – if anything – about our working lives is meaningful to us right now. At MeaningSphere, we’re trying to help each other understand what matters to us most at work and find ways to bring more of that into our day-to-day – while letting go of the expectations society or others’ might have of us. It sounds easy, but it takes a lot of exploration and reflection to truly understand what makes us feel fulfilled at work, how we like to work and how work relates to other parts of our lives.
As Emma concludes: “When our lives fall apart and things well and truly hit the fan, it’s the normal, mundane moments we crave, not the dizzying heights of so-called success.” This was something that struck me during the pandemic. It was the small things that mattered: the morning walk, a nice drink at sunset, zooming with loved ones. Now that life has become as busy and frantic as it was pre-pandemic, it’s easy to get swept up again in the pursuit of more, more, more. But Emma points out that life is rarely a linear trajectory towards success, as we're often led to believe. Life is cyclical – and there is no real 'arrival' at success. Reading Emma’s book has helped me pause and reflect. Isn’t success for me as simple as being able to write every day? Maybe that's easy to say, harder to live out in practice. Certainly, I’ve got a long way to go to recover from my success obsession, but I’ve made a start. And I intend to keep going.
Ali Boston writes about the worlds of work and technology (fictional and non-fictional). She began her career in communications, before going back to university to study for a Master’s in Politics and Technology. Since then, she’s been working on projects that help realize an inclusive and sustainable future of work. She lives in the Italian mountains with her fiancé, and loves cross-country skiing and stand-up paddling (neither of which she is proficient in).
Image credit: James Dent (first photo) and Lindsay Henwood (second photo) on Unsplash