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  • Audrey Daumain

Thought-starter: What is success?

Our monthly thought-starters come to you from our team of Guides, who are trained to help you make the most of your MeaningSphere experience. They're on hand to help members of our community explore the big question: "What is the meaning of my work to me?" Find out more about our Guide services here. In this thought-starter, Guide Audrey Daumain helps us dig into success.

Woman looking in the mirror

Maddy is sitting by her bedroom window with her laptop, tapping her pen against the warm glass, gazing at the blue sky. She types “USP” into Google and starts wondering if there is anything special about her. What is her Unique Selling Point?

Maddy is 34 and has been looking for a new job for just over a year after her company let go of her whole team. She is a Senior Financial Controller. That’s what it says on her resumé. The rest of the team have all found a job again, but not her. She gets told she has been job hopping a bit too much. She says she is good at many things but doesn’t really know what her special skill or expertise might be.

Madeleine is popular, clever, and witty. She is married to her childhood sweetheart who runs a busy and trendy restaurant. Together they have a two-year-old girl. In fact, Maddy could be seen as pretty settled, from afar. From very, very far away.

Earlier in the day, Maddy had an interview, and at the end of it the interviewer asked her two questions: “So, tell me about two of your greatest achievements in your life? What would you say your USP is?”

Her what?

Maddy stops daydreaming and checks the time. It’s 5 p.m. She needs to shower and get ready quickly as Chris and Alison have invited Maddy and her husband to their house for dinner. Maddy loves them, they are dear friends of hers, but she dreads the prospect of being surrounded by successful people.

Wait, did she say successful?

Two wine glasses with a sunset cityscape in the background

When they arrive, everyone there looks effortlessly smart, sipping Pimms and lemonade (Alison is from England). Her friends welcome her and her husband warmly. Alison greets her: “Maddy, you’re here! Let me introduce you to Kary and Matt, you’re going to LOVE them and they are super connected, I am sure they can help you.”

And here starts her silent journey, trying to understand what success actually means. Who is she really? The bubbly friend that can’t get a job? The wife and loving mum who doesn’t know what her USP is? What kind of job are you looking for? Do you have a passion, Maddy? You know Peter started his own art gallery and is killing it! Have you heard the news? Kindra has been made Partner at EY! Ursula is just like her mother – she’s got into the best medical school in the country. The Buttons bought a new house in the Maldives. You’ve always been so good at organizing parties, don’t you want to try and explore that route?

Maddy’s head spins. She’s tired of the well-intended good advice and sick of hearing about the success of others while struggling to find her own way. Suddenly, she hears her name.

“Madeleine, so nice to see you, my dear.”

She turns around and sees Will, who has come to join her. Will is Alison’s dad and a really special person, dear to her heart.

“You look lovely,” he says. “How’s life treating you these days?”

“I’m good Will, thank you for asking.” She hugs him warmly. He looks quite frail nowadays. “Rose is growing up fast, and we are pretty happy I must say. Oh, and I am still looking for a job, you know…”

“A job? Or a direction?” asks Will. He always asks the right questions. At 82, he is both fun and wise. Maddy has always loved chatting with him and sharing her thoughts.

“Hmm, I never thought of it that way. I guess I have enjoyed being home with Rose after being laid off. But I know it’s time for me to do something else with my days, if you know what I mean?”

They both giggle as he raises his eyebrows, understanding her totally.

“I never felt entirely fulfilled with my old job,” continued Maddy. “I liked it enough but it was definitely not checking all my boxes and I never felt like I had ‘made it.’ Between you and me, everyone here wants to help but…”

“I know, I know. I tell you what, try to think about your life as a whole, instead of focusing solely on your professional path when you think about ‘making it’ or success. I once read that success has no deadline, that it’s a question of finding balance between all your desires and your needs. Give yourself time to decide for yourself, Madeleine. There is obviously some more thinking to do before sending another Financial Controller CV, don’t you think?” He moves on to the next group of guests with a gentle wink.

Maddy feels the need to be on her own for a few minutes. She goes to sit on a bench a little further from the crowd and starts looking up. The clouds are moving fast, silently brushing the air, and seem to gather in the shape of a huge bunny rabbit. She smiles, closes her eyes, inhales deeply, then decides that today is the day.

None of the descriptions of the word “success” she had read online earlier in the day meant anything to her, so Madeleine decides to portray herself as successful to see how it might feel. Images flow in.

I am walking with my head just a little higher. My steps are light but my pace is decided. I realize that I need to be financially independent and to make more time for my secret passion: wedding planning. I remember how excited I was when I was planning mine. It took over a year. How much every detail counted. How meaningful each personalized item was to me. How the stress that so many others seemed to struggle with was a total ignition to me. I remember my daughter’s birthdays. I remember the role I played in organizing Alison’s hen party. I remember dad’s funeral and how magnificent those lilies were. I concentrate and smell their powerful but soothing fragrance.

I am a very successful Event Planner. I take pride in making others happy and thrive under the pressure of multi-tasking. I love the boost that surprising others gives me.

Maddy feels the power of self-reflection and pausing. She remembers reading that we should try to replace the word “success” with the word “value.” She realizes she can define success in her own terms. She decides to take Matt up on his offer to introduce her to a couple of people. She might follow up on her dream and set up her own business. She might find a job. She might do both, or look for an event planning job in a big company. Today she decides to explore more ways of defining her professional future. Today she gives herself the choice of the next step by widening her options instead of filtering job offers as if this was the only way to reach her goals.

Because living a successful life can take a thousand colors and a million shapes. More self-love and more kindness towards ourselves always leads to more self-confidence and more exciting opportunities.

Two pairs of hands clasped together on a table

As an executive coach, I have worked with many people like Maddy who find it hard to define a vision of their life that they would call successful. I like to remind them that we can review the way we make decisions and strengthen our ability to think for ourselves rather than be led solely by what we see or hear around us and on social media. MeaningSphere is exploring the theme of “redefining success:" how can we determine what success means for us personally, instead of letting external markers of success get the better of us?

Finally, remember the words of Oprah: “You become what you believe, not what you think or what you want.”


Audrey Daumain is a senior business transformation professional and performance coach with over 25 years experience in the finance industry in London and Geneva. She has developed a highly successful executive performance coaching program predominantly based on New Code Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Non-Violent Communication. Her mission is to align people and systems, providing serenity and resilience to the teams she works with to support them in delivering better, faster, and more sustainably, including in times of disruption and change.

Image credit: Shutterstock


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