Is success a myth? Yasmina Floyer speaks to author Emma Gannon about rewriting the rules of ‘achievement’, and what it really means…
Author and podcaster Emma Gannon has published six bestselling books to date, including The Sunday Times bestseller The Multi-Hyphen Method (Hodder & Stoughton, £9.99). Her debut novel Olive (HarperCollins, £9.99) was nominated for the Dublin Literary Award in 2022.
She has been called ‘one of the most influential thinkers on how we can work smarter’ by Penguin Books, and a ‘terrific interviewer’ by the Financial Times. In 2018, Gannon also made the Forbes 30 Under 30 for Media & Marketing.
By all accounts, she is an out-and-out success – but it is this very notion that Gannon explores in her new book, The Success Myth: Letting Go Of Having It All (Torva, £16.99). In it, she dissects the idea of crafting success on your own terms (something she is doing with her Substack, The Hyphen). I asked Gannon a few questions, to find out more…
As somebody who is objectively successful, what inspired you to write a book where you interrogate the very idea of success?
‘I feel like I interrogate everything! As a writer, a thinker, a journalist, I ask a lot of questions, so I wanted to pick apart success as a topic. It could have been quite difficult to get people on board, because I’m unpacking something that, on the surface – both socially and culturally – appears to be working very well.’
That’s right; success is seen as something unequivocally positive that we should all aim for, because then we’ll be happy and have all the answers, right?
‘Well, after interviewing nearly 400 people on the topic, it became clear that no one has the answers! And I was seeing these strange links between extremities. At one extreme, people who can’t pay their bills are suffering with their mental health, but people I spoke to on the opposite end of the scale – people with everything at their fingertips – were also suffering with their mental health. I couldn’t shy away from the data, the research, the anecdotes. I wanted to write this book because it’s still taboo to say, “I have more than enough – and yet I’m still not happy”.’
We’re both millennials, and I think that growing up we were presented with very specific external metrics of what success looked like. Why do you think that is?
‘Most millennials have baby boomer parents who grew up post-war. Their parents had grown up knowing what it was like to have rations, but the baby boomer generation had grown up with quite a lot of wealth – for example, now, they own more than 50 per cent of all property in the UK.
They’re also a big consumer generation and, in general terms, really bought into culture and music and TV and celebrity. And we’re the offspring of these people who really cared about those shiny things, so, growing up, this has impacted our definition of what success looks like.’
Exactly this! As a teenager, I grew up with the message that I could have it all. But we’re only now beginning to question if we even want those things…
‘Yes, and it is such a personal thing, too. For example, I don’t want to have children. On paper, I think of having a child as a hugely successful moment, but, for me, it doesn’t feel right. When something doesn’t line up with what you want, then that’s not really your version of success. It’s less about what something is and more about how it feels.
But if we’re talking about how something feels, I admit, it makes me feel good to be recognised for what I do.
‘The fact is that we have evolved from social animals who needed status to survive. Being in a tribal environment, having status in the group meant you were going to live longer. So, of course, we can’t shy away from the fact that we do need status. I also love feeling like people think that my work matters!’
I feel as though social media has exacerbated the external validation element of what success means. I wonder what your thoughts are on this?
‘Well, I think there are two things to look at here. Something I learned from Martha Beck, an amazing life coach, is that there is your human nature and then there’s a culture around you, and I think that although you can have success in both, it’s good to be aware that they’re slightly different.
For example, I can post a picture of myself and look really successful and get some likes, but I think that the really successful moments can also be private, and I think we’ve forgotten how to do that. I had to do this by taking three months off, having been completely burned out, unable to do anything. If that hadn’t happened to me, I think I would still be on that hamster wheel.’
When I joined social media, I made a vow to myself to keep most of my ‘best bits’ offline, and this has really helped me navigate that boundary between our public and private selves.
‘Yes, I now love those moments when I’ve had a really good day and I don’t have to tell anyone about it. But there’s two prongs to it, because you can’t just live in silo, not talking to anyone, either.’
I’m really enjoying your podcast mini-series, where you interview people and ask them what their success myths are. Can you share a success myth that feels most pertinent to you right now?
‘It’s one that I learned from speaking to spiritual teacher Fiona Arrigo. A success myth that she believes in is that of being a lone wolf, the attitude of ‘I can make it on my own, I don’t need anyone’. This can sometimes be a trauma response – it may be because you have been neglected, or you don’t feel like you can trust people, and feel you have to do everything on your own.
In the book, I talk about another side of this, the people who love to think they’ve done everything themselves, when this isn’t entirely the case. Politicians, and society in general, love to make us think that we live in a meritocracy, where we all start at the same point on the starting line, and everything that we do is solely down to us. Writing this book as someone who does have privileges – from growing up in a very understanding environment, to personal freedoms – it got me thinking: what about the full spectrum of life experience, and those who aren’t benefiting from these privileges? What does success mean then?’
What do you hope that readers will take away from the book?
‘I feel like the overarching question of the book is asking the reader to basically tell the truth, because when you’re actually truthful about what you want, that’s when you start becoming really successful on your own terms. You’re no longer hiding from the truth, which may be that the thing you’re doing doesn’t make you feel good, or perhaps there needs to be a massive change in your life.’
What is your relationship with success like these days? Has it changed?
‘A friend who’s a psychologist told me that most people on their deathbeds say they wish they’d been more successful on their own terms, not other people’s. If you’d asked me that years ago, when I was doing a TED Talk and events and running myself right into the ground, I’d have said I looked successful – but I don’t think that’s the same as being successful.
Being honest and changing your life and doing the things that serve you and your version of success is countercultural, which is why some people can struggle with it. Nowadays, I feel I am more successful, as I’ve really had to realign with what that means for me; today, I’ve done some work to pay my bills – and I also went for a swim and had time to speak to my nephew on the phone.’
Read more: How to celebrate success