The search for that golden status known as ‘successs’ haunts our society. We judge ourselves constantly, comparing our lives to others, seeking their approval, trying to drown out our own insecurities. From an early age, we are taught that there are Winners and Losers in life, and that there’s nothing worse than a Loser. It’s utter bunkum of course; what matters is perspective.
I was a Loser from the get-go. I knew it, everybody knew it. And it sucked. I’ve talked about my childhood in The Bewilderboy, so I shan’t rehash it all here. Let’s just say that my expectations for life – as judged by my peers – were pretty damned low. One of the first changes I felt came when, instead of throwing the usual random sport at us, my head of year decided to pit our tutor groups against each other in a kind of grand school quiz.
Somehow I got ‘volunteered’ for our team along with Helen, Lucy, and Becky – and stone me if we didn’t start winning our heats! Instead of plummeting to our usual place at the bottom of the table, we made it all the way to the finals. Now sure, we crapped out in the end, but only by a point or two. I don’t know about everyone else, but felt like a goddamned Winner inside. I knew I’d pulled my weight and, together, we had defied expectation.
Darts – much as I loved it – was something of contrast.
My parents were both mad-keen on the game, so I started playing too as a teenager. I joined them at the local social club for league games after a while, and we even tried out at a big national tournament. It all got a bit serious at that point. I had a great first Singles game there, beating a real up-and-comer who was being groomed for the County Youth team – and now suddenly I was being invited to join the team alongside him. Yeeesh. I was not in the right place, mentally, to deal with that kind of pressure. It turned sour after a few weeks when I cracked and sank under the dreaded condition known as *dartitis.
I may not have been the brightest spark, but I think that’s when I learned the difference between pursuing my own dreams and trying to live up to somebody else’s.
I have – I should confess – become a right competitive sod over the years when it comes to games of all types. Not nastily so. I like to think I’ve got the right balance between wanting to win and wanting to just enjoy the experience. It’s funny, but I seem to be at my most teeth-clenchingly determined when things don’t actually matter at all. At university, I became obsessed with playing pool, cards, and badminton. Pool was my regular Sunday pass-time with various pals at the pub, whilst **Shithead filled long evenings with my housemates (one of whom became my wife, the other my Best Man).
Badminton was a bit different. It was my first stab at a sport for the sake of exercise. I played against a loveable idiot, Phlibbens, and that skinny ginger bastard beat me Every. Single. Time. I pushed him close on many an occasion, but dude…he was good. You know what, though? He never rubbed my face in it. He may have made me run all over the court, but he was never cruel about it. We made each other laugh all the time, and – dying as we might be afterwards – we felt damned good for the ***exercise.
The point here, I think, is that it never really mattered who won or lost; pool, cards, badminton – they were low-stakes and infinitely replayable. The value was in the company we kept, the joy of the match, the laughter and the shit-talking.
I’ve toughened up a lot more over time. Got a bit more grit inside. I have my ups and downs like anyone, but I’ve got agency too; I’ve cultivated a sense of self-worth and chased down my dreams. Every active step I’ve taken to change and improve my life while Finding Me has provided strong evidence that – contrary to my childhood expectations – I can actually make it in this life; I don’t have to live imprisoned in the box others placed me; and I can damn well win at anything I turn my mind to.
Almost. For a given definition of ‘win.’
That’s what makes the difference, see: your mindset. Looking back, that secondary-school quiz was the first time I decided to define my own success, measured – and judged – by myself. And let me tell you, that’s the only shit that matters. You don’t get a scoresheet when you die. There’s no prize.
I may get stupid competitive when I’m playing boardgames with Nichole, Richard, Hannah and Sabrina; I may chew my lips in mock outrage that (yet again!) I have failed to win The Best Legs In Horror Award; I may play darts for a middling pub team; and I may still never have beaten Phil ‘Damn-You’ Dibbens at badminton, but I still feel like a Winner most of the time.
What have I won?
I have friends that I enjoy spending time with – and who enjoy spending time with me. I have a great excuse to hang out with my dad every week, to get those jolts of victory from time to time, to be part of the world instead of just a spectator. I have a business that I love in an industry I adore. Every author I help with my edits brings me a feeling of success, and I deem every editor I connect with a running mate. (There are no competitors here, folks; there are a billion writers in this world. We are never running out of work.)
Ultimately, winning is what you make it. It’s about getting what you want out of a situation – whether it’s a single step towards your goals, spending some quality time with people you love, or finding a single spark of joy. It’s a life lived actively, and according to your values.
Embrace it. And take all the time that you need.
* A horrible psychological condition where the player is unable to let the damned darts go. I got over it eventually, but it took a loooong time to do so.
** It’s a card game. I don’t know who named it nor why, but it’s legit. Promise. You can even download an app to play it. Years later, I taught it to my daughter, but I renamed it Scatmandu to avoid soiling her ears with such vulgarity. (Why am I even telling you this? Honestly. Who cares? Shut up, Dion.)
*** Funnily enough, I had a similar experience years later, playing against a friend from work. I actually managed to nab a few games from Mark, though, and my roars of victory were mighty – though a little wheezy too, admittedly.
If you are more interested in my Editing history, you can find my work on the Accomplishments page.
Should you be more in the mood for some entertainment, I have a selection of Performed Readings that I’ve been recording over the past few months, highlighting some smashing writers and cracking stories. Enjoy.