Defining success

It’s been about a month since I moved from Toronto back to Victoria, and already my time in the city feels so distant. It was about two years ago that I made the reverse journey, when I said goodbye to my life in Victoria, gave away all my furniture, and began my grad school journey in “Canada’s downtown.”

Since I was young, I have been told that I’m smart and can achieve great things. So when the opportunity came to dive in to a situation where I would really be challenged to live up to those expectations, I took it.

I was accepted into a competitive graduate program at arguably the country’s best school, in Canada’s biggest and most dynamic city. I knew that my classmates would be like me: driven, high-achieving, ambitious. I wanted to see if I could run with the big dogs and push myself to succeed in an environment where everyone else also had colour-coded calendars and worked long hours to excel, like I did.

And by some accounts, I was successful. I studied long and hard for my economics and statistics courses, traversing an academic landscape I hadn’t ventured in since high school but one to which I always felt well suited. I ended up with top marks in those classes and was even asked to be a peer tutor for those courses the following year. When the call went out for students to apply for the national policy case competition team (does that sound super nerdy? It was.), I again wanted to show I could do it and landed the only spot on the team for a first-year student. As my cohort searched for summer internships, I set my sights on a position in one of the most high-powered offices in the Ontario government – and I got it.

Me on the last day of my job with the Ontario government.

By some accounts, I was successful. But I was also miserable.

It turned out that “achieving,” in the traditional sense, meant a lot of personal sacrifices. I was often without time and energy to cook or exercise, so I ate more Kraft Dinner than I’m proud of and started to feel embarrassed about my body. The cost of my program also meant that my first year at school was spent stressing about my budget, and I would lie in bed at night trying to balance the spreadsheet in my mind in a way that did not involve asking my parents for money to get through the school year. I felt like all I did was work, and weekend after weekend I confined myself to a cubicle in the library to keep from drowning in the volume of assignments. At the end of my first semester, I couldn’t sleep one night and broke down crying on the floor of my room, overwhelmed and exhausted.

Before I started grad school, I had been a person with interests. I had sung in a choir, started a book club, trained for a half-marathon and canoed the Yukon River. Now I felt like a shell of a person, someone whose whole existence was tied to studying and writing papers. After particularly brutal and demanding stretches of work, like the preparation for and culmination of the national case competition, I found myself barely able to get out of bed—and hating myself for it. There was this darkness in me that I didn’t know I had. I was supposed to be strong and vibrant and enjoying my time in Toronto. But instead I just felt empty. I missed BC, but more than that, I missed who I had been in my life in Victoria before school.

I remember another student saying to me once at school something like: “Oh, we’re all struggling but you’ve got it together, Sasha.” And it may have looked that way – as others worried about passing microeconomics, I did well and enjoyed the material. But as I sat in the library and flipped through Instagram stories of my classmates sunning themselves in some Toronto park or laughing with loved ones over brunch, I thought, I must be doing this wrong.

****

The other day, I read a great Atlantic article from 2016 about women, ambition and success. In it, Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace recount the experiences of their high-achieving classmates from college. All had entered a prestigious university with big dreams for their careers. But 20 years after graduation, only a handful had achieved major professional success. Many others had “less starry” careers, or became stay-at-home moms. Was it because they were just less ambitious, the authors wondered? No, they concluded – these people were just channeling their ambition in a different way.

These women hadn’t lost their ambition; instead they’d changed the definition of the word. They saw that ambition takes many forms, only one of which is becoming CEO. While everyone may have started out with lofty career goals, many also had lofty personal goals; ambition doesn’t stay in a neatly contained career-goals-only box. Just as many of our classmates had previously aspired to be the best in their chosen field, they now wanted to be the best mother, the best partner, the best everything else.

During my time in Toronto, I began to dream of my future life. And usually, it didn’t involve a high-powered career and lots of money. It involved helping people, raising a family, being active, exploring the outdoors, maybe travelling. Experiencing all those moments of joy that together make up a good life.

When I started to admit this to myself – that maybe the kind of success I was chasing in Toronto wasn’t what I wanted, after all – I worried that this meant I wasn’t going to live up to the “potential” I knew I had, and that others saw in me. What would it mean if the pinnacle of my professional success was some middle position in government? What would it mean, especially for me as a determined feminist who resists traditional gender roles, if I focused my efforts into building a beautiful domestic life instead of my career?

But slowly, I began to think of it a different way, much like the realization the authors above had come to. Maybe ambition is broader in scope than we think. Maybe it takes ambition, and drive, to create the lives we really want instead of the lives we are expected to lead. Maybe that’s another version of leaning in.

****

As the end of graduate school drew nearer, my cohort was buzzing about jobs. Some of my brilliant and talented classmates had succeeded in competitive recruitment programs for the federal government and landed positions that would fast-track them to senior roles in a few years. Others had made it through gut-wrenching interview processes with consulting firms and scored high-paying corporate gigs. I was happy for them, but I didn’t envy them.

Instead, I had decided to get out of Toronto at the first opportunity. I missed the smell of the ocean and the sight of mountains on the horizon. I also missed living in a culture where taking it easy is celebrated and people work to live, not the other way around.

I took the first position I could with the BC government in Victoria, and I’m about a month in to my new job now. People are pretty serious about work-life balance in my office; there’s lunch-time yoga and fitness classes and a summer bocce league for my ministry. This isn’t the downtown Toronto rat race, that’s for sure.

I’m still figuring out what my professional life looks like here, and I know I’m the kind of person who will still strive to do my very best in whatever role I’m in. But in Victoria, I feel like all of these other parts of me – the writer, the avid reader, the musician, the hiker, the community organizer – can blossom and grow right alongside me, the policy professional.

I don’t regret my time in Toronto. I’m so grateful for the educational experience I had there at the School of Public Policy and Governance and the way it has sharpened my thinking and honed my analytical skills. I’m thankful for all the intelligent, compassionate and interesting friends and classmates I met in that city. And if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t really know what I do now: that I define my own success.

Ross Bay, Victoria
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