There is No Secret to Success

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

I feel a strange internal pressure sometimes when I remember I am turning twenty-five this year. This is tied up in expectations I’ve placed upon myself, and a common mindset among creative people: an urgent desire to reach your goals before you ‘run out of time’ or ‘miss your chances’. (This is not helped by the true scarcity of funding and opportunities in the performing arts industry)

I’m know that twenty-five is hardly the onset of old age. But sometimes I feel afraid that I won’t be given opportunities to do my best work, or feel the dizzying high of achieving something I worked long and hard to do.

This is a very human fear because no one can know exactly what their future will hold. Your twenties can be a particularly disorientating and lonely time, because your life probably does not look like how you expected it to when you were an optimistic (and uninformed) teenager.

Another recurring thought is that I ought to have unlocked some mysterious, revelatory insight into the formula of success by now. The kind you see advertised in click-bait articles on the internet: 10 habits of SUCCESSFUL BILLIONAIRES you should start doing right now!

Over the last few years I have come to realise there is no mystical secret to success. Time and time again, I’ve found it’s the boring and straightforward stuff that helps in a crisis. Going to bed at a regular hour and eating fruits and vegetables doesn’t stop bad things from happening, but it does boost your body’s natural inclination to manufacture endorphins.

When I was a kid, there were a couple of small freedoms I thought of as the epitome of adult independence: staying up past midnight and eating chocolate cake any day of the week. Then I started buying my own groceries and I realised that I’d get a stomach ache if I ate more than two slices of chocolate cake in one sitting. And I’m usually sleepy by 10pm.

So what are the other underwhelming, common-sense bits of wisdom have I gained at the age of almost twenty-five?

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

Make yourself uncomfortable/ short term pain, long term gain/ blah blah blah

After graduating from my studies at the end of 2018, I knew exactly how I would feel in a few months: cagey and desperate to return to uni. I’ve always been the kind of person who enjoys being busy. And for all it’s flaws, my Bachelor of Music gave me an opportunity to research topics I was really passionate about, access one of the most comprehensive libraries in Australia, and comfortably maintain a glorious circle of musical friends. It was a pretty good deal.

It was scary to look beyond the horizon of years of structured study. Uni had supplied me with eighty percent of my social circle and had taken up eighty percent of my day-to-day life. I hadn’t taken a gap year, apart from six months off between finishing my undergrad and starting Honours.

And that’s exactly why I forced myself to pause, before ploughing straight into a Masters or a PhD. I knew it would feel odd and initially kind of wrong to not have any external structure to follow. But I also knew that those feelings of pessimism, of being lost, of being overwhelmed by the savagery of the job market for twenty-somethings, were going to happen at some point. Whether I confronted them now, or in another three years after finishing a second degree, I wasn’t going to be able to skip to the part where I ended up with a perfect career.

I do intend to undertake a postgraduate degree eventually, but probably only after a couple more years in the full-time workforce and a three-month sabbatical trekking across Europe.

So what did I learn by deliberately ignoring the urge to return to the comforting cocoon of university assignments and delaying life decisions? That there is more than one kind of discomfort. Sometimes situations feel ‘wrong’ because they’re new. Other times a situation will feel ‘wrong’ because it is distressing or unsafe. It can be hard to distinguish them at the time, but if you think your feelings of discomfort are primarily the result of nerves and your lack of experience, I strongly recommend forging ahead. You’d be surprised to learn how often people become experts ‘on the job’.

And to round out my Oprah-isms, here’s a metaphor. Growth is like training for a marathon: there will be pain, you might throw up on your shoes, but if you keep going you’ll eventually see results.

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

Throw mud at the wall and see what sticks

Another major ~life experience~ I went through that year was the Great Housing Disaster of ’19. The crazy stuff that went down during those five months will certainly be mined for creative projects in the future. If you want the statistics, I would have to say I attended twenty or thirty sharehouse interviews over four active months of looking. An additional month was completely eaten up by the ludicrous experience of finding a place, being asked to move in, struggling to get the real estate agents to answer my phone calls, shifting my stuff in, sleeping there for four nights… and receiving an email from the agents on a Tuesday night informing me that my application had been rejected. I wish I was exaggerating.

The whole experience was exhausting, demoralizing, and often made me wonder if I had been cast as the lead in a melodrama without my knowing. At least I got the chance to learn certain hard truths about the housing market, and became much more comfortable with the idea of speed dating in the process (because sharehouse speed dating is scarier!)

Fast forward to January/ February this year, and I found myself in the midst of a similar kind of search: looking for a permanent job after two months of casual and contract work. I applied for around thirty jobs on Seek, and had phone interviews for maybe two or three of them.

A particularly senseless and ugly side of the job market is the unreasonably high expectation of experience. I mostly applied for entry-level administration jobs as I had a few months of experience doing admin work for arts organisations. For these basic positions, companies would usually expect two-three years experience in a similar position. But surely if you had already suffered through two-three years of answering emails and making appointments, you would be trying to promote yourself instead of applying for positions that would earn you the same income or less, and wouldn’t present any kind of a challenge… And in the meantime, hordes of capable candidates in their twenties who only have part-time work experience as they were studying, are arbitrarily held back from jobs they could do in their sleep.

I can’t emphasise enough the tiring but wonderful quality of tenacity. You lose nothing by putting your name forward, and the more you do this, the greater your chances. It really is a case of throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Here are a few more boring but valuable tips I learnt during this time:

Always take pictures of an empty bedrom before you move in (to capture existing wear and tear).

Trust your gut. I usually knew within five minutes if things felt ‘off’ in a house interview, or if I would be comfortable living there.

Stand your ground. You have rights as a tenant, as an employee, as an individual who will be liable if you sign a contract. Asking for explicit confirmation or information on bonds, leases, bills, etc, etc, doesn’t make you paranoid. It makes you an adult who knows there will be legal consequences if agree to something without getting the full picture. 

Further to this point: don’t underestimate the power of a calmly factual email. Unfortunately there are certain personality types (commonly found in real estate agents and landlords, ahem) who will have no problem doing what’s in their best business interests without notifying you of your rights. Sometimes you can halt a potentially problematic situation in its tracks by documenting your queries and actions in an email chain. It can be tricky to come across as assertive and informed in emails without veering into combative or emotional. To avoid this, keep emails succinct and business-like, avoid watering down questions with the word ‘just’, and include the relevant details of the situation without a long narrative. 

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

I used this tactic to great effect when I was told a business I had worked at for nearly two years had no intention of supplying me with a written reference. During my time there I was polite and friendly with customers and punctual and reliable. I also witnessed and directly experienced the owners very poor communication with their employees, escalating on multiple occasions to verbal abuse. They had decided to dismiss me without a formal warning on the grounds of a very short list of ‘offences’, none of which were to do with my treatment of customers or dependability as an employee, or serious allegations of stealing.

The next day I received a reply from my former manager saying they didn’t have the authority to send me a reference. I responded that as the manager who had been in charge of hiring me in the first place, they did have the authority and would be able to send me a short email simply stating the length of time I had worked there, and that I had displayed good customer service skills (a glowing character reference was clearly off the table). I said if they weren’t going to do so I would have to lodge a formal complaint of unfair dismissal (something I knew I had a case for but had no intention of actually exhausting myself with). There was no way that I was going to accept two years of being a good employee at an objectively not-very-good job, had gone down the drain and would leave a massive gap in my employment history.

I got the reference.

You can’t fight your emotions and win

I suspect some people equate emotional maturity with a kind of impenetrable, zen-like emotional state where nothing can bother you. But that’s impossible! You’re not weak or undisciplined if something make you angry, upset, even jealous or insecure; in small amounts those are valuable human emotions which can teach you something. You can’t constantly police your emotions and thoughts, and neither should you. However you can control how you respond to them.

So really, I reckon the secret to sustained success is to remind yourself every day that you are human. I’ll leave you with the mental refrain I have been returning to over the last few crazy months: we do our best, with what we have.

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