On paper, my former life seemed so glamorous: global travel, box seats at a David Beckham game, dining in a castle in Spain, accumulating one million Qantas points. But deep down, I was struggling. As an executive for Fortune 100 tech companies in my early-30s, I had arrived — or so it seemed. The lifestyle I had in Sydney was all I had ever wanted as a child growing up on my mum’s monthly wage of $5 in China.
Yet, it came at a cost.
I worked 70-80 hours a week. I regularly put in a second shift after I had put my kids to bed. I worked 14 hours a day, beyond midnight, sometimes attending global conference calls at 2am.
My jobs required me to travel across the Asia Pacific region, but I would compress my schedule so I could be home as fast as possible. And I would do all I could to do the school drop-offs and pick-ups, rescheduling meetings so I could be in the school hall for my daughters to see my face when they won a prize.
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But no matter how hard I tried, I constantly felt I was failing — from being in a foreign city airport at 2am on my birthday, to singing a lullaby to my three-year-old on the phone in another country, to buying toys in every country to offset my guilt.
Once, my eldest daughter woke up and said: “Yay, mummy, I finally found you!” She thought it was a dream, so she went back to sleep — but I had actually just arrived home early after another trip.
From the outside, I was winning. But on the inside, I felt a deep sense of disconnect. I was fighting to stay above water, struggling beneath the weight of my responsibilities. I had let life become a monotone existence. There was no more joy and being, there was only doing and existing.
Is the cost of success worth it?
This question brings me to the moment I was rushed into an emergency operation. My mind was blank, but I do remember asking myself: ‘Is this it?’
All the things I had cared so much about felt silly and meaningless. I would have traded anything to live, to be with my children, to feel healthy.
After surgery, I dived into the science of peak performance and positive psychology, I realised that many traditional ways of succeeding work in the short term, derailing our performance and happiness in the long term. In other words, many people are high achievers but not high performers.
It’s not whether the cost of success is worth it. It’s more a question of whether the way we go about achieving is worth it.
How do we shift to a healthier perspective?
Many people place a huge emphasis on external success, believing it will give us happiness, yet we overlook so much of what makes a good life. To feel alive, we need to feel our everyday existence is enjoyable and meaningful. Like a fuel tank, our energy must be topped up or they will run out.
Slowing down, taking care of ourselves, getting back to living, not just doing — these are key to a flourishing, productive life. Ideas come from being idle and innovation comes from curiosity. When we stop doing all the time, the world becomes wondrous again.
I continued my corporate career for many more years. The biggest shift I made was to focus on living every day in a more conscious, reflective and energised way, instead of hurriedly marching towards the next destination. It took a lot of effort to change my unhealthy habits and learn a more optimal way to work and live, but I realised being successful while merely existing is not real success.
Sema Musson, co-author of Being Brave, eloquently captures this: “It’s easy to get caught up in the race. Before you know it, life is running away, you are tired and unfit. Sure, you have a bigger house and nicer cars, but are you a better you? I’m grateful I realised this and started to take steps to reverse the trend. These changes created space in my life for other meaningful things. I now feel happier, healthier and stronger.”
We all want to succeed, but it doesn’t have to cost our happiness and wellbeing. The key is to refine the way we achieve.
So, ask yourself: ‘If you had one year to live, how would you work and live differently?’