Richard Youle’s meteoric rise to become one of the most well-respected private equity lawyers in the City, despite leaving Newcastle University with a 2:2, is without doubt a brilliant rags to riches story.

But what really stood out for me is that although what Richard achieved is truly inspirational there are so many other ways of looking at success (btw – if the phrase sour grapes is screaming out at you then please read on!).

Some people who hear Richard’s story refer to the fact that his achievement was due to him securing his training contract over 20 years ago. If you’re one of those individuals, then let me share my career history with you because just like Richard I also entered law in the mid-1990s.

I’m the girl who was born in rural Bangladesh and grew up in Luton (13 of us in a 3-bedroomed terraced house); I couldn’t speak English until starting school; I enjoyed playing netball but, aged 9, I woke up one morning in agony and couldn’t walk; I eventually got diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis and needed help to carry out simple every day tasks such as eating and dressing; I had multiple operations including bilateral hip replacements just aged 14; I was the first in my family to go to university (despite having a very disruptive education, due to poor health, in a state comprehensive school); I broke my neck in my final year at uni but still managed to secure a training contract with Linklaters.

I’m willing to bet that most of you reading my blog will see this as a success story. Indeed, I thought so too. Back then, bagging a magic circle training contract was for me akin to winning an Olympic gold medal. And understandably, many of the aspiring lawyers I meet through my career coaching work are still striving towards the same goal. But the older and wiser version of me is now skipping to a different beat. Often, I find myself asking if succeeding in life is simply about excelling in your career? Surely, there have to be alternative meanings and to be frank whose definition matters most?

Fearing what ‘others might say’ or indeed being ‘viewed as a failure’ are recurring themes when I ask lawyers to discuss their reasons for not changing career direction even though deep down they know it will be for the best. This certainly resonates with me. When I decided to quit law and moved into legal journalism I suffered endless sleepless nights worrying about this very point. That’s because back in the day most of my contemporaries, including Richard, opted for the traditional career path linked to the conventional meaning of success adopted by far too many lawyers – partnership.

Thankfully, times are changing and there is now growing acceptance that success is no longer all about your CV (btw – if you don’t believe me just ask the likes of Arianna Huffington!). So now, outside of my working environment for instance, I’ve trained my brain to no longer react adversely to the negative reactions I encounter when telling others I’m self-employed (FYI most give me a patronising look, which screams “ah bless her – she’s incapable of getting a job because she’s in a wheelchair.”) or that I grew up in Luton. After all, I can’t change the fact that most people will inevitably see my wheelchair first. What I can change is my behaviour towards them, which I hope will encourage them to take a second look. And of course, I can can also change the way I feel about myself based on my achievements and future aspirations.

So what else have I learnt about success and what does it mean to me?

  1. Success comes in all shapes and sizes and extends well beyond your CV and if you don’t secure a magic circle, or indeed, City training contract you are NOT a failure. Take it from me – outside of the legal sector having Linklaters on my CV hardly ever impresses.
  2. Neither is it just about money, power, status or indeed good looks. I see so many people around me obsessed with this and are constantly yearning for more and unsurprisingly it makes them utterly miserable. Similarly, I know people who have it all and yet they are still suffering from the same anxieties that haunt most of us.
  3. Avoid focussing on the opinion of others or indeed searching for their approval. Peer pressure is also just as bad. So try not to succumb to it and forge your own path.
  4. Remember feeling pressure to succeed is often self-imposed. Success doesn’t always mean coming first in a race. Take Richard for example, he didn’t start his legal career in the City. He took the “B Route”.
  5. Success doesn’t make you more popular and vice versa. Growing up, I was obsessed with being popular (probably because as a disabled teenager I had very few friends) and genuinely believed success was a magnet for friends. But I soon realised the two are not necessarily connected and being popular isn’t a ticket to happiness.
  6. Instead of feeling awkward about discussing mistakes / mishaps / setback use close contacts as sounding boards and tell them about your concerns / issues. Contrary to what so many of us believe / fear, nobody is laughing when you’re down and most will be more than willing to offer practical or emotional support.
  7. Aim for the stars but don’t forget to ‘reality check’ your goals and targets.
  8. The road to success is not always a straight one. If you lose your path don’t panic. It can take more than one attempt to get it right. It took me three career changes before I felt ready to set up my consultancy, specialising in work I enjoy the most.
  9. Whether it’s forced or your choice – embrace change and don’t be afraid to experiment. Inevitably, some ideas won’t go to plan but learn from your mistakes. My biggest career blunder was joining a recruitment agency. It was an awful experience but I learnt so much from the role and, most importantly, it gave me the confidence to go it alone.
  10. My definition of success is not fixed. It is constantly evolving as my priorities change. However, the themes are the same. Being happy and healthy, having good work/life balance, having a good network of ‘genuine’ friends, spending time with my family – especially my nephews and nieces, giving back and trying to make a positive change to the lives of other disabled people.

By Husnara Begum, Associate Career Coach & Contributing Editor