Earlier this year, 3 good things happened in a row:
My first inclination upon hearing Good News #1 and #2 was to tell my husband, smile, and move on. It wasn’t until Good News #3—passing my theory test—that I went from happy, punching the air when reading the bit of paper in the concealed envelope, to having a full-blown cry. I tried to hold in the cry, but over the course of about 30 minutes feeling shitty, I let it all out. I had an immense feeling of loneliness and that all these things I achieved meant nothing. They weren’t important. I didn’t feel important; I didn’t feel valued or valuable because, apart from my husband, I never really told anyone, much less celebrated anything good that happened to me.
“What about opening my mind and heart? Or gaining knowledge and sharing that with the world? Isn’t that worth something?”
I grew up in a household that didn’t do celebrations. We didn’t do good luck cards, congratulations cards, meals out – nothing.
When I told my mum I got the highest SAT score in my class, she continued to water the garden. When I told my family I was part of the Gifted and Talented group at secondary school, they barely batted an eyelid. When I got an unconditional offer into the university I had dreamt of attending since I was about 11 years old, the discussion about what was on the TV ensued. When my book was published, my mother only bought a copy when I pretty much forced her (how can you not want to buy a copy of your child’s book?) As you can see, not only were things not celebrated – they were barely acknowledged. Even now, when I announce to my mum that I have good news, she’s waiting to hear me say ‘I’m pregnant.’ Which means anything that follows; being invited to 11 Downing Street, being on BBC radio, gaining new clients – none of these compare to the news she could have had.
I’ve never thought about the impact this ‘expectancy to be expecting’—as if my only value is to reproduce—had on me, until now. What about opening my mind and heart? Or gaining knowledge and sharing that with the world? Isn’t that worth something?
I had put all this down to lack of understanding on their part; ‘their world is just different to mine.’ With my mum not being born in this country, I convinced myself that she didn’t ‘get’ the importance of many of these achievements. Many years later, and countless personal and professional achievements under my belt, my family barely hears about anything. I don’t even believe they consider me successful and, as such, I tend to keep things worth celebrating to myself. Their measurements of success are and always have been very different from mine; if I was a millionaire, that’s when they’d say ‘ah, she’s made it.’ But then again, how we all measure success is personal to all of us.
I don’t paint this picture of my family to demonize them; they have fantastic qualities and my mum has been a cheerleader from afar from the start of my business. But, it does explain why, up until two months ago, I carried an ‘oh, it doesn’t really matter’ attitude to anything good that happened for me. Until, that is, the day I cried in the street from the theory test centre all the way to my house. On that, day, feeling particularly low and angry, I decided I had had enough of burying the good in my life. I decided that I would celebrate. Because surely if what we work hard for passes us by without so much as a toast or a pat on the back, then what incentive do we have to do more?
The irony in my lack of celebrating success is that, for ten years, I’ve been designing and studying videogames and the ways they satisfy our psychological needs. Games let us see how well we’re doing—almost instantly—which satisfies our needs for mastery, purpose, and relatedness. When our in-game achievements are acknowledged and celebrated, this makes us feel good. By contrast, if there’s a ‘bug’ in a game and we don’t get the points/badges/rewards we think we deserve, this can greatly upset us. I’ve often witnessed a fellow player throwing his/her controller to the ground, such is their dismay.
And yet, there I was: being a bug in my own game of life and refusing to celebrate the good.
“I’m a freaking genius Annie, thanks for asking.”
Of course, the instant gratification we have in games doesn’t reflect the reality of life. The majority of the time we have to wait days, weeks, or many months for feedback and rewards, whether in or outside of work. But if games celebrate our achievements to makes us feel good, then why shouldn’t we do it (and do it more) in real life where arguably it offers more value to our wellbeing?
I read recently on Twitter that women don’t self-promote as much as men. From there, Kristin Luck, an inspirational Market Research leader, tweeted ‘Have I told you yet today how amazing I am?’ and tagged another industry leader, Annie Pettit. Clearly indicating that the trend should be followed, Annie also tweeted and tagged me. She wrote ‘I too, am amazing’.
I responded ‘I’m a freaking genius Annie, thanks for asking.’ From there, not as many women as I would have liked continued the trend, despite being tagged. One of my colleagues, Dr. Elaine Cloutman-Green, pointed out that she would have liked to have commented, but held herself back. We need to stop doing that. We need to unleash and celebrate.
I self-promote on my Instagram page now and have done so ever since I got back from a one-month sabbatical in Bali, where a group of mindful, intelligent, creative women encouraged me to believe in myself more, and be ‘more present’ on social media. Now, on my Instagram account, each post is a mini-celebration of milestones in my continued journey as an entrepreneur, writer, and designer.
Life is too short not to celebrate. As well as the science of videogames to show us why feedback and celebration are so important to satisfying our psychological needs, there’s plenty of research to show why feedback and celebration in the real world are important to our mental health, continued success, and—when publicized correctly—establishes us as ‘winners.’ This helps us to align with other opportunities and like-minded people. AND (I’d add to that list) celebrating ourselves also shapes how we then collaborate, support and celebrate others around us.
Think about it: if you’re not one to really acknowledge or celebrate your own achievements then it is unlikely that celebrating others will be on your radar. Which is perhaps why my parents weren’t doing that for me; my grandparents were not ones to celebrate life in general.
” …isn’t life a series of exceptional moments to look back on and smile?”
I want to see more women celebrating women AND having their backs when the patriarchy tries to find a way in, whether physically, digitally or psychologically. I follow several accounts on social media that do just that (list below). Following these accounts lets me see how women are leveling up in the world. It’s also given me mental permission to talk about and celebrate my achievements (and those of others) both in the digital world and the real world.
In the digital world, I created a post about Portuguese translation and my new column. In the real world, my husband and I chose what many would consider a very special place to dine indeed; The Ivy in Norwich. We ate good food. There was a toast to my achievements. I drank a cocktail with a bit of candy-floss pegged to the side. While we marveled at the décor, I drank some of the best coffee I’d had in my life. It felt special.
Now, when I think about passing my driving theory test, a small but crucial emotional rollercoaster happens; I remember passing and feeling good, then the feeling of being very upset, but — the upset feeling is balanced by the happiness and novelty of that special night out with good food. It’s important to note that celebration doesn’t have to be consumerist. You could take time to go on an outdoors adventure, soak in a bath with candles, attend an exhibition – as long as it feels celebratory to you.
This has got me thinking about what celebration should be, and how we recognise when we’re in ‘celebration mode.’
In my view, whether alone or with others, if we’re celebrating, we should be in a different visual space, or make a space that is ‘ordinary’ more special. After all, isn’t that what bunting, banners, and balloons are for? Again, taking heed from videogames, every in-game celebration has some kind of different visual effect; you’re either in a different visual space (like achievements in Super Mario games) or the ‘ordinary’ space that you’re familiar with, now has a new visual element (like the sunshine beams in World of Warcraft when you level up).
This helps us break out from the ‘every day’ space to the ‘celebration space’ which helps to create feel-good memories, encourages us to be present in the moment, and gives us time to reflect on the value of the achievement. It helps the moment become experiential and memorable. In the words of Danielle Todd, London Chapter lead of WIRe, “…isn’t life a series of exceptional moments to look back on and smile?”
People can and should celebrate how they see fit, with one caveat: that the size of the celebration is proportionate to the achievement. While I’m sure the ‘every day is a reason to party!’ hedonists out there will disagree, I feel there is some scientific grounding in this advice, again, inspired by videogames.
Let’s imagine we complete the first level of a Sonic the Hedgehog video game but players receive the super-massive fanfare that is normally reserved for those who have completed the entire game. Not only will the achievement/celebration ratio feel disproportionate, but it also means that any future celebration won’t be as exciting or novel. This could mean players lose the incentive to continue playing.
So in life, if we buy ourselves an expensive gift or throw a party every time we simply show up at work, then not only we will become pretty broke pretty quickly, but the mental reward and value for celebrating a much bigger milestone diminishes.
On this thread of celebration, I’d like to go a step further. Everybody, no matter your career path, could benefit from creating a personal achievement orientated rèsumè – not for any employer, but just for you, which you could update annually or bi-annually. This ongoing document will make you see, in print, all you’ve done and help you when we see that dear old friend we all have: Imposter Syndrome.
Rèsumès are usually documents we access/add to/see only when we move jobs. For some of us, that’s once every few years. For others, it’s once every 10 years or more. This means we rarely get a glimpse of all we’ve done, which helps us to feel a sense of accomplishment. And note: rèsumè are usually reserved for professional achievements, not personal ones. Your own rèsumè can, and should, include both.
I’ve had a growing rèsumè of this type since I started my company. It’s 20 pages long. Invited to speak at a conference? It’s on the rèsumè. Interviewed on BBC Radio? It’s on there. Written a book? It’s on there. For other people their personal rèsumè might look different – did you get great feedback from a customer or colleague? Put it on the rèsumè. Gained a new client? Put it on the rèsumè. Cracked a problem that no one else could do? Put it on the rèsumè. What you’ll end up with is an ultimate feel-good document for yourself and readily available to adapt as you see fit, should you want to send it on.
Do you already have an ongoing personal and professional rèsumè like this? If so, how has it helped you, or not? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I hope this piece encourages more people to celebrate more often, and see the importance of it. With celebration in mind, I’d like to celebrate some achievements of people I know on here. In alphabetical order:
16 Instagram accounts celebrating (not always exclusively though!) women and women of colour