What Does Success Look Like?

How Paris Hilton's documentary is giving me new perspective on what success looks like.

Heads-up: This issue covers sensitive topics about trauma. There are also spoilers of the documentary This is Paris.

What does success look like? How do you define it? Is it when you’ve made a certain amount of money? Is success dependent on your current state (i.e. if you made $X last month, but made $0 this month, are you still successful?)? Is success related to your achievements? Awards? Number of papers you published? Number of jobs you closed? What does enough and done look like?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what success means to me ever since I watched the documentary This is Paris on YouTube. As someone who has no special attachment to Paris Hilton, I watched the documentary with an open mind. I was surprised at how the film crew got her to open up about her vulnerabilities, it requires a lot of trust for that to happen. I acknowledge that the documentary might have biases and doesn't present the whole story around her life. Given this, I am only going to write about what I learned just based on the documentary.

In the film, Paris reveals that has severe insomnia and nightmares about the time when she was kidnapped during her sleep as a teenager. At the time, she was living in her parent's home. It turns out that her parents was sending her to institutions to correct her reckless behaviour. These are legal institutions that parents pay a lot of money for (some take huge loans), in order to help them deal with their troubled children. As I was watched the film, I started to realize that her success was a reflection of how she coped with trauma.

During her time at one of the institutions, she coped by fantasizing about her future. She imagined how she would become successful so that no one could control her and put her through that traumatic experience ever again. She deals with her trauma by constantly working to amass power and wealth. To Paris, having money and power is how she can gain control of her life. As a teen, she was powerless when her parents sent her to these correctional institutions.

Despite being so different from Paris’ circumstances, I could relate to her. Recently, I’ve been working very hard, to the point where I think it’s becoming a problem. It almost feels like an addiction. The creative life is extremely demanding, there’s always more things to do and make. Ideas are being generated faster than I can execute on them. As soon as I am done with one idea, I have 100’s more lined up ready to go. There’s a lot of validation from working, I feel good and valued. I’ve once been asked how to stay motivated. My answer at the time was that I was driven by a goal and I had a desire to create something new. After watching the documentary, I sometimes can’t help but wonder if I am motivated to use work as a coping mechanism.

From a young age, there was a lot of tension in my parent's marriage. Ever since my parents separated, I looked for ways to distract myself from the void at home. I played a lot of Neopets and I obsessed over games. Games allowed me to escape my circumstances. As an adult, this distraction translated to work. Contrary to games, someone staying up late to work is celebrated and looked up to. It's viewed as good work ethic and reflects positively on your character.

I watched videos of a therapist reacting to the documentary and he explains how money can be a distraction from trauma:

…the other thing that money provides is a distraction, it’s a game that we play, particularly once you pass a certain threshold…how do I game this system so that I can get a little bit of self-esteem…

I've started to wonder how many people in our society who have been labeled as successful, are using success as a way to cope with something. I'm sure it doesn't apply to everyone, but it probably applies to more people than we expect. I am still working through what success looks like. It’s very hard to define and it’s constantly changing as I hit different milestones in my life. I’ve always thought I’d be successful if I made a certain amount of money, or if I receive a certain type of recognition. Looking at Paris, she doesn’t look happy despite being so ‘successful’ and having it all. The film is making me think about this topic a lot more. I still have more reflecting to do before I find my answer.

If you plan to watch the documentary, or already have, I’d recommend this series of a therapist reacting to it (by Psychology in Seattle). His commentary is thorough and empathetic, and he keeps an open mind throughout the film.

About Jane

I am an independent data visualization designer based in Toronto, Canada. To see my latest work, check out my website.

Ever since I became an independent designer in 2019, I’ve had many insights about life, work, data visualization, design, and creativity. I have been documenting these insights as much as I can through various mediums. In 2020, I decided to start a newsletter where I can put all these insights in one place. This newsletter is meant for people who want to learn more about what it’s like to be an independent data visualization designer.