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Returning to Oxford University 20 Years on Prompts the Question: Is Achievement Overrated?

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At a reunion dinner at my Oxford University college a few weeks ago, a wall display listing alumni who'd gone on to achieve great things caught my eye.

I hadn't been back to St Anne's for two decades and had avoided mailing lists. So I'd never realised some of the authors, journalists and broadcasters I most admired had slept in the same shoebox rooms and drunk in the same windowless college bar years before me.

The name I spotted first was Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones's Diary. I was in the middle of re-reading her novel at the time - seeking inspiration for my women's blog and future book - and had been marvelling at her wit and powers of observation.

Other alumni on the list were Jackie Ashley, Zoë Heller, Martha Kearney, Libby Purves and Tina Brown, all well-known, successful journalists, writers or broadcasters.

I guess my name could have been there too. I'd been a correspondent for Reuters and had travelled with British prime ministers. I'd had stories published in the Guardian, Time magazine and the Daily Mail.

But as I read down the list and pondered my own relationship with success, I couldn't help thinking there was something missing.

Most of those on the 'wall of fame' had achieved notoriety, won awards or had made it into the public eye. But, I asked myself, what about the other forms of achievement?

What about those who'd found happiness, inner peace and fulfilment without a best-selling novel or a Radio 4 show? Or those who'd built a stable marriage, a loving home for their offspring, or who'd given up work to nurse ailing parents, care for children or travel the world? Weren't they to be celebrated too?

And for those on the list, I wondered if achievement had brought them happiness? Had it been enough or were they still striving? Did they feel settled, secure and loved or had they prioritised career over contentment and ended up disillusioned?

Of course, it's unlikely Oxford University would broadcast the happiness of its alumni over their achievements or delve into their private lives, and the display wasn't big enough to feature everyone's name. And while David Cameron thinks we can measure happiness - he's asked The Office of National Statistics to come up with a well-being index - many have scoffed at the idea.

Nor can it be wrong to strive, to aim high or to achieve great things. Where would we be without our ambitions, determination and drive, or without our leaders, scientists and writers? We'd still be wondering how to fly or how to cure diseases that used to kill us if it weren't for vision, genius, determination and discipline, and the institutions that foster those qualities.

So maybe the real question is have we got the balance right? Are some of us achieving at great cost to ourselves or to those around us? Will we write that best-selling novel or make groundbreaking discoveries in science or medicine but grow lonely and miserable in the process?

I ask these questions because of my own experience, although my professional achievements are more modest than those on the St Anne's 'wall of fame'.

Achieving things because we think we're supposed to or it's expected of us, or because we're driven by insecurity or a compulsion to be seen doesn't bring happiness. We might get what we always thought we wanted - be that public acclaim, an OBE or a best-seller - but we'll feel just as empty as when we started and wonder why we'd tried so hard and sacrificed so much.

Or perhaps we'll realise we never really knew what we wanted because we never knew who we were. We'd lost sight of ourselves as we chased someone else's dream, or we'd tried to mask our deep insecurities with external accolades, while worrying one day we'd get found out.

This, at least in part, was the case for me. My achievements came at a cost, to my happiness, my health and my relationships. I used crutches - primarily excess food - to blot out my insecurities and quell my panic at getting things wrong. And the achievements didn't fill me on the inside, as I'd hoped they would. That, I discovered, is an inside job.

With that in mind, my thoughts turn to those who'll follow in my footsteps to Oxford or who'll go to Cambridge, Rada, The Royal College of Art or another great institution.

Are they achieving for the right reasons or because it's expected of them? Are they pursuing their dreams or someone else's? Is their self-esteem grounded in who they are and not in what they accomplish? And if as parents, teachers, youth workers or counsellors, we're encouraging young people to aim high and to rise above their station, are we giving them the emotional support they need?

My return to Oxford reminded me of the privilege of studying there, the friendships, the sports, the picnics and the punting. But I was also reminded of my binge eating and drinking, my low self-esteem and my painful self-consciousness. I'd felt less than my fellow students, physically, intellectually and financially. In a way, I was lucky. I'd found a crutch - food - to get by. For others, their feelings of inadequacy can be too much to bear.

So, of course it's right to strive to be our best or to encourage others to do the same. But we must be mindful of the cost and build self-esteem from the inside, not the outside. And we must learn to celebrate happiness, inner peace, joy and contentment and not just professional achievement.

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