Success. What is it?
If you’re like me, those four words just sent you into a complete spin. I sat here for a full five minutes, staring just above my laptop screen at the blank wall, having an existential crisis. If you’re also like me in that you’re: 1. Non-male, 2. Non-white, 3. Non-heterosexual, or 4. Not a Boomer named Mark with 8K connections on LinkedIn, then it’s likely you haven’t seen very many “success” stories you can relate to, either. Traditional narratives go like this: we’re born; we’re educated; we “work hard” in a “meritocracy”; and then we reach some final, unknowable marker of success. But it’s becoming clearer that many of us don’t want a picket fence, or 2.5 kids, or to be Jeff Bezos. It’s also becoming clearer that this version of success isn’t available to most of us. So, what does success look like for, well, everyone else?
That’s the question for Elina Ashimbayeva, who’s recently finished her post-graduate Diploma in Human Rights at UoA. For two and a half years, Elina has been building Storyo, a digital platform that aims to “contribute to a culture shift that improves societal attitudes, behaviours, narratives of success and values of representations.”
Elina and her team of volunteers have achieved an impressive list of interviewees in their short time, spanning all genders, ethnicities and professions, including people in tech, arts, activism and social work—the list continues.
Craccum sat down with co-founder Elina to have a crack at the question many of us grapple with: what is success, and what can it look like?
N: Hi Elina! Thanks for speaking with me today.
E: Hi Naomii!
N: Firstly, could you tell me a little about the sorts of “success” stories you saw at University?
E: I was an international student when I came to New Zealand [so] I remember going to all the student events—whether those were organised by the faculty or by other students—[where] you have panels of speakers or invite one industry specialist, or professional.
A lot of the people invited, I felt, [represented] very capitalist ideas of success, so executives, board members, CEO of blah blah blah, or the CFO of Fonterra, or whatever. I just don’t relate to that idea of success. First of all, you’re 19, you’re studying your degree. And then people come in who are like, [around] 50, and they talk about their path. I remember someone said ‘back in my day, I did my PhD and my medical degree in, like, five years.’ That just doesn’t relate to experiences now!
N: Ha, yeah, or it’s like, ‘back in my day we could all afford a house after three years, just work harder! Too much avocado toast, I tell ya!”
E: *laughter*, yeah, exactly, exactly!
It’s like, I appreciated their stories still, but it just felt like I couldn’t see myself in those people. I couldn’t relate. When you’re that age and you’re at uni, and you’re trying to figure out what to do afterwards, it’s like: what is life?! And [you’re] constantly being told by society that you’ll succeed if you become a CEO of something. It felt like, ‘Cool. I’ll graduate and work really hard to be useful and be valuable and worthy.
But once I graduated, and all this existential crisis started, after a few years I looked around and [saw] my friends who were social workers or teachers or work in tech or whatever. They might not be founders, or board members or execs or whatever, but they’re amazing.
I wish [there were] more people saying they don’t know what they’re doing… like maybe they’re fifty but they’re still a bit lost. That’s the reality for most people! Or they may be a CEO, but they’re struggling because it’s hard. The stories that are a bit more real.
N: So, what do you see as problematic about traditional “success” stories?
E: I hadn’t questioned what I’d absorbed passively about success until last year. The idea that you’re only successful if you do this, you’re worthy if you do that. Those ideas didn’t serve me anymore.
[For example], it’s really easy to measure numbers, and I get caught in them myself. It’s easy to look at the numbers and say [we’ve gone] from there to here. I went from earning 40K to 450K, or, I went from volunteering at an NGO to being on five NGO boards. That model of linear progression, as if you have to get somewhere to then be successful, I think doesn’t serve us as humans. I believe that even people who do very much follow that idea of capitalist progression aren’t really fulfilled. You know, oh I want a bigger house, or I’m saving up for this car. There’s infinite comparison. So, how do we define success, or value, or worth on a personal level? [I believe] I have value just because I am.
[One of my interviewees]… said, [on being marginalised as a Pasifika, Māori woman] “just existing is proof that I’m worthy.” It’s such a beautiful thing, easier said than believed.
With Storyo, I’m learning. I say all these things and then before bed I’ll think ugh I’m a piece of shit, I haven’t saved lives today or whatever. And then I think wait, the whole thing you’re trying to do—listening to stories—that’s how everyone feels. We absorb these ideas of success from society. Screw them, we don’t need them anymore.
N: How did Storyo start?
E: I studied biomedical sciences. I love science, but I realised [things about the] team dynamics, the culture, the representation, the very white male academic privilege and power, all of that stuff, and I realised there were more things at play. So, I worked with government and tech sectors, everywhere, to see how we can show up better.
My partner, [Steven], was doing interviews for his business, and he said if it weren’t for [me] I wouldn’t have realised that most places [he] exists in are also very white, very male. He suggested just interviewing the people around us. We tried interviewing a few of our friends. I just got so into it because I would love to ask everyone about their values, about their contribution.
We wanted to focus on gender diversity first. We started, and I told myself I was going to give myself six months before I even think about: is this impactful? What are the numbers? What are the metrics?—I didn’t want to get bogged down with it. I gave myself six months, and it was wonderful. I reached out to friends and friends of friends and we did written questions.
Most people said in the beginning that they didn’t think they were worth being interviewed. For me, it was funny but sad. It’s deeply funny because it’s like: I’m just your friend, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m just writing this blog thing. But sad because like, wow, how many people have been asked who were CEO, or a white male, or on a panel—they wouldn’t even blink twice.
After six months, I said okay, six more months. It’s been a thing for me, when you’re building something it’s really hard to plan. I’m strong on my values and vision, but I’m just kind of trusting that the next step will come. Whatever happens happens, which is kind of scary sometimes, but it’s nice.
There was no particular plan. Sometimes you’ll see like a 12 year old Tiktoker who blogs about, I don’t know, gaming, that is like frigging massive and makes a million dollars from merch—I thought, I just won’t compare. I’m going to post and do this. When I hear the stories, they change me inside. I think if at least one other person feels the same, what an amazing thing.
N: Finally, what do you want to see Storyo do?
E: For me, it’s about: how do we listen when it comes to equity, diversity and inclusion? It’s a hard topic. Very divisive. If you’ve never thought about [the topic], it may be hard to step into that space. So, I think: let’s all be courageous together. You know? The work was needed yesterday. So, how do we courageously take a step forward to learn about others’ experiences? That’s how I see Storyo.