Squirrel-on-Toast … or Why it’s Time to Redefine Success

I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling afraid about money – or rather, feeling afraid about having no money.

It started when I was at university. Most of the students I knew came from wealthy families; some had even been given credit cards by their parents so they’d never go short. I, on the other hand, had no wealthy family to fall back on. All I had was a student grant, whatever money I could earn during the summer holidays and an ever-increasing over-draft. Towards the end of my second year I can remember being so broke I could only afford to eat toast for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I hated living like this.

When I got a job in a video store during the summer holiday I was so relieved to start paying off my debt I decided to drop out.

I dropped out of uni because I was so scared of being broke.

Then a couple of years later, the same fear came back to haunt me and I decided to not go travelling because I was scared of coming back with nothing and to nothing. Even though I didn’t have a degree, I ended up blagging my way into a graduate job and earning a salary that blew all of my fears out of the water. But then I got pregnant. And then a few years later, I became a single mum – and my fears around money returned with a vengeance. Now, I didn’t just have me to worry about, I had a little person dependant on me too.

It doesn’t help that we’re encouraged by our consumerist society to acquire and spend money to a dizzying degree. Magazines shame us into spending a small fortune on lotions and potions and handbags and clothes that will magically turn us into photo-shopped images of perfection.

So-called success is measured in solely numbers – of followers and likes and dollars and pounds. This striving for money and status and success can create a very special kind of insanity.

I’m now going to share with you a cautionary tale to demonstrate my point.

The tale is called Squirrel-On-Toast-Gate.

And it’s a truly terrible tale.

Several years ago, when I’d just written my first novel for young adults, and I’d yet to embark upon my spiritual quest, I was invited to a business lunch with the head honcho from a major publishing house. I was invited in my role as an editorial consultant but all I could think about was what an excellent opportunity this was for me as a fledgling YA author.

This is your chance to make a good impression, I told myself. Your chance to make a LASTING impression, so that if you ever end up pitching a book to her she’ll remember you. And if she remembers you she might offer you a book deal and then you might earn enough money to avoid you and your child becoming poverty-stricken and destitute.

My editorial colleague and I arrived at the restaurant half an hour early and the Publishing Head Honcho and her colleague arrived half an hour late. This created a window of an hour where all my colleague and I could do was drink wine – on an empty stomach – and study the menu. And that’s when I saw the words ‘SQUIRREL PATÉ’ written on the specials board.

Oh my God, that’s gross, was my first thought. But then a lethal combination of wine + empty stomach + desperate desire to make a lasting impression to avoid abject poverty = one of the worst career decisions I have ever made.

If you order the squirrel paté she’ll definitely remember you, my effed up logic went. So, Publishing Head Honcho arrived and the waiter came to take our orders. Our orders for starters went something like this:

‘Soup of the day, please.’

‘Garlic mushrooms, please.’

‘I’ll have soup of the day too, please.’

And finally, from me: ‘Could I have the squirrel paté?’

Cue horrified gasps from the rest of the table, especially from Publishing Head Honcho. But it was too late. My order was made. I glugged back some more wine for Dutch courage, painfully aware that I’d also started slurring my words – so now I wasn’t just Squirrel Eating Psycho, I was Drunken Squirrel Eating Psycho. The starters arrived. Everyone else’s looked delicious. Mine, on the other hand…

I stared down at the plate in front of me; at the grey paté, full of huge, ragged lumps of squirrel. My stomach churned as I thought of how my son and I used to feed the squirrels in the park. What would he say if he could see me now? What would he think had become of me? I took another large swig from my glass and attempted my first mouthful. It was disgusting. It turns out that squirrels might look cute but they taste horrible. But what could I do? I’d committed to the squirrel paté, I had to see it through to the bitter (literally, so bitter) end. Slowly but surely, I choked my starter down, aided by a large gulp of wine with every putrid mouthful. Throughout it all, Publishing Head Honcho looked at me with an expression of unadulterated horror. Oh, I’d made a lasting impression all right – she’d forever remember me as the drunken psycho who ate cute woodland creatures on toast!

The editorial colleague I’d come to the lunch with was almost beside himself on the tube back to our office. ‘I can’t believe you ate squirrel!’ he shrieked, in between fits of laughter – causing the entire carriage to stare at me with contempt. There was no way he was going to let me forget about this. The squirrel wasn’t either – it kept repeating on me every five minutes, filling my mouth with the pungent memory, haunting me from beyond its stomach-y grave.

This terrible tale is just one example of how we can let our grasping for success get the better of us and cloud our judgement.

I ended up giving up hope I’d get a traditional book deal for my first young adult novel and self-published it instead. I’d written the book to try and help teens who might be going through the issues covered in the book, so I decided to give away the e-book for free.

Interestingly, it was when I abandoned all grasping for the traditional definition of success that I ended up having the biggest success of my career – winning a national book award for my self published novel and a new, four-book publishing deal.

But I never forgot the lesson squirrel-on-toast-gate taught me. Writing for the love of it and to try and help other people is now all I strive for and magically, the rest seems to take care of itself.

You can find out more about how redefining success in this way can change everything for the better in my new book, Something More…a Spiritual Misfit’s Search for Meaning, which is out now and available here.



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