I should make more money by now.
I should own a house by now.
I should be married by now.
I should have a kid by now.
I should be farther along in my career by now.
I should even know what I want to do as a career by now.
The should word is so sneaky. It’s like the little Hamburglar from McDonald’s. Really cute and innocent on the outside so you invite him in to play for a little while. Next thing you know he’s stolen all your food and you’re hungry and alone.
At least, that’s how I feel about the word should.
I entertain him for a second and he robs my joy, just snatches it right out from underneath me.
And it would be easy to check Facebook or leave a coffee conversation with a friend and feel all the pangs of comparison and jealousy flood over me as I witness their shiny clean life unfold. But to be quite honest, my real struggle isn’t comparing myself to others.
It’s comparing myself to myself.
For some reason I was under the assumption that at this point in my life I would’ve figured it all out by now. I would be successful, whatever that meant. I don’t know how you define success, but my definition is pretty narrow.
I think at some point I gathered enough information from the movies, from my suburban lifestyle, and from my hopeless romantic imagination and I plotted out exactly what my life would look like. I planned, charted, dreamed, and imagined my way through life. As a kid my vivid imagination was all I needed to get me through a long and boring road trip. As an adult I would venture to say the same is true.
But then I looked around and realized I missed the mark. I’ve disappointed myself. I’m not successful which must therefore mean I’m a failure.
My expectations out of life robbed my enjoyment out of life.
As a result, I decided to stop trying to be successful because it just makes me feel like a failure. I don’t mean to be a pessimistic and squash all my future hopes and dreams. I’m also not trying to be apathetic and complacent and just aimlessly wander around in life like a complete nihilist.
Success won’t define you.
It’s so fleeting if you ever do catch it. But odds are, you never will. There will always be someone who’s better, a dream that’s bigger, a job that’s nicer.
If you want to be a writer you’ll think, “When I just get published here, or when I finally land a book deal, then I’ll feel like a writer.”
Or if you want to own a business you’ll think, “If I can just land this one account, or finally get that last investor, then I’ll feel like a business owner.”
But it turns out no amount of publications, shares, likes, readers, agents, contracts, deals, accounts, or anything will ever make you feel like what you’re going to be. Those moments will come and go. You’ll taste success for a minute but the thrill of the accomplishment will leave you like an addict panting for more. Or the stock you put in the expectations of the achievement will leave you feeling empty and worthless.
Success isn’t a formula.
If we sit in our little corner of the world and just grind out our work and hustle really hard then we’ll definitely get somewhere. We’ll surely make progress. But it’s not a formula. Everyone arrives where they’re going differently. Just pick up any two biographies at a bookstore.
You can grind it out and hustle in your little corner of the world. You can follow all the right steps. You can know all the right people, take all the right classes, get all the right internships and still never feel as though you’ve arrived.
You might do all the exact same things as your hero or your best friend and still get a completely different outcome. Success isn’t A+B guarantees C. In fact, chasing success only guarantees a lot of frustration. So let’s just call it F for failure.
There are better things to aspire to than successful.
Is success really the best thing to aspire to? Couldn't we focus on being more generous, more loving, more kind, more thoughtful? Just a thought. I don't know.
Truth be told it’s not hard to be successful. Plenty of people do it. Just take a look at Donald Trump. Whether you think he’s a tragedy or a hero we can all agree he’s been successful in some way or another. He has more money, power, and influence than all of us combined.
But he’s proof that you can be a pretty horrible person and still be successful.
There is another way though. There’s another way to do life and chase after something bigger than success.
Instead of chasing a life full of success we could chase a life full of story.
A good story starts with a pretty broken and messed up character who wants something. As that character chases what he or she wants, she’ll experience some trials and suffering along the way that threaten the goal. If the character has a redemptive and positive view of the suffering she endures then she’s guaranteed to experience transformation in the end. She will have lived a good story. She and everyone around her will have changed for the better, even if just a little bit.
I guess what I’m saying is I want to stop trying so damn hard to be successful. It’s not getting me anywhere and it’s certainly not making me a better person. In fact, it’s making me a worse person because it’s creating room for comparison and shame.
Instead, I want to try really hard to live a good story. I want to live a purposeful life with clear intentions rather than lofty goals and unmet expectations. I want to filter my suffering through a redemptive lens and I want my character to grow.
Maybe all of those things sound selfish, but they’re not as selfish as wanting to be successful. We’ve got to pick our battles here.
I choose story over success.
What story do you want to live? What plotline in your life needs developing? What goals do you maybe need to set aside in order to focus on the people and plot around you?