Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Reconsidering Reality

The first result in Google Images for "success" is the picture above. It suggests an interesting meaning, that success is tantalizingly close, but never in grasp. You want it, but you don't even know what it looks like. Such is my current "existential crisis," in the aftermath of recent political changes and personal academic shortcomings. To get right into it, I found myself again questioning why I'm running myself through the gauntlet and ending up profoundly unhappy. What am I doing and why? What do I want?

Ultimately, I want to be happy. In terms of the simple pleasures that matter to me in the long term, I want to devote time to cultivating my aesthetic, my plants; a cat in a sunshine filled room; an art studio in the corner; I want to travel, to create and consume art, to be healthy, and not have to scrimp on self care; I want to do work that is meaningful to me, and perhaps ultimately make a noticeable difference in the world for the better. But lately, I have begun to despair that those things are no longer achievable, maybe due to insecurity about the job market. Should I aim a little lower? If I do, am I settling? Am I getting complacent? What does that even mean?

For most people, going to school in Berkeley is "success" in that traditional sense. Beyond that, I'm not so sure anymore. In terms of career, I have no desire to earn a million dollar salary, or become a politician, or own a business, or be a celebrity. "Success" feels a little different in the field of education — it means accepting very little recognition for weaving the background work that keeps schools running. But it's not very exciting or impressive to say, "I want to be a school district superintendent," when someone asks what you want to do with your life.

But that career IS what I want, so why am I worried about settling for it? The one thing that I vaguely wanted to "be when I grow up" was a teacher. This is best aligned with what I believe is a fulfilling life. I think I'd be immensely happy working with students as a school administrator. So why am I chasing a vague idea of accomplishment that doesn't even exist? Why do I think I'm settling when I don't know what is defined as settling?

Arguably, the position of Federal Secretary of Education is probably the highest "achievable" position, but two steps below that is "superintendent," and one step below that is "school principal." Have I somehow twisted "Achieving what I want" into "Settling" simply because there exists something that I know I cannot have? I can't bear the thought of being mediocre, yet realistically, there is very little difference between myself and any other person. Very few people are truly extraordinary, and in my chosen career path, there is next to no likelihood of ever achieving renown. How have I made my definition of "settling" something that is beyond most people's definition of success? Will I ever be satisfied?

Maybe this warped perception of reality goes back to my parents and somehow still wanting to win their approval. But I already know I'm never going to, so why am I still worried? Maybe I fear that I'm never going to be independent from them. At this point what I want most is autonomy, and when that doesn't seem realistic, I start to question my own choices. Above all, I want to live my life on my own terms, and not by anyone else's definition. I feel pressured to make something amazing out of my life, and I've internalized that pressure without knowing if that's what I want, to the point where trying to tear myself away from that yearning feels so wrong.

Everyone has a need for validation to some degree. In terms of my relationship to my parents, it is feasible for me to surpass a threshold of material success that quantifiably exceeds their standards, thus getting that pressure off of my back. But for the rest of it, I feel like I'm running around in circles chasing the idea of "success," when "success" doesn't exist.

Personal satisfaction, however, does. When life makes you run around in circles, you won't necessarily get to a better place, but you can build your personal endurance and physical fitness. Settling is stopping, while success is continuing to move forward. For me, settling means simply subsisting and being selfish, giving up on my aspirations to make the world a better place. As long as I keep moving forward and go for my goals, I will be okay. ◊

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