05 May My Proudest Accomplishment–An Analysis Of What Makes Us Proud
Achievement is an Unfulfilling and Fleeting Moment
Recently, I finished the first draft of my first novel. It was 216 single-spaced pages and approximately 130,000 words (rounded the nearest multiple of 130,000), and it took seven months of consistent effort to finish, from late August to April 3. Despite the fact that it is objectively bad, there is a very high chance it will never get published, and probably no one except me will ever read it front to back, it is, without a doubt, my proudest accomplishment. In the months leading up to me finishing this first draft, I tried to imagine how euphoric I would feel typing in those last words–I imagined dopamine rushing through my body filling me with a purely orgasmic feeling as everything in the universe finally fell into place. When I finished my novel, I felt pure relief…for thirty seconds.
The first thing I did after typing in those last words was take a shit, and to be completely honest, that shit was unassuming in all the best ways. I felt overwhelmingly normal. After I finished releasing my bowels, I started the draft for another blog post, read, hit the gym, and came home for a family dinner. My big celebration for the day was a Chick-fil-A strawberry milkshake. I did everything I would normally do in a day. Nothing changed the next day either, except for the fact that I took a break from writing my novel. I woke up, meditated, ate Oikos Triple Zero vanilla yogurt, and continued writing my next blog post. The often sought-after euphoria of achievement had quickly brushed by kissing me on the cheek and disappeared, leaving a faint wisp of the feeling we all chase.
Despite not feeling ever-lasting euphoria, I am truly proud of myself for finishing this first draft. Thinking about it brings a smile to my face, and in my chest, I can feel a small voice whisper with a grin, “I did that.” Pride and happiness are there, but after the initial excitement and joy of achievement, I often find a certain emptiness. This didn’t just happen for my novel. It happened when I got into Stanford, when I saw my TEDxTalk reach a million views, and when I finished my marathon. In the moment, I felt pure exhilaration, but months later, I feel myself reaching out for more. There’s a tacit promise that society makes that once you achieve great things, then you’ll be happy. Society promises that the people at the top–the champions, the billionaires, the famous people–are happy because of their position at the top, so when I achieve things, sometimes I find myself grasping for a feeling that isn’t there. I try to cash in my achievement for a long-lasting and deep feeling of joy, but my hands find nothing but a wisp of smoke. As I look back on my achievements, the memories manage to bring a smile to my face and the thought “That was cool,” but it pales in comparison to what I’ve been promised.
Pride is Found Through Work and Not Results
Part of the reason I struggle to find pride in some of my accomplishments is that a lot of the time, the “accomplishment” is deeply entangled with luck. For example, I find it hard to be proud of the fact that I got into Stanford sometimes. While I do believe that I “deserved” to get into Stanford, I know that countless people “deserved” to get into Stanford but didn’t. At the end of the day, I know that getting into Stanford wasn’t something that was up to me, and feeling pride in something that you can’t control never felt satisfying to me. This highlights the key problem with the way society understands pride and fulfillment. Society values results and accolades over effort as the metric for pride and fulfillment, and that idea grabs people by their hearts and drags them through joyless lives as they chase after empty moments. Anyone would agree that feeling pride in the natural color of your hair, your height, the weather, or winning the lottery would be ridiculous because those things aren’t something that anyone can control. The thing about most “achievements” is that, for the most part, people don’t have control over whether or not they achieve something.
For example, students really cannot control whether or not they get an A on a test. Nothing a student does (outside of cheating) can guarantee them the grades they want. The only thing that a student can control is how well they have studied and prepared for a test, yet in school, we idolize the kids who manage to fly by without putting any real effort into getting straight A’s. Meanwhile, kids who studied their asses off, developed disciplined schedules, and took meticulous notes were pushed to the side and quietly told to be better. As a kid who was lucky enough to have a brain that was inclined towards doing well at school, I know for a fact that I put less effort and work in than some of the other kids in my grade (this is not to say that I put in no effort), yet come test time, I flew through tests that others struggled to get a B on. I have tasted the sweet nectar of validation that comes with the feeling of scoring highly on a test that I barely studied for. The thing that no one ever told me growing up is that the nectar is poisonous and addicting.
The problem with idolizing results over work is that people begin placing their confidence and self-worth on things that they have no control over. It creates powerful images of people that shatter with the smallest gust of adversity. If you are the best at something or just the best in the room, you will feel amazing about yourself, but your value will always be reliant on the opinions of others. To overcome this, we have to rewire our brains to tell ourselves that pride, self-worth, and fulfillment come through the daily efforts we put into bettering ourselves, not through achievements.
“You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work…without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.” -Bhagavad Gita
I was lucky enough to hear this quote really early in my gap year, just as I had started writing my novel, and it is the only thing that has managed to get me to finish my novel. Countless times through the process of writing, intrusive thoughts flooded my mind: “Your writing is horrible,”, “No one is ever going to read this garbage,”, “This book is never going to get published, so what’s the point of even trying to write it.” The idea that things only have value because of the material success they bring is deeply ingrained in my mind. Those thoughts come to me as naturally as breathing. Why write a novel if it won’t get published? Why study if you don’t think you can get an A? Why ask out that girl if you think she’ll say no? If I never stopped thinking like this, I don’t think I ever would have gotten past page twenty of my novel.
When those thoughts came screaming into the forefront of my mind, demanding my attention, I forced myself to take a deep breath and acknowledge that they were there. The full weight of the worthlessness of my efforts felt rendered me inert. In those moments, I could only remind myself that I could not control whether or not my book ever gets published. Hell, I couldn’t even control whether or not my writing was good. The only thing I was capable of doing was sitting down and trying my best to write 1,000 words, so that is what I did, for seven months. As I repeatedly told myself this, the daily effort of writing became a fulfilling win in and of itself. Finishing the novel was no longer a goal of mine–the only thing that I worried about was sitting down every day to write for an hour. Before I knew it, I looked up from my keyboard and saw that the finish line was a foot away.
Objective Prestige Is Not the Key to Fulfillment
Looking back at some of my achievements, I found that the achievements that mean the most to me are not always the things that are the most awe-inspiring or prestigious. A lot of my proudest moments are also my least impressive accomplishments. If you listed my accomplishments on paper, I am sure that the accomplishments that would stand out are getting into Stanford, my TedxTalk that miraculously garnered over a million views, or maybe completing a marathon my junior year of high school (noticed how I did not say “running a marathon”). I already touched on Stanford, but looking at the other two, a clear pattern emerges in my mind that stops me from feeling as proud for these two things as I do for smaller accomplishments.
When people find out about my TEDx talk, they tend to be really surprised and congratulate me. I don’t want to diminish how much I appreciate it when people tell me that; however, as much as I thought the experience of giving that talk was cool, looking back it really never took too much work from me. In total, the process of writing my speech, refining my speech, and memorizing my speech, probably took no more than twenty to thirty hours of my personal time. Watching the video back, I wince at the moments where I stumble with my words on stage, “Her golden er- her golden hair…” Unbeknownst to the audience, I wasn’t surprised that I stumbled. I hadn’t started trying to memorize my speech until the night before. Like many of the other responsibilities in my life, I procrastinated until the last minute, and as a natural result, my hand movements were stiff, my words stumbled, and I spoke at random speeds at unintentional tones. To top it all off, the one million views that make the talk so impressive were completely out of my control. Similarly, I decided to run a marathon in the fall of my junior year of high school. The Cleveland Marathon was set to take place that spring. In the beginning, sheer excitement carried me through running multiple times a week; however, as soon as the excitement died down and my legs started hurting, I found any and every possible excuse to not run. Soon, my running went from four or five times a week to running once every two weeks. The week before the marathon, I realized that I was horribly unprepared. I had sporadically been running the odd four or five miles, and then the Tuesday before the Marathon (on that Sunday) I ran the farthest I had ever run–10 miles. The day the marathon happened, my dreams of finishing under four hours were quickly crushed as I had to slow to a walk within the first ten miles. As the day dragged on, I somehow managed to speed walk/jog my beaten and battered body across the finish line. I finished in five hours and forty-five minutes, far below the average marathon time. The feeling of crossing the finish line was great, and for a couple of days after I basked in the glow of a newly crowned marathoner. It would be a lie to say that I am not proud of either of these accomplishments, truly, I am. There will be times I look back on these moments and I can’t help but smile as I think “That was a pretty cool thing I did.” That is the extent of those moments though, a brief smile and a fond memory, but I can feel my heart reaching out for more.
Contrasted against those semi-esteemed accomplishments are the warm and tiring memories of my middle school Mathcounts years–the middle school math team. At my middle school, there were too many kids on the math team, so we had to take tests to see who would be able to participate in the regional math competition. Every year the test was thirty questions, and in 6th grade, I remember answering less than half of them correctly. I didn’t make the team, but for whatever reason, I had taken an extreme liking to the idea of being a competitive mathlete, which in hindsight explains so much about my middle school experience, and I dedicated the next three years to getting good at math. During my final year of middle school, I started waking up at five in the morning so that I could grind out practice math problems before school. My calculus hating self cringes at the amount of math practice tests that I took in the hopes of bettering my overall math score. In 8th grade, when we took the school tests, I scored a twenty-nine out of thirty, making a careless error in one problem, and I became captain of the team. I went to regionals and did well enough to qualify for states, and at states, I completely shit the bed. Outside of the mild success at regionals (taking 11th overall and leading a team that took second), my Mathcounts career ended astonishingly mediocrely. To most people, it would seem a small shadow compared to the things I would later accomplish, yet there’s something special about those early middle school mornings to me that makes me look back at that kid, with a warm smile and a full heart. It’s not the results or the day of the competition that I think about when I dust off the right triangle trophies in my closet; I think about those long strings of early mornings where I forced myself out of bed at an ungodly hour to understand the difference between permutations and combinations. Those mornings transformed my mediocre career into a warm flame that can fill my heart.
A Nice Moment
If you aren’t enjoying the day to day activities required to achieve your goals, I would urge you to reexamine the goals that you’ve set for yourself because the vast majority of your life will be characterized by the pursuit of goals rather than the fleeting moments of achievement. This is not to say that I always enjoy writing; there are certainly days I would rather smash my head into my keyboard and monitor than struggle to type out another word. Despite these moments, I still choose (sometimes force) myself to sit down at my desk every morning and type out as many words as I can within an hour.
I don’t know if the words from my novel will ever grace the pupils of another person’s eye, but I do know that many of my most peaceful moments from this last year have been when I finished typing those last words as the hour timer ran itself down to zero. I would look out the window and notice for the first time that the sun was bright and shining. An involuntary exhale escaped me as I stretched my body out. As I took a deep breath, I glanced one more time at the document that had one thousand more words than it did an hour ago. A small smile found its way to my face as I closed out the document for the day. Then, I took the last sip of lukewarm tea from my custom made mug that read–
“You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work.”
Books Referenced In This Post