I blogged about purpose when I was 22. It was an honest, gentle, and introspective piece of writing. Here is an excerpt:
See, as I reflect on the many ways in which I’ve spent my time, I realise that I really am happy. I’ve had the privilege of passion, of creating things that I love, of learning from brilliant people, and of exploring places and projects that stimulate me. It has been enriching and exciting and endlessly fascinating. And yet, as it turns out, all of my contentment exists within a bubble of funky sadness that I’m still trying to make sense of. And the heaviness of all of the meaningfulness of my life exists within a sense of overarching meaninglessness.
…The thing that keeps me going is the same thing that drains me, which is an enduring sense of urgency — but I don’t know towards what. To find myself? To be successful? To belong? To answer an inner call? To do good by others? Towards novelty, perfection, meaning? If I don’t know the source of this exhausting, compelling, yanking, nagging, frustrating, constant, consistent inner insistence, will I ever be able to quell it? If this is how I’m going to feel for the rest of my life, will I ever achieve contentment?
I concluded with the hopeful realisation that perhaps levity was what was really important — that purpose unfolded like a single flower, effortlessly, day-after-day. But I am 23 now, and I am much more teenage-like and angsty, so I am writing about success and purpose again. Here are my complaints.
Our aspirations towards success are both intrinsic and socially constructed. Unfortunately, I came simultaneously into a personality and environment conducive to the idea of success as an all-consuming purpose. It became a seeming inevitability. A destiny that would remain unfulfilled only if I was stupid or lazy enough to get in the way of my own potential… So naturally, in my teens, I thought I would spontaneously combust if I didn’t ‘make it’ by an arbitrarily chosen age.
Now that I’m about to enter my mid-20s, newly capable of the kind of retrospective thinking that all adults seem to partake in, I find myself looking back disapprovingly at my convictions. The realisation that I may not, after all, be the greatest — or just great — at anything, has come to me like a desperately slow burn. A grieving of all my childhood illusions. An ultimate acceptance, even, with a healthy twinge of regret. I continue to be grievously afflicted by ambition, of course, I am absolutely very ill, but I am trying to turn things around. For starters, I’ve concerned myself with understanding why I want so badly to perform well.
Here are three possibilities: One, my perennial need to gain my parents’ validation has consumed me, causing me to project my insecurities onto all aspects of my personal and professional lives. Common and fair. Two, there is no free will and all of the greedy profiteers of the world are benefiting from my self-imposed hyper-productivity. Righteous and conspiratorial. Three, I want, over and over again, to justify my presence in this world. To prove that I deserve to take up space, because I strongly suspect that I might not. Existential and confessional.
Obviously, a baseline of success is imperative for day-to-day survival. But as society increasingly fetishizes individual achievement — that is, as the world turns into a place where being ‘average’ is framed at best as a cause for embarrassment — I have come to require something much above this threshold for my own psychological survival. And what a deceptive need that is. I’m always racing towards ‘good enough’, but every time my fingers graze the goalposts, I push them farther away. Sometimes I move them straight ahead, telling myself I need to be better, better, better still at what I am doing. Then I will be worthy. Other times the shift is lateral. I decide I want to become adequate at something entirely unfamiliar, as if a fresh start will recalibrate my stupid, sluggish brain. This constant motion — only chasing, and never reaching, an elusive plane of contentment — has come to be what being alive means to me. This is not a romanticized notion. At 23, I am officially afraid that I’m going to spend my entire life running. And it kills me because this is the farthest thing from happiness.
There are some things I am certain of. I am a product of a culture where investments in success are commonplace. Graded classroom tests and employee bonuses, beauty products and personal development catalogues, inspirational pop culture artefacts and the many culminations of our parents’ anxieties about our futures — the world is littered with things that I understand as generative, but not necessarily constructive. And I cannot stand any of it anymore. Expectations, like walls, are rigid and imposing, and mine have been closing in on me for a long time. As they cast shadows on my face, I find myself mouthing… “Oh my god”. Oh my god, I have to be intelligent, and I have to be talented, and I have to be beautiful, and I have to be moral, and I have to be the most of all of these things immediately and perfectly. Oh my god, I think — I have to shine the brightest in this room.
To keep these compulsions from overwhelming me, younger-me sporadically turned to rebellion. I flunked school tests because I was tired of wanting to be smart. I decided I would not focus on being pretty because then I would not be conforming to norms that hurt me. I quit social media because I didn’t want my creativity to be ranked by strangers and algorithms. I even came to the glorious conclusion that peace only comes when you devalue the idea of success itself. And then, after all of these completely very absolutely rational experiments… I still did not feel free. I am not liberated, because my perceived inadequacies in a world that is necessarily fuelled by aspiration continue to trap me. I look at someone with credentials far more impressive than mine and think — they are Good and I am Bad. This needs no justification, it is the right and familiar way for the world to be. And then I look at someone else whose successes mine outweigh, and I decide — well, clearly I am a miserable workaholic, and they are the ones who are really Free.
Then there is dissonance. In addition to my existing despair, I am tormented, I tell you, tormented!!!! by the ethical implications of personal success. Because I realise and repent that showcasing achievement is about feeling superior, and in turn subconsciously making others feel lesser than. Winning is relative and someone has to lose. What a humiliating admission — I don’t want to feel good at the expense of making people feel shitty about themselves. I also understand that success is a function of opportunity. Our distorted conceptualisations of merit cannot be linked to outcome when ‘destiny’ is a misnomer for caste-class location. Further, individual achievements driven by comparison and competition can and should be replaced by community progress rooted in foundations of collaboration. All true things. They are sitting on the surface of my brain and I am begging them to sink in. At the same time, I use humility and nonchalance as a convenient mask to conceal self-doubt. I am totally refraining from signing up for an opportunity or sharing news about an achievement because it’s hardly a big deal, not because I secretly don’t think I deserve good things! Other times, it is for self-punishment. I worked Hard for this thing to happen and now it has Happened, but I didn’t make it happen Perfectly, or it surely happened by Mistake, so it doesn’t matter now. And other times still, I use them to obscure my disbelief that a good thing happened, it really happened, and I wasn’t sure how to acknowledge it without submitting to the fear that it is only fleeting.
So here I am now. At 23, still living in my parents’ house because of COVID-19, and still in the country because I was too afraid to apply to grad school. I actually like the work that I do because I think my research is stimulating and somewhat valuable, and I will find my way as time passes, but it took me two years of therapy to accept that. I haven’t posted on my Instagram account in 7 months, and I’m scared to admit that I’m outgrowing a haven I spent 10 years creating for thousands of friends and voyeurs. I’m thinking of finally recording some of my music, but I’m terrified of releasing it. Not because I think no one will listen to it — that is, in fact, ideal. I’m worried that someone will. A loved one tells me that if I want to share my vision, I will have to accept that I will be perceived. (Ha! Big demand). Love and dating are also out of question until I deal with the perception thing. I don’t go out of my house a lot, indeed, I am called everything from a hermit to a burrowed rat, because I am so preoccupied with the inside of my head. I am constantly and obsessively creating, still, songs and illustrations and images and poems and ideas. This is not only because making things appear where there once was nothing brings me genuine joy — I also think that once I stop, I will never recover from the comfort of complacency.
And I know, I know, I know that 23 is very young and that I will go through change after change until I find reconciliation. I could have at least waited until I accomplished full prefrontal-cortex development and the like before immersing myself in morose resignation. But I am afraid, I am very afraid of the present and the future, and I can’t help but become a fortune-teller who predicts — prematurely, so that I am not disappointed later in life — that I turned out vaguely fine, finding a home in the space between waste-of-potential and she-did-alright. Because the way things are right now? These are unacceptable conditions. I am tired and despondent all the time. I want to quickly accept my mediocrity and move on so that I can find peace someplace that is within reach.
I was so sure I had it figured out when I was even younger, but now I am more confused than ever. Here’s hoping that I find my way.