Updated: Nov 26, 2019
Success has the weird ability to both fill you up and hollow you out.
I still vividly remember the day I successfully defended my dissertation in a closed room full of people I had long admired. Suddenly, they were looking at me differently, slapping my back, shaking my hand, and calling me, "Dr. Morgan." That meeting was the end of so many years of hard work. In the moment, I felt such joy, relief, and pride. But the following morning I found myself unable to stop tears from creeping out the sides of my eyes and down my cheek. I couldn't explain the feeling. I had achieved something so significant and yet I couldn't stop crying.
Why is that? How is it possible that the accomplishment you work toward can not only bring you joy, but also leave you somehow feeling sad? Perhaps it's because the end of anything, even the end of very hard work, is still sorrowful. Which is why when you achieve anything, you feel something akin to grief, followed quickly by anger for not being able to feel the high of success for any longer than you did. You are frustrated by your own desire to go tackle another goal just to feel the thrill of achievement again, knowing full well that the minute you do, the feeling of lack will seep in.
How can you change this pattern? How can you be more successful at processing success? How can you have a better relationship with your own ambition? Try to keep these three points in mind:
Get successful where you feel you already are. This may sound backwards, because we always think of success as the accomplishment of something challenging. You've never run a day in your life, but dammit, you are going to run the Boston Marathon. You hate writing and think you're bad at it, but you want to write a book. You hated school but think a master's degree would prove something.
I'd argue that trying to find success where you don't already feel successful is why it sometimes feels so disappointing. For starters, it sets you up to believe that success can only come from work you hate or is hard for you. Further, it makes you discount those things that come easily to you because you don't feel you've earned them. And finally, if you have success doing something you don't naturally like to do frequently, do you really want to keep doing it? Success should be something we feel for doing what we do best--not the achieving of something so counter to our natural inclinations. I'm not saying a couch potato running a marathon isn't absurdly impressive. But I am saying that what you are already good at--especially if it comes easily to you--is where you should put your energy.
My entire life, my parents, friends, and educators have laughed at my outgoing and bubbly nature, chalking it up to an inherent trait to love, but not a skill to reward. A former grad school professor of mine once told me, "Teaching won't be hard for you since you're an extrovert." That led me to believe that if teaching was easy for me, I wasn't successful. Therefore, I tried to do more of the academic-y stuff that didn't come as easily to me, believing that only when I accomplished those would I be a successful academic. What I came to learn was that just because standing in front of a classroom or audience feels natural to me, doesn't mean it isn't a success. So many people had downgraded my abilities because they either 1) didn't have the same abilities or 2) believed that if it came natural to me, it couldn't be called an accomplishment.
The point is, put your energy where you feel energized. I feel good and happy when I'm around people. So the more I can be around students, or in front of audiences, or talking with readers, the better and more successful I feel. When I feel forced to achieve in areas where it's against my natural abilities, I know I'll feel emptied by the process. So I stick to succeeding where I already feel successful.
Avoid ripping failure from the hands of success. One of the reasons that success fails us is because we always look for the failing within it. To some degree, whether we intend to or not, we find ourselves looking at what our accomplishment wasn't. Not what it was. My latest book, Everything Is Negotiable, has had a number of successes, including thousands of copies sold, translation into five languages, and strong reviews in a few notable media outlets. And yet, nearly a year after its publication, I find myself longing to rewrite parts of it, make it stronger, say more about some topics, and less about others. The regret brings me such pain, and the pain brings me such anger, because I want to be able to enjoy my hard work.
I recently admitted to my husband that I felt ashamed--ashamed!--for not, I dunno, writing a better one. He asked me where the feelings were coming from. Through tears, I explained that when I was writing the book, I felt so in the groove, so proud of what was on the page. But over the course of a year, things started to change. When he asked what changed, I talked about how much more I had learned about my topic area, the further research I had done, how many more examples I had to cite, and the additional points I wanted to make. He laughed sweetly and said, "So you're mad that a year ago you didn't know what took you this whole year to learn?" Not only was I searching for failure within my successful book, but I was also seeing lack where there was actually growth in myself.
Success is a form of satiation, so treat it as such. Looking toward an accomplishment as a means of forever satisfying you is as a foolish as thinking one night's sleep should tide you over for a few months. You see, success functions the same as our other personal sustainability, like rest, food, and hygiene. When you feel hungry, you go in search of food. You know about how long that food will satisfy you, and so you expect the pangs of hunger at their regular schedule. You don't get mad at yourself around dinner time and say "This again?! I just ate at lunch! Why is it never enough!?" If anything, we look forward to each meal.
And yet I've noticed that a few months after students graduate, they find themselves aching for another process, another challenge, another opportunity to succeed. A former student recently said to me that she was angry for needing another goal for herself, questioning why all the years she spent in graduate school weren't enough. And, she asked me, with her shoulders hung low, "What would be?"
But just like we have to learn with food, success is fuel and not just for comfort. With our meals, we grow to understand what types of food satisfy us the most. That quick snacks lead to feeling hunger sooner. Quick wins feel the same. We recognize that a healthy balanced meal makes us feel fuller and better for longer. And the same goes for achievements. Eventually we learn to know which ones are worth going after based on their ability to satiate us longer. Which ones are denser, healthier, and will ultimately be more satisfying. The point is, appreciate that achieving is no different than eating or sleeping or bathing. It's something you will need to do regularly, and therefore don't get discouraged when the pang for more strikes again.
It always will.
Buy the best-selling book Everything Is Negotiable!