Lighting myself on fire just to stay warm

 

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the challenge of success.

I graduated from UC Riverside with my Bachelor’s in the Spring. And so for the past six months, success, money, career, lifestyle, habits, existential crises have been at the forefront of my mind every day. Six months ago these things seemed so much simpler, blurred by the manic routine of term papers and enrollment dates, study abroad plans and club meetings.

Now, success is looming, complex, a few feet above my hands at their highest reach, yet impossibly far away. And I see it everywhere: Bloggers on Medium with tens of thousands of readers. Developers with millions of downloads. Entrepreneurs with billions in sales. Former classmates have sponsorships from fashion brands. Friends are signing record deals.

I look at these individuals and I see an image of what I think I want in the future. I’m impressed by some, even happy for others. Can I deny that I also envy them?

In my eyes, they’ve achieved success, or at least some modern iteration of it, even if at some indiscernible point in the past success probably meant something different. The ability to feed one’s family, maybe. Put kids through college, or have enough leisure time to dedicate yourself to a few hobbies. People like my grandparents measured their success by how much better off they were than their parents had been at the turn of the century.

But now? I think our baseline has shifted up.

My achievements and opportunities are far greater than those my parents saw when they were my age; I’m decades ahead of where my grandparents were in their youth. But I don’t look through family photo albums to measure my success. For better or worse, I look to my cell phone. And what do I find?

High-def, highly-edited, filtered, photoshopped and carefully-curated coverage of every one of the most successful people of our generation, all in real-time. All the DJ’s and bloggers and former Vine stars, high school bullies and ex-girlfriends, the celebrities who’ve got it and the contemporaries who are about to get it, their beautiful faces and perfect angles beamed directly into my eyeballs wherever I am, any time of day.

My personal achievements seem small in comparison. My lifestyle is unoriginal and boring, my physicality, lacking. I trusted my mom growing up when she would tell me “Comparison is the thief of joy.” But I wonder now if it’s something we can resist.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a high self-image. I’m comfortable with my body, my unmanageable curly hair and average height. But our digitally-connected culture has caused me to compare everything from my religious views to my political actions, from my music preferences to my travel experiences, dietary habits to education level, weekend plans to career path. Every aspect of my identity is held against the polished public personas of hundreds of thousands of strangers, all of whom seem to have their shit together, have got “success” figured out.

Inevitably, I come to want what they have: fame, money, influence, attention. Followers. Likes. Numbers on a screen. And I want those numbers, because I come to think they mean success. I know I can sell a product or market a brand or send a message with those numbers.

So I hustle and grind. I start to resent sleep, and free time. I start to lose touch with close friends. I opt for coffee instead of water, carbs instead of fruit, self-discipline instead of self-care. Weekends blur into weekdays. Any moment not spent buried in a project, learning new skills or earning money is wasted. I foresee the damage that this lifestyle will do to my mental and physical health if I keep it up for long. But failure is as frightening as success.

The great dilemma of my post-grad life is how to achieve my goals without losing myself in the process.

I’m not afraid of discipline, or hard work. I’m not often discouraged by impatience or rejection. My dreams are many: found a nonprofit, publish a book, host a music festival, become a teacher, travel the world. I don’t fear the work it will take to achieve these. I fear that I will lose sight of what’s really important in the pursuit of someone else’s success.

Over the past six months, I’ve realized that success is a balancing act. A balancing act between using social media as a tool and not being discouraged by envy, between knocking out personal goals and still having time to spend with loved ones. It’s a constant tightrope walk between prioritizing health and not being misled by unreal standards, between focusing on a message and not its popularity. Success is lighting on fire without being consumed by the flames.

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Daniel is a freelance writer out of Los Angeles. He manages Playful Conviction.