Introspection: Is Success Fulfilling?

Photo by Jake Thomas Shaw

The world is never going back to normal.

Nothing that we knew will ever be exactly the same as it was, I mean. In this historically transitional period, many of us are struggling to navigate school, work, childcare, all while trying to maintain a healthy, but safe, social life. As many of us have been, I have been taking this time to slow down and reflect. My life has always gone a million miles a minute—I finished high school early, started college at an insane 15 years old, finished college early with two degrees, climbed the corporate ladder, found a better ladder to climb, moved out and then moved out again all over the course of three or four years. I thought that even a pandemic couldn’t slow me down, I was always clawing at the next thing. I thought that meant I was ambitious and smart and getting ahead in life, but where was I trying to go?

Being forced to put my life on hold for this pandemic has been ridiculously difficult. I found that I don’t really have hobbies. I just try to find new ways to be productive in my free time: looking for new opportunities, editing my resume over and over, budgeting the same numbers again and again. I found that by having more time at home and in my head, I was starting to spiral into an unhealthy obsession with progress and productivity. You cannot force growth, but I was going to try.

After about 12 weeks of this, I am now really feeling the crash and burn of that overexertion.

In the burnout, I have decided to do a self-assessment. I have been telling myself for months I have no interesting hobbies or ways to spend my free time and have been focused on nothing but work and success. I wanted to take the time to stop and reflect on what was so inherently compelling to me in that success? What does that success even look like? Clearly there is something there that draws me to it in an unhealthy, obsessive way. That means I must value something somewhere in there, right? Just what, exactly?

I have committed the next few journals to identifying my values and beliefs as a person, a creative, a daughter, a wife, and a friend. These journals are quintessential to helping me organize my thoughts. Most of them ramble, are way too personal for an online creative website, and none of them are quality pieces of writing. But it’s my journal and I know I am capable of better writing if I continue to slog through, so who cares. If you are still reading, thank you. Strap in. This is a long one.

Rotting apples.
Photo by Jake Thomas Shaw

A good place to start, I suppose, would be my goals: get a good paying job, decent car and decent house. On the surface, it feels as if I am searching for stability. Aren’t we all? But upon looking further, none of those “milestones” are ever enough. I got a good job at Jamba, but wanted to go higher. I moved into an apartment, but now I want something bigger. I had a brand-new car and wanted another. It is an awful admission to make, but I don’t think I have been exactly honest with myself by setting lukewarm goals that are extremely achievable and not fulfilling by any means.

Part of this, I would argue, stems from my upbringing. I was raised to shoot for perfection. I was a 4.0 student that breezed through high school and college and was able to work that “perfectionist” high to satisfy an inherent need to be constantly achieving things. As most of us face after leaving academia, the world is impossible to navigate in that same way. We no longer exist in a vacuum of good grades and extra credit. I think I gave myself such attainable goals so as to avoid the inevitable despair I would feel when I hit failure.

I feel like this could also play into why I don’t feel like I have any “hobbies” or things I am good at. It is so hard watching Jake find something he is interested in and then dive into it 1000%, learning all of the history and inner workings and reading all the books and articles about it. I don’t have the motivation to do that.

I wonder if other people face any similar hesitation when trying to learn something new. They have to, right? In school we were always taught to have a growth mindset. I want to start taking the time to learn things that I am not initially very good at or know nothing about. There is no one to impress. No one giving me a grade. That is part of why writing these journals are so cathartic. It gives me the space to organize my thoughts in maybe a not-so-concise-way but in a way that helps me understand myself. For those of us who may recognize that hesitation within ourselves, I hope we take it one step further and work through the uncertainty that is holding us back from learning new things.

All of these thoughts began through an assessment of my goals in life. Are those things really fulfilling? What makes me feel fulfilled, accomplished, and content? Upon further introspection, and actually a little prodding from a few episodes of The Michelle Obama Podcast, I was able to reassess what success meant to me. I always had this idea it was leaving the nuclear household, finding autonomy and independence from family and friends– an independent, self-made Muslim woman, an artist, a creative, a politician. I have come to realize I cannot be any of those things without being a daughter, a sister, a friend, or a wife nor having the support from all the people around that got me this far. I have doubly recognized that in my pursuit of independence, I have isolated myself from motivation, inspiration, and growth. Is this fulfilling? In just a few days I turn 21. I did everything I set out to do by my twenties, so now what? Do I just keep on this ten-year plan and find myself at some huge corporation, wealthy and alone?

I believe a silver lining has emerged from within this pandemic and I also believe we all, deep down, recognize it as true: we are learning what our own values are, what really matters around us and seeing the closest people to us having those realizations as well. Maybe you realized your partner is not as ambitious as you are, maybe you realized that you care about things more than you thought you did before all this. Being locked up with our thoughts has provoked these deep thoughts that are so easily pushed deep down within us by our day-to-day lives. I am so thankful to have been forced to work through this, despite the endless nights just sitting and staring on my living room couch, unable to decide what is worth living for.

I do have to also thank my partner who, an artist himself and an expert at introspection, allowed me the space to cry and think and learn and grow all the while prodding my thoughts in ways, I didn’t think possible. I found the absolute most fulfilling things in my life right now are my relationships. What feels like home? My friends, my loved ones, my partner. Through all this we are able to pick apart our life choices and analyze what the values we hold are that led us down the roads we are on. Mine are the people around me.

I have also found that I really value self-sufficiency, not necessarily independence. I appreciate sustainability, being able to sustain myself on what I have around me, but not necessarily alone. I value being recognized, not necessarily accomplished. Being heard and listened to by those I love. I value how the world perceives me– which is a little ironic given today’s journal because if anyone is still reading this, they probably think I am insane. Like, duh? You value your friends and family? Don’t we all? It is more than that. Clearly, I value those relationships in my life, but it is the realization that despite that, none of my “life goals” on my five- or ten-year plans had any space dedicated to growing, nurturing, and flourishing those relationships.

That is the purpose of this journal. The purpose of this introspective journal is to force myself to make the mental shift to put my time and energy into the things that make me feel fulfilled. I put that in bold in case you read nothing else.

As I mentioned before, a lot of these thoughts came while I was listening to The Michelle Obama Podcast (highly recommend). I listened to the episode titled “Protests and the Pandemic with Michele Norris” for the first time a few weeks ago and have listened to it twice again since. I linked it at the end of this journal for you to check out if you were interested. In this episode, Mrs. Obama greets Michele Norris, a well known journalist and a close friend of the Obamas, with a simple “how are you?” This struck me. How are you? How are any of us, really? Okay. Good. Still hanging in there! None of that feels real. Just the other night a friend of mine, Quinn, proposed this same question to all their followers with the same sense of apprehension to those seemingly empty answers. They really were asking me, genuinely, how are you? So I answered them with almost 2 minutes of video outlining the last few weeks of my life. It felt so good. So pure to just be honest with myself.

We are all going through a significant period of evolution, and it means, that there’s an opportunity in that, it feels burdensome right now, because so much has been taken from us. But there’s such an incredible opportunity, to decide how you want to show up in the new world. Because it will be a new world. And my greatest hope is that we don’t reach for normal, that we reach for better.

Michele Norris, Journalist

This quote particularly stuck with me from the episode. How will you choose to show up in the new world? Will you reach for normal or will you reach for better?

Think about that for a moment. I think I am starting to reach for better.