186th Place Would Be Awesome

Charles Wheelan gives some unconventional commencement advice, that, while welcome, I feel misses where the pain and anxiety really sit. He writes:

We are systematically creating races out of things that ought to be a journey. We know that success isn’t about simply running faster than everyone else in some predetermined direction. Yet the message we are sending from birth is that if you don’t make the traveling soccer team or get into the “right” school, then you will somehow finish life with fewer points than everyone else. That’s not right. You’ll never read the following obituary: “Bob Smith died yesterday at the age of 74. He finished life in 186th place.”

That’s close, but for me (and I suspect many others) the pressure is not necessarily to win or place well in a race. Rather, I have always felt that it’s more about being allowed in the club, getting to wear the badge that says you are a successful grownup. You know, that you’re allowed to sit with the cool kids at lunch. For me, there is an undefined (and yet somehow recognizable) threshold to cross before one can count oneself a worthwhile, validated individual. There may be “points” to accrue, but in my particular pathology, it’s less important that I have more points than anyone else, and more important that I simply have enough of them to be able to look myself in the mirror and not become depressed.

Of course, to any well-adjusted person, I should already qualify (wonderful wife and kid, employed, not under immediate threat of genocide, etc.), but I have never been able to think that way.

Wheelan also writes:

Don’t try to be great. Being great involves luck and other circumstances beyond your control. The less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn’t, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being solid.

That is good advice. And if I thought I passed as a “success,” perhaps I’d start worrying about being “great,” too. But right now, the bar is high enough.

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