Discover more from The Nature of Things
Why we do anything
Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of friends and colleagues about accomplishments. Particularly what success means, and viewed especially through the lens of what drives us to do anything in the first place and how that source motivation and passion can get lost along the way by every kind of external factor.
It started by talking to a good friend who is also a writer about careers and I asked him, I’m not publishing constantly, am I still a writer? He laughed as though I’d asked something ridiculous and after thinking about it, it’s a pretty silly question. The answer is yes, of course I am. That conversation veered into whether we thought we were successful and why that mattered or didn’t and who decides what “success” is anyway? And I don’t mean, I can pay my bills by X means but I mean, what makes any of us feel truly fulfilled. That is for you to answer for yourself.
This question and the feelings are tricky because I think we all value external validation. We want the explicitness of the world saying, “Yes you have done X, well done, you have succeeded. I hereby deem you have temporary value. Now do it again.” The issue with that is that the cycle never ends. There is always something more to do, there is always the next thing–the next sale, the next byline, the next deal, whatever it is. But I think that whirlpool of next things is dangerous because it makes it difficult to remember WHY we started doing this something in the first place. What is is about your craft that fulfills you? If you were told you would never have external praise again, would you keep feeling compelled to do it?
That was what I needed to ask myself and talk to my friends about. We all write outside of our public facing accomplishments. Writing is the way I know myself and uncover my true feelings about something. It’s a way for me to process the world and the overwhelming emotions that come navigating existence. If I never publicly published again, I would never stop writing.
Having said that and knowing that still doesn’t quite help with the urge to feel as though there is some clear marker of improvement. I think during the pandemic our notion of accomplishment changed profoundly. When we were (are) in a period of collective crisis and trauma, simply waking up and throwing your legs over the side of the bed to walk to the kitchen is an accomplishment. Making the coffee too, completing a task at work, eating, managing the kids, etc anything and everything becomes a tick in a box because everything is a challenge.
I think Pessoa had it right about doing anything for ourselves without a care of anyone ever laying eyes on what we spill out of ourselves. If your heart is bursting, let it burst. If you want to share it, share it. If no one claps or pays you or even notices, you have still done something brave and valuable.
I have many friends who are very successful. Recognizable on the street, been on TV a lot, making good money successful. They publish books and win awards and not a single one is exempt from the panic of having finished a book and immediately thinking, “oh god now I have to do that again and I have to do it better” and they are already so beyond the present moment of being praised for their art and the misery of one-upping themselves sets in. This is how the world is built. If you do well, that’s great but if you don’t keep doing well by societies standards then are you really that successful?Aka are you really that valuable?
The whole system is wrong.
And perhaps that is the real issue here. We tend to mix up our achievements with our value and that is the most dangerous thing. They are not related. And maybe if there is anything we’ve learned from surviving a pandemic it is to better understand what we value the most. What do we want to spend our time doing? Who do we want to spend our time with? Why do we do anything? As Mary Oliver says, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”
*Fernando Pessoa not caring about the world