When you spend all of your time staring at the back of the person in front of you, you’ll never appreciate where you are.
Do you want to know one of the most amazing tricks the human mind can pull off? Accomplish something pretty cool. It can be anything–setting a personal best on your morning run, getting a promotion, making it all the way through a piano piece without having to stop, finally painting the guest bathroom that totally-in shade of gray.
And then? Maybe you enjoy it for a minute or two, or a week or two, even. Perhaps you feel some sort of confirmation–I could do this after all!–which saturates your brain momentarily.
The problem is, it wears off, and this is where your brain really messes with you. Did you set a personal best? Great, run faster. Got a promotion? Still not making as much money as your friend so-and-so. Finished The Entertainer? You’ll never make it through Rachmaninoff. Paint the bathroom? Gray is so out.
Isn’t it how quickly our heads can take success and turn it against us? Without even thinking, our brains move past our own accomplishments and immediately turn our attention to something we haven’t got.
It’s not surprising in this FOMO age of social media envy that our satisfaction can be short-lived, but when you begin to see the long-term effects of always casting your eyes somewhere else, the burden can feel pretty heavy.
I remember the first time I got a promotion at work. My salary increased by a noteworthy magnitude, and I had a bigger responsibility than I once did.
Initially, it scared me quite a bit.
After all, I didn’t have more time in my day. It wasn’t as if my larger paycheck granted me superlative mental powers to do my job even better than before. It was totally weird–I took the raise with the expectations that I could do double what I was doing before. And it sort of made me miserable.
Eventually I adjusted, but then the old trick happened–I began to wonder who else got a raise, or when I would get the next one. It wasn’t enough that I did a good job or was happy with my performance.
I began to look around at other people my age to see where they were, but my focus admittedly was on everyone with a better title or a bigger paycheck. How did s/he get that incredible job? What would I have to do to be there instead of here? Am I working fast enough or hard enough or well enough to keep up? And then, the question that plucks at my innermost anxiety:
Am I behind?
When your focus is only on those ahead of you, it can begin to feel that way. And there’s always someone’s back you can stare down, always someone who is seemingly a step ahead, who makes better money, who owns a bigger house, who drives a nicer car. Always.
Somewhere in the flotsam and jetsam of internet wisdom that sloshes into my life, I saw this arresting statement: There’s no such thing as being behind.
It makes sense, right? You’re on your own path–not someone else’s. You’re not ahead of where you should be or behind, because you cannot possibly measure your life against someone else’s without the exercise quickly becoming ridiculous. It’s the hidden math behind the myth of the silver bullet: there’s no other trajectory for you than the one you’re on.
That doesn’t mean we can’t all make our lives better or worse through good and bad choices, nor does it mean you should shut up and put up with the things in your life that make you miserable–quite the opposite.
But it does mean that we cannot live happily if our focus is always on what’s next, if our brains are constantly robbing us of the joy of what we have right now. Gratitude and contentedness are deeply wonderful feelings, but I admit they can quickly become endangered.
This past week, a former coworker of mine from Davidson, who went on to become the head basketball coach at Swarthmore, was featured in a New York Times article about his remarkable success. In his interview, though, he mentioned a TED talk that inspired the way he approached his job–and noted how backwards so much of our thinking was when it came to finding happiness in the work we do.
The TED talk, which I hope you’ll take time to experience, was a brilliant reminder of how the ways in which we externally present our identities to others is a carefully derived mask that has scarcely little proportionality to how happy we feel. We think that to be happy, we have to work hard, earn more money, and so forth. And that wisdom is just counter-intuitively wrong.
We’re not behind. And the sooner we realize that, and the quicker we can adjust our measures of happiness and contentment, the easier it will be to appreciate the arcs we trace through life. Our time here is breathtakingly short, and in spite of the well-worn counsel to seize the day, we stubbornly choose something far less satisfying.
I could go on with a few more specific examples from my life, but the point here is to find your own. You’re not behind–not behind me, not behind anyone else. Say it over and over until you believe it, until you feel yourself getting happier. If you’re happy, you’re right where you ought to be.