All things come to a beginning

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The taste of success

I got my library card renewed today. I know, woot woot, but seriously, this is an important achievement. I used to go to that library every single week, take out the maximum amount of books (which I was pleased to find out today has been doubled to 20 items), and race through them in a couple of days. And then school happened. Ironic how four years of literature studies actually reduced my library time (that is, voluntary library time) to zilch. Somewhere in between Denmark and writing a thesis and Canada, people and passions that used to take center stage slipped through the cracks.
Last month this exodus finally caught up with me. I was meeting quite a lot of new people here in Belgium who'd ask me to tell them "something about myself". And even though I think that's a pretty lame question - I can't remember ever playing this game with anyone who went on to become a friend - it bothered me that I couldn't think of much to say in reply. In Canada I always seemed to get away with "I'm an exchange student". That would generally spark a lot of "I've been to Europe!" or "What's Canada like in your eyes?" conversations, which I always enjoy. But here I get stuck at "I go to KUL...still. Umm. I'm from here. I like stuff and things, but not to the degree that I get offended by anything or go nuts for anything". And that left me feeling pretty damn depressed. Is my life such a sad collection of events that that's the best I can come up with? What happened to enthusiasm? To gushing? What do I really like? What am I about? Is my life relevant in any way? Have I failed?

I remember going to see a Dutch cabaretier called Youp Van 't Hek a couple of years ago. One of the red threads of his show was the idea that there can be no such thing as a failed life, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as a successful life. Take, for example, an Olympic athlete. This person forewent delicious food, late nights and motorcycle rides for years on end - the most vital of his/her life - to slice 0.6 seconds off of a record which will one day undoubtedly be broken. Was his or her life a success? Joe Shmoe who won't go down in any history book comes up, opens a can of beer and sits down in his favorite chair. Does he consider his life a failure in this moment of bliss?
Though I can see what he was trying to say, it can be pretty hard to deny that certain people's lives drip with the smell of success. Take Oxford, for example. There are students skipping around those grounds who are unusually clever, good-looking, athletic, musical, socially adept and come from a very happy family. They may go on to invent a new medical treatment, write a brilliant play or go into politics and prevent a brutal conflict. How are their lives not the epitome of success then? The only way they wouldn't be, that I can see, is in their own minds. Because yes, even at Oxford, I met people who described themselves as "mediocre". Who felt like they had spent the last few years "in school" but not doing much else. Who are disappointed with their resumes, their (lack of) achievements and can't muster up a lot of energy to keep going. So maybe success does not necessarily work with objective standards (just look at all the people who appear to have it all to their friends and neighbors and seemingly "out of nowhere" take their own lives) and it is all about how you judge yourself.

Now that I'm flat broke and home again after some extremely fun city trips, I've got some time to ponder this issue and, more importantly, to take steps towards dealing with it. Step one: think back to when this issue did not yet exist. What made me tick back then? (Reading did. Hence the library card) Step two: what am I good at? (Languages. But I've been slacking in that department. Hence getting out two German novels from said library - "Nimm mich mit" by Anke Stelling and "Die Mitte der Welt" by Andreas Steinhöfel - as well as tracking down my lecture notes from the Danish course I took in Aarhus). Step 3: Where do I want my life to go? (Somewhere interesting. Hence the continued applications for unpaid internships across the country). Step 4: Chill. If some obnoxious dude at a party puts me on the spot by challenging me to sell myself in 3 sentences or less that should not make me doubt myself. It should make me get up and go talk to someone else.

I don't know to what extent my little plan will help me regard my life as mildly succesful again. But here's hoping.


Anonymous Genee said...

The thing about success is that I don't think it's necessarily something people reflect on in relation to their own lives. My very dear, and very accomplished, male counterpart and I have discussed this before, and he always says "well what have I done, really?" When I point out the dozen or more countries he's visited and lived in, the 4 languages he speaks absolutely fluently, the multiple publications that have paid to run his stories and the the two degrees under his belt at this tender age of barely 24, he says "yeah...but now what? What have I really DONE?"

You see, truly ambitious people will always be ambitious. It's not about obtaining this one specific goal and then calling it a day. Ambition is a personality trait, it's a lifestyle. It's an inability to remain still for any period of time. Their so-called "accomplishments" or "successes" are seen by them as nothing more than a way to pass the time. Not to say this makes them unsuccessful--quite the opposite--but that these people will, as such, never define themselves that way. Their list of life accomplishments is no more a "yeah I did that once" short story than a life resume.

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Clara said...

I know what you mean about feeling like your passions got left behind somewhere along the way to university. When I think back to high school, I feel like, in some ways, I was a much more interesting person! Example: Jen and I had this book, like a diary, which we would pass back and forth to each other – I would have it for a night, she would take it the next night, and so forth. The cover of this diary was, of course, collaged artfully by the two of us. In it, we would both write at least one poem per night, as well as any general thoughts, ideas, or drawings that were roving around in our heads and needed to get out. Who has time for such a creative outlet any more? I certainly don’t! So instead I go to work… come home… eat dinner… go to bed…? And that’s about it! How boring! How depressing! But on the other hand…

I work in the research department at Athabasca University and today my boss, Deb, who I love and adore and who is the best boss I've ever had, mustered all of us together and announced to us behind the closed door of her office that she was resigning. She has accepted a job offer at Royal Rhodes University, in Victoria. This is her dream job - the one she has been thinking about, wishing for, working towards for the past 9 years.

Deb is happily married, in her early 40s, and has two children who are grown up, moved out, and swimming like fish in this big old world. You would think that after all that, you wouldn't really need any more accomplishments, you wouldn't be out there, setting more goals and achieving them, you’d think that you'd be pretty much done. But now I see that that is not true at all.

I guess what I am trying to say is that "success" doesn't necessarily come when you are still so young. Maybe all those disgruntled Oxford students are just giving up too soon. We all think that we need to get everything we've ever wanted, and we need to get it NOW – otherwise, we are failures… but do we even know what it is that we want? And what makes us think that we are going to get it all in the first quarter of our lives? After what seems like a lifetime of achievements: marriage, children, happiness; Deb is finally getting the career she always wanted, something that most 20-somethings believe they are entitled to RIGHT NOW.

Maybe we should all relax a little bit, stop worrying about the end result so much, and try to enjoy ourselves a little. I by that I literally mean, enjoy the people we are, and look back at what we have accomplished so far. Having been an exchange student is nothing to scoff at.

And maybe we won’t get to “taste success” for a little while yet. Maybe we simply haven’t earned it yet. I know that sounds mean, because a lot of us have been working our butts off, but Deb has been working her butt off for a lot longer than I have, and she, above all, deserves it.

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Renee said...

Pff, Sof, I'm so happy that I'm not the only one who's extremely uncomfortable with the so-tell-me-something-about-yourself-question. I hate it and I alway screw up my first impression if that question is asked. My answer is usually a summary of facts and event without any meaning, because I don't feel like putting any meaning or explanation to the answer, since a complete stranger seems to want to know all about me and I jump into defense. Allee, we hebben het er volgende week over. YES!!!

4:41 PM  
Anonymous kristien said...

for the very first time ever, i feel i have to reply to your blog (nobody knows me, apart from you sofie, well, so be it:).

I think we should start a 'lost dreams'-club and then try to make eachother feel better again. I've been a teacher for the past year and the only reactions i get to that are -to say the least- making me concerned.

on the one hand there's the people going like 'woaoahaaah, you've got a job, and it's fulltime, wow, you are so lucky girlie, blablabla'. on the other there's those that go: 'but hey, didn't you dream of a career in television research and so on, aren't you going to get stuck being a teacher waking up one morning realizing your life is absolute crap?'

both of them make me uncomfortable. the first make it sound as if i am president of the state called 'education' and the second, well, that speaks for itself, they make me feel like a complete loser at the age of 24!(and not only about teaching, the list of things that i want to do, but never will do is endless. one day i will:

-write a short story
-make a short film
-make a comedy show
-get a degree as a theater director
-direct and produce a play
-write a hit song
-learn how to sing properly
-reform the department of education and that of culture

i've been doing a lot of thinking (kierkegaard and existentialism are never far of when going to denmark on a citytrip) and together with a friend i've discovered that we are basically slightly scared about what the upcoming years may bring. up until now our lives have been organised, we have known what to do (that is why most of us keep on studying, that is-also-why, in certain ways, an academic career of 4 years after your studies is the easy way out). now, we do have to find our way. (going totally melodrama here, do pardon me)

for me that means feeling guilty about liking the security of a job in education (for now), since i have always declared that i hate taking the easy way out. but in the end, up until now, there have been no difficult 'ways' to choose. this is the first one to appear and i fall back on my survival instincts: postponing a decision, the longer the better... i'm staying a teacher for the next year and it feels 'safe'. i just wish i could stop thinking of 'safety' as a crime, as dullness.

ps don't mind spelling and other mistakes, typing to fast, don't feel like re-reading

11:25 AM  

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