When accomplishments peak over the horizon, you assume that you'll become someone else in their light. Or maybe it will be more like stepping into a phone booth to don a superhero cape. College Graduate. Bar-Approved Lawyer. Editor.
If you're anything like me, these feats lose their shine as you look to The Next Big Thing. Three days later, they're just words or initials that idle at the end of your email signature. The idea of the transformation makes you happy, but your day-to-day mood hasn't change all that much.
Why can't you enjoy the view?
A year ago, my agent sold my book proposal to a big publisher. I danced around the house. I composed an email full of expletives to my boyfriend. I exhaled. For months, I had improved my platform as a writer, built my social-media presence, and expanded my ideas for the book. All the boxes had been checked. I had squashed the chorus of skeptical voices long enough to plant my butt and my brain in a chair to be real writer.
So why wasn't I happy about it?
My life is a seesaw of forgetting and remembering that success never casts out worries or fears — it just upgrades them. As I moved through the publishing process, I felt like I was playing a mental-health video game where I was unlocking whole new levels of anxiety. Waiting for me were big, bad villains who became harder to corner and smash. My anxiety danced around me chanting, "Will anyone buy this book? Will you ever write a second book? Are you absolutely sure you're doing enough to promote it?"
These were worries I would have killed to experience a year ago, but they felt just as unwieldy as my previous ones.
I was and still am, overall, a happy person. My neurotic nature, however, is a vulture circling above my book. I know I would have regretted never rolling the dice, but the task of avoiding this guilt had very little to do with my happiness. The conundrum remains, however, that focusing on being happy is about as effective as trying to fix a broken arm by staring at it. The more I wanted to be content with my successes, the less I was.
As a therapist, I know that perfectionists are at higher risk for mental illness than others, and that overachievers can easily become depressed when they cannot peel their minds from goals that simply aren't working. So the more focused I am on what I haven't achieved, the worse I'll feel about it. Yet somehow, the seesaw tilts and I want it. I want it so much.
My medicine is tuning into moments of joy that are not earned; the small truths that I'll never nudge into the hands of an editor. They are the decisions to scratch behind a neighborhood dog's ears, cook real dinners, and watch funny YouTube videos. They are the days I climb mountains, lock myself with friends in an Escape Game, or join a book club full of strangers.
My happiness is the quiet confirmation that writing will never be my full-time job. I work with people with severe mental illness, folks on their last leg emotionally, physically, and financially. I don't need to brush off the lofty idea of a calling. I just need to remember that writing a book wasn't mine. Maybe I was already wearing the cape. I just hadn't bothered to look over my shoulder.
Writing is a noble act, but at times, it can feel like a self-indulgent one. It's easy to forget that you're not the center of everything, and that part of what gives you hope is by giving hope to others. There are so many ways to do this besides leaving breadcrumbs behind a blinking cursor.
So I'm going to keep writing books, whether they sell or not. I'm going to keep plugging away, and pitching, and hoping that people tuck my words into their brains to uncover later when they need them. But I'm also going to remind myself that I have a fair amount of control over my happiness whether I'm living a day full of rejection or full of The Next Big Thing.
I am a more compassionate person to myself and others when I trade in those heavy "what ifs" for a few "why nots." Why not do what makes me happy? Why not be kind to myself? Why not keep writing and see what could happen? Whatever the outcome, there will always be fuzzy dog heads to pat, tricky rooms to escape, and blue mountains to scramble up so you can look down on where you started.