For much of my life, I have felt like a failure.
Not just any failure, but the kind that never lived up to my potential.
Like many people in a similar boat, these fears didn’t come out of nowhere. Rather, they were the direct result of my father’s criticism. As someone who expressed frequently and often that he didn’t feel that he lived up to his potential, he made it clear from an early age that a life without success—namely, professional success—was not a life worth living.
For years, I bought into this. I made top marks at school, graduated with honors from not one but two internationally-ranked universities and found—more or less—consistent employment from the age of 23 onward. However, like many, I wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire.
Not only had I had the misfortune to come of age at a time where job security was going the way of the dinosaur but like many people of all ages, I struggled to find my exact place in the world.
Along the way, I abandoned my traditional nine-to-five job for a series of part-time, freelance jobs. They didn’t pay much but did allow for plenty of time to spend time with my daughter and pursue a number of things I enjoyed (read: photography and yoga). I actually thought I was doing pretty well until someone—cough cough, my father—told me that I was not.
“I had no idea you’d turn out this mediocre” read the last letter I received from him right before he died of terminal cancer.
I was hurt and angry by what I saw as his callousness but truthfully, part of me was scared that he was right.
Judging just from my list of professional accomplishments and my tax returns from the past couple of years, I was pretty mediocre. It also wasn’t helping matters that I was pushing 40 and thought that I would have done more by this time.
My thoughts became very self critical: What was wrong with me? What had I done wrong? Somewhere on the road of life, I had taken a wrong turn, and I was afraid that that there was no way off.
For months, I kept it in me until I confided to a 60-something friend of mine whom I had know for well over a decade. Her question was simple, but turned my thoughts around: Who or what exactly was determining I was a failure and what was I hoping to accomplish even if I “made it”?
Her question took me aback and led to some deep soul-searching. In a nutshell, I was not out to “make it” out of any particular desire or drive on my part but, rather, it was out of a desire to please someone who probably wouldn’t have ever been pleased, even under my best efforts.
While some may be reading this and think it is fairly obvious, there are many people out there who are trying to get that seal of approval.
It may not be from a distant, overly-critical parent, but it may be from their peers or from society at large because we are lead to believe that we need to achieve a certain level of success to show we’ve made it. And while I specifically mention material success, it need not be that. As a parent, I know several parents—mothers and fathers—who feel the need to be the perfect parent and have the perfect child, or children, and if they don’t then they are failures.
Speaking as someone who is still trying to free myself from these shackles, I know that it is not easy.
However, the next time we feel this way, we can stop and ask ourselves one vital, important question and that is who are we really wanting to accomplish this for?
Even when the answer is ourselves, it’s still worth it to ask what the ultimate goal is.
While there is nothing wrong with wanting to achieve success—be it financial, personal, etc.—unrealistic expectations are seldom helpful and may even overshadow the impressive things we have already done with our lives, or cause us to downplay them.
In my case, I realized that I actually had done quite a bit with the life that was given to me. Granted, I wasn’t up there with say, Mark Zuckerberg, but people like that tend to be the exception and not the rule.
There’s a quote about how no one on their death bed ever regrets not spending more at the office, and another truth is that no one probably ever regrets not pleasing others.
In the end, the person whose opinion actually matters as to whether or not our lives were worthwhile, is ourselves.
Author: Kimberly Lo
Editor: Emma Ruffin
Photo: Tomasz Stasiuk/Flickr
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