It goes without saying that our happy valley is full of people that work really, really hard. Many of us function meeting-by-meeting, class-by-class, essay-by-essay, test-by-test and party-by-party, so much so that we rarely take the time to consider what, exactly, it is that we are doing and why, exactly, we are doing it. At this point, it almost goes without saying that many of us live in an achievement-driven world, where “effortless perfection” is the catchphrase for what we purportedly want to attain. The result is that we rarely take a deep breath – and that those people that do take a deep breath often receive an angry glance that all but screams, “How dare you!” In all of this, we presume that we will find happiness; that it is something associated with our external accomplishments; and that it is something, in and of itself, that we should strive to achieve.
I know I lived in that achievement-driven world for a long, long time. “You can sleep when you’re dead,” I would pejoratively tell my friends who I thought spent too much time asleep. I worked too hard – reading every page, taking five classes, attempting to perfect every essay that I wrote and to study compulsively for every test I took. I was a part of myriad extracurriculars that took up an enormous amount of time, and on the weekends, when I wasn’t either doing my schoolwork or going to a meeting, I would make sure that I was going out – after all, how could I have the consummate college experience otherwise? I would take advantage of everything Williams had to offer, all while striving to do my best at everything. If I did all of these things, I would achieve the results I wanted – and, as a result, I would be happy.
Sometimes, the results of my work-until-you-drop mentality were genuinely positive. I achieved many of the goals that I set for myself ahead of each semester, ticking the checkbox next to the proverbial item on the to-do list, and I managed to make some truly great friends. But sometimes, the results were incredibly negative. Particularly my freshman and sophomore year, my sleep deprivation resulted in an obliterated immune system, leading to a variety of maladies, most notably swine flue and pink eye during Homecoming my sophomore year. Moreover, when I did not achieve to the extent that I thought I should, it had terrible psychological results. Particularly at Oxford last year, where I was studying abroad, I would regularly find myself in a ruminative, cyclical depression, constantly putting pressure on myself to do better, only for that pressure to exacerbate the problems. Worst of all, I was oftentimes not as considerate of others as I should have been, even lashing out on occasion when my internal pain became overwhelming.
I took a long, slow path to realizing how unhappy I truly was in my achievement-driven mentality – and even when I realized it, I had a damn hard time trying to change. Unfortunately, while others face their own challenges with such a mentality differently than I did, the basic experience I have described is one that is all too common among the people I know at the College. We even held a forum on the challenges of pursuing effortless perfection in January.
Well, I am not here to say that we should not strive to achieve – that attempting to be as good as we can be, even if that pursuit is not effortless, is not a worthwhile goal. Such a claim would be hypocritical, condescending and untrue. There is something deeply worthwhile in striving to be the best that you can be in everything you do. How else can you learn where your limits are, and whether or not you are actually capable of achieving your dreams?
What I am here to say, instead, is that it is possible to pursue achievement without losing ourselves in that pursuit. Since my experience at Oxford, as well as the death of a friend, I have refigured what it is that makes me happy. I stopped; I took a deep breath; I relaxed. I have consciously tried to disassociate my happiness with external achievement. I still strive for my best. Those things still matter; they will always matter. But they are not the be-all, end-all of my existence.
What changed is something weirdly simple: Happiness has stopped being something on my checklist of things to achieve. The notion that I, or anyone, could become happy as a result of achievement, or indeed, could “achieve” happiness at all, is an absurdity. Achievements are inherently fleeting – there is always something else to strive for. Happiness, for me, has instead come to be about doing things I love to do, because I love to do them. It has come to be about how I am acting in my life – Am I treating my friends and family well? Am I helping the community? Am I taking classes that I enjoy? Am I being a good person? – rather than about the end results. That subtle change has helped me enormously. If these are challenges that you struggle with, maybe it could help you, too.
Matthew Piltch ’12 is a political science and English double major from Bryn Mawr, Penn. He lives in Poker.