I Reached the Mountaintop. Where Is My Promised Land?

Hello Friends,

For this month’s blog, I would like to share with you the transcript of the very first  commencement speech I gave at the graduation ceremony of our master’s students held at the University of Minnesota this past May. I am sharing this partly for efficiency reasons — I  haven’t had the chance to complete the blog I have been working at for the past few weeks — and partly because the speech received commendations both from the graduating students and  their friends and family members, much to my surprise and delight. Although, I should warn you  that I had already covered part of the topic in my previous blog, so, if it sounds repetitive, my apologies in advance. And now to the speech: 

I would like to begin my talk with a line I heard from a professor. The line goes, “Yes, my life  looks like success, but it doesn’t feel like success.” Ever since I heard it, I couldn’t stop thinking  about it. His name is Thomas Curran, and he is a professor and a psychologist at the London  School of Economics. He appeared on a podcast called Hidden brain to discuss his work on  perfectionism —the down sides and dark sides of perfectionism and the toll we pay for living in  a culture that is obsessed with appearance and achievement. He himself suffered from the  affliction, and as a result, it’s a topic he deeply cares about. I will fast forward their discussion on  the given topic and go straight to the part that I would like to talk to you about.

Toward the end of their conversation, the podcast host wanted to push back and asked him, “Wait, you have  talked about the ways in which you are working to relinquish your perfectionism but look at your  life. Number one, you are a prominent professor at a prestigious university. Number two, you are  someone who writes books, articles, and gives talks that garner wide attention.” In other words,  what the podcast host was trying to say was, “You look like someone who has reached the  mountaintop. So, who are you to speak against perfectionism when in fact it’s probably due to your  perfectionistic tendencies that you are able to garner all these accolades?” That’s when the professor replied:

“Yes, my life looks like success, but it doesn’t feel like success. For example, I can’t afford to  live in the city where I work. I’ve had to put off things like having a family and relationships. I’ve lived in countless different homes. I can’t set root in communities or build a long and lasting  friendship group because my life has just been one long period of flux. And when I look and  reflect on this journey and how difficult it’s been and the sacrifice I’ve had to make, I sometimes  question whether I might’ve been better off back in my working-class community with a job that  gives me some sense of purpose with a family and a house and a community. Maybe I would be  happier.”

I don’t exactly remember what I was doing when I was listening to the episode, but I do  remember pausing the conversation, and feeling sad. Really sad. Not just for the professor, but  for everyone I know whose lives look impeccable on paper, but when you get closer, you see  their restlessness and deep unhappiness. Here is the problem: when we say someone is  “successful,” we rarely mean that they are content or at peace with themselves. We rarely mean  that they are good friends or good community members. We rarely mean that they get a good  night’s sleep. No. When we say someone is successful, we are often referring to money, and  popularity, and sharing a table with the powerful and pretty people. Those are the metrics with  which we measure success, and I wonder if we got it wrong. The sad truth is that it’s possible to  have reached the mountaintop, and never enter the promised land.

So, today I am hoping to convince you to build a life not just that looks like success, but one that  feels like success to you. I am hoping to convince you to build a life that is consistent with  values that are central to you. I am hoping to convince you to build a life that feels like success  to you, not necessarily because you have a full schedule, but because you have fulfillment. Not  necessarily because you know how to optimize your time, cramming every hour of every day  with productivity, but also because you have taught yourself to embrace enoughness.

So, let me ask you this. What does success mean to you? If you were to decouple the definition  of success you have inherited from your parents or society or social media influencers, what  would it look like? What would be included, and what would be excluded?

I don’t have advice, but I have a few suggestions:

  1. When you start to earn some money, I would suggest spending it on experiences rather  than stuff — experiences that will connect you to yourself, nature, and the people you  love. 
  2. The writer David Foster Wallace said in one of his speeches, “Everyone worships. The  only choice we get is what to worship.” Do not do what I did. I worshiped my  job and tried to derive my sense of meaning and identity and transcendence exclusively  from my job. The antidote to this is diversifying your sources of meaning. 
  3. When someone asks you what you have been doing these days, I think it should be totally okay to say, “I have been humaning around.” We are human beings first, not human  doings.

Written by: Feven Seifu

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