It Looks Like Success, but it Doesn’t Feel like Success

The yardstick by which we measure someone else’s success is often shallow, exterior-focused, and almost never takes the person’s inner world into account. I don’t need to think deep to know what they are. I can regurgitate them in my sleep — there are the quantifiable things like money and everything that can be attained with money such as house, cars, and swanky items that we showcase to our social media friends and there are the difficult-to-quantify yet highly sought-after elements like prestige and power. In the world of academia, in which I now reside, your degree of success is predominantly measured by the number of your publications and your tenure status. If you are a married person and have children and possess all the things I mentioned above, voilà, you are deemed incredibly successful in the eyes of the world. The truth, however, is that the world won’t be able to see that despite having a glamorous lifestyle, lately, you have been having difficulty connecting with your spouse, and as a result, the beautiful home that once exuded warmth and light is now feeling cold and barren. Or maybe you are no longer getting any joy or fulfillment from your job, which then led you to some unhealthy behaviors that eventually turned into an addiction, and you are now living with an untold secret that is keeping you up at night. Or perhaps you are someone who toiled day and night to get to the mountaintop, believing the view from the top will finally fill the void you’ve had for so long, but only to discover that your soul is still restless, yearning for more even after reaching the long-awaited promised land. The world is filled with people who can successfully mark all the boxes of the success criteria and yet feel terribly unsuccessful on the inside. The list can be endless.

There is a reason why I wanted to talk about this. Not long ago, I was listening to a professor discussing his research on perfectionism, specifically on the heavy toll this modern-day affliction can take on a person’s mental and physical health. He himself identifies as a recovering perfectionist and is well acquainted with the nagging, torturous “you are still not good enough” feeling. At some point during the conversation, the interviewer asked this prominent professor if he at least attributes his accomplishments – his books, speaking engagements, and the fact that he works at a prestigious university — to his perfectionism. The professor’s response gave me a pause. He said, “Yes, it looks like success, but it doesn’t feel like success.” What I felt afterward was a profound sense of sadness. Not just for the professor but for everyone who mask their feelings of restlessness, incompleteness, deep sadness, unyielding regrets, and addictions with glitters. In this day and age especially, it’s much easier to deceive oneself and others. All it takes

is a set of curated pictures that depict your anniversaries, promotions, and vacations with the hashtag blessed.

As a society, we tend to value and reward what we physically see over what we can’t see, longevity and quantity over quality. Some years ago, while I was still in graduate school, I flew to Addis to visit my family and I don’t think I will ever forget what one of my mom’s closest friends asked me. This woman had known our family since we were very young and has always had our best interest at heart. We chatted for a while, and I gave her an update about what my sister and I were doing. My younger sister at the time was in the U.S. pursuing her master’s degree while working at a pharmaceutical company. In other words, outwardly, my sister was doing remarkably well. But my mom’s friend wasn’t just interested in hearing about our accolades; she also wanted to know if we were content and at peace. She then asked me this about my sister: “is she happy?” This is a question posed by someone with the wisdom to know that what we see on the outside isn’t often an accurate reflection of what lies beneath the surface. This is also a gentle invitation for you to display not just your shiny, put-together self but also your complicated and multifaceted truth. Suffice it to say that despite having loving friends and family members, I don’t remember anyone ever asking me that question.

I think oftentimes we simply do the accounting for others and determine their degree of contentment without ever inquiring about their lived inner experiences. To a degree, I believe it’s this type of disconnect that spawns a deep sense of loneliness. When there is a disconnect between how we truly feel and how we present ourselves to the world, when we continuously hide and disown some parts of ourselves, we’ll never get to experience what we all yearn for: which is to be fully known and loved. Having said this, I also acknowledge the paradoxical fear and longing we all experience when it comes to revealing our truest selves. I will close with the following quote by Frederick Buechner, “perhaps the central paradox of our condition — that what we hunger more than anything else, is to be known for our full humanness, yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.”

Feven Seifu is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota. If you have any writing ideas or topics you would like her to address, don’t hesitate to get in touch with her at

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