I have always believed that I was special. Not out loud, but secretly. Like, I will live an essentially normal life, but somewhere waiting for me is something special.
I recognized that statistically speaking, this was unlikely, but perhaps this interchange with my dad when I was a kid will illustrate.
In response to me saying I wanted to be an author, my dad said, "It's really hard to become an author. Many, many people write many books, and very few of them get published."
I responded, "Yeah, but I already write really well in high school. I write better than average. I will get published because I will be a better author."
I thought I'd be able to beat the odds by being good enough, practiced enough, determined enough, or even sometimes, just lucky enough.
But of course, I did none of those things. I believed I was destined for something special, so I took no real steps to attaining it.
Now, I've turned my back on all my previous successes, and I still get out of bed everyday on faith that "my day" is yet to come and I better be prepared for it. I'm 33. I'm pretty close to the middle of the average American life expectancy. It's time to stop kidding myself. If I've been mediocre all this time, there is very little evidence that this will change.
My acceptance of my own mediocrity
I need to accept that I will probably never accomplish anything truly noteworthy. Mostly because I don't think I can continue to justify my existence on the premise that I will. I am living a lie, if that's the reason I use to motivate myself. At what point does it become undeniable and do I just kill myself then? Can I make my happiness and will to live dependent on a statistical improbability? Or will I become truly depressed and see my entire life as a waste because I could have been enjoying my days? Or will I attempt to delude myself and frame my life as full of promise until the last breath?
My life will probably never be anything significantly different than what it is. We don't even want kids, so that rock in the pond will never be thrown either. I had exciting plans for next year, but those will probably not pan out because they require me to qualify for a job it is statistically unlikely I can qualify for. Instead, I will probably just go on to graduate school, another round of applications, class registrations, semi-teaching positions, completing tasks set by teachers and administrators. The same rythym that has defined my adult life. And if I'm honest, I'm okay with that. Which I never thought I would be.
It's funny because even as I write this, I feel a flicker of hope crying out against it. No, there's still a chance. Don't give up! Even if you fail, the trying itself will be much more fulfilling than not.
That is true, but that's not even what I'm talking about. It's one thing to undertake a goal that's statistically implausible, to recognize this, and to enjoy the journey without being tied to the outcome. It's another thing to define a life worth living by the attainment of that outcome. Can I enjoy the journey knowing that it may, will probably, end nowhere significant or even interesting? The best I can hope for is standard meaning-making. I'm tired of making up stories about my value and worth.
Statistically speaking, I will never do anything newsworthy. I will likely never do anything that will make a unique impact on anyone's life outside of my family circle, and even there, it is unlikely that my presence will make a significant difference on the long-term fortunes of my family. I won't raise kids, so I won't leave any sort of parental legacy. I'm not inclined towards activism, and even if I was, there's almost zero chance I would contribute anything more than numbers to any movement I joined.
I will probably not be any wealthier than my father, if that, certainly not significantly wealthy or wealthy enough to have any number of truly exclusive experiences. I will probably never become fluent in Arabic, my mother's language. I will probably never become able to read music.
I will probably never write any one of the books I've been dreaming of my whole life, and if I do, it will probably never be published, as my dad pointed out.
So how do I think we achieve exceptional goals?
To believe anyone can accomplish anything is to believe that some combination of determination and skill is enough to achieve these unlikely goals, which in turn seems to me to be placing the blame of failure on the ranks of unpublished authors, unselected astronauts, washed out fighter pilots, burned out ex-medical students, disqualified spec ops candidates, unpicked actors, enelected political leaders and everyone else who tried for something out of the ordinary. And that to me seems like the height of arrogance.
But people do accomplish exceptional goals. They are often lucky. Survivorship bias is a thing. Maybe persistence plays a role, and by being persistent and refining their craft, they eventually manage to be appropriately qualified, noticed, and present when they are needed. This assumes that they have the time and resources to put in all that practice and the patience to keep trying over and over, or the love of what they are doing.
But I imagine there are plenty of people who tried and failed, and kept trying and kept failing, and the best they can do is develop a hobby or host YouTube channels talking about this topic they love so much because they are no longer qualified to pursue it.
I don't know if that's admirable, that these people can find a way to be close to their passion and recognize that the whole point is to do what they love, not to attain a particular outcome, or sad that they will never get to do what they dreamed of doing. I don't know if I can live like that. I don't know if I have the patience to put in that much practice, or to get up over and over again after many failures.
I don't even know if this model of success is a real one. I just sort of made it up right now in my head based on anecdotal ideas about authors and astronauts.
Even now the voice cries out not to publish, lest these become self-fulfilling prophesies. But I think that's missing the point.
I'm not actually complaining mind you. I live a life of relative privilege. My days are characterized by leisure, and my main anxieties are about how to fill my days, and whether I've made the most productive or fulfilling choices. I won't call this a blessing, because it feels like a curse, but it is a privilege and a luxury. But let's be honest, I also lack the ambition to make anything of my situation. I tried drive and ambition and all that, started to see success, and got bored/frustrated/tired/disilllusioned. Again, this all screams privilege, that I had the luxury to give up on a job millions of people are striving to get. I recognize that. I also tried developing my character as if that were just another skill to master. I just don't care anymore, and I won't care, and I don't really care to care.
So where does that leave me?
Because I just have to fix things...
If these are things that bother me so much...why don't I try? The more I work on this the less I believe it is an authentic idea, or that I'm expressing it correctly. It reads like nihilism but that's not how I feel about it.
Eating shit and choosing problems
Mark Manson writes in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck about this idea of choosing what problems you want to deal with everyday. He asserts that everyone has problems, but happy people are working with problems that they enjoy solving, versus the rest of us who aren't.
He also talks on his blog about what our favorite shit sandwich is, and how this gives us an intrinsic advantage over other people competing for the same work but who maybe aren't willing to tolerate that particular flavor of shit.
Of course, this presupposes that determination and persistence do contribute to success, while we certainly see examples of people in work that is exclusive who were not determined (I think...movie stars whose parents were movie stars come to mind).
But choosing our problems seems very helpful.
Goals, routines, journeys, destinations
Since I have to contribute something to my own life to feel like a worthwhile human being, I want to add my own take. When I adopted at the age of 29 the goal of becoming an astronaut (🤣😅😀😐🤔😥😰) I recognized that it was an unreasonable goal. I didn't have a STEM degree, and by the time I gain the minimum amount of experience, I'd be well on my way to middle age. The military route is seeming less likely every month.
But let's take a look at what I have done in the pursuit of that goal:
- Went back to school first for computer science, then mathematics
- Attended a NASA LEGO robotics competition, which my team won, at Kennedy Space Center, with my wife
- Interned at NASA JSC for a full year at the request of my manager during which time I built one of the most complex pieces of software I've ever worked on
- Started flying again
- Started SCUBA diving again
- Started camping and hiking again
- Pushed myself to go for honors, prestigious jobs and positions, the math honors society, and a scholarship, which I got
- Applied to become a US Air Force officer, one of my lifelong dreams
- Started learning about and practicing mountaineering
- Saw Jupiter and Saturn with my own eyes because we bought a telescope. This is now routine! I learned how to align and use a telescope.
- Taught robotics at a summer camp
- Sustainably pushed my level of fitness to new heights
- Made aquaintences with several astronauts who have offered me advice and references
- Taken my academics more seriously than ever before, leading to a perfect GPA (so far, knock on wood)
- Learned to appreciate my relationship in ways I had never before because I was forced to consider what I was asking my wife to shoulder, and that I was proposing a lifestyle in which I would be absent for long periods of time
Even if I never become an astronaut, or an Air Force Officer, all of these things are valuble (to me) in their own right. And they are things I wanted to do anyway. Having the reason gave me a justification, and I'm afraid that if I lose the reason, I will lose the justification.
But, I love what my life has become, and I can simply ask myself what I want my energy and time to be filled with and try to fill it with those things, rather than necessarily focusing on the implausible end goal.
Follow up questions
- What problems do I want to deal with everyday?
- What are the problems I would be dealing with in all these various dreams and ideas of my life?
- How do I find out what problems people in these lifestyles face?
- What problems am I dealing with today that I enjoy?
- What problems am I dealing with that I don't enjoy?
- What has pursuing astronaut canidacy introduced into my life that I want to keep, regardless of the end result?
- What has it pushed me to begin valuing again that I had devauled in the past?
- What has it encouraged me to let go of that I don't miss?
- What has it led me to let go of that I do miss or resent letting go of?
- If I never get to be exceptional, what sort of day would I like to be living anyway? Do I have it in my ability to start living those days right now?
A new framing:
I am not special, in any meaningful sense of the word. There is no promise to fulfill nor to squander.
What a freeing thought.