Do I have to be the next Elon Musk to make my life count?

A few weeks ago, I read an awe-inspiring and magnificently well-researched piece on one of my favorite blogs, Wait but Why, called “Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man”. As the title implies, the piece was a deep-dive into the life of the dude who founded PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla, focusing on these ventures but also providing some insight into Elon the Human Being (whom I previously assumed to be “E.L.O.N., the Next Generation of Artificial Intelligence Since No Actual Human Being Can Do What He’s Done”). It was engaging, informative, educational, and just a bit soul-crushing.

“And just what the hell do I do with my life?” I thought, letting my deep-seated self-deprecation bore into my consciousness after I finished reading the article while shrugging into my seat, arms crossed. In my mind, I started naming off things that I do, creating a running checklist to ensure that I was still a worthwhile member of the human race despite not being instrumental in changing the course of the automobile industry. Do I do enough work for the university? Is the book I’m writing going to change lives someday? Do I inspire my friends and family to greatness? Do I practice pole and aerial enough to become as good as Natasha Wang or Bendy Kate?

In times like these, I bring myself back out of Selfhateistan (the place where my confidence goes to die and – incidentally – lies nowhere near any of the “-stan” nations) only by reminding myself of something really important:

A big part of being successful at something is the condition of actually wanting to be successful at something. 

For instance, while attending Cambridge and becoming a world-renowned neuroscientist sounds fantastic and is certainly a way to make vast contributions to society, that’s not what I want with my life at all. Neither is becoming a concert violinist or pro basketball player. If I truly wanted to do these things, I would put in the woman-hours until I collapsed – and, theoretically, I could succeed (except in the case of the pro baller; at “only” five-foot-nine and clumsy, I don’t think I could make the cut), but I choose not to. I’d rather focus on becoming who I want to be. I focus on what’s important to me.

When I think about what’s important to me, I think about making my brother’s first soccer game of the season this Saturday. I think about planning a girl’s weekend with my Mom, if only she would give me her availability already, dang it. I think about my health (too much). I think about building up my web design skills at work, so I can help my local reptile store rebuild their website. I think about making my coworkers happy and reducing their stress. I think about reading and writing as much as possible. I think about impacting the world of education. I think about swing dancing and laser tag and video game/spa nights with my partner. I think about traveling, especially in a backpack-like manner so as to facilitate my meeting of interesting people and *willfully* running into unpleasant, but later hilarious scenarios like having crazy hostel-mates or accidentally eating gourmet bugs. I think about what my first pole competition is going to be like. I think about what it’s going to be like when I resume my private pilot lessons. I think about opportunities where I can donate my time to making peoples’ days easier that day.

And yes, I do think about changing the world, preferably through my written word. Even if I change just a faction of the planet, or even if I have just one, remote fan who’s touched by my eclectic, far-off musings, that’s enough for me. I’m not the “popular” one and, in a way, that’s a relief.

(I’ve eliminated the other preposterous things I think about, like “MY ROOTS ARE COMING IN AND I NEED TO CHANGE IT NOW BECAUSE COOL AND WARM COLORS IN HAIR CLASH THIS IS DISGUSTING I’M DISGUSTING” or “My boyfriend is out at a baseball game and hasn’t called me even though it’s 12 am. No, his phone didn’t die – he’s dead on the road, obviously! I’m going to Google all the hospitals in the area…wait, should I set a radius, like 50 miles? I’m going to set a radius.” Being in my mind for even a half hour would absolutely run anyone into the ground, trust me on this.)

From there, I work backwards. I cultivate my life so that I can pursue what matters to me – everything else extra that may come along is great, but not a priority. I work hard – really hard – to be wonderful at the things I care about. But I’m not going to sacrifice the most important things in my life for things that are decidedly less important, like having three houses or a private jet or an entire team of people to manage my money for me. Or, like Sir Musk, being the pioneer of three major multi-million dollar companies and having a net worth of 11 billion dollars. Again, that’s wonderful, and I’m not diminishing the value of it. I just think we need to start expanding our definition of “success” beyond one of pure currency accumulation.

This TED talk, this article, and this blog post all cite the “true cost of happiness” as lying somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000 for most people in the United States. Okay, it’s a little higher in Hawaii, but that’s because it’s freaking Hawaii. A fourth article, from Yahoo! Finance UK, also displays an interesting graph showing professions’ happiness relative to their average salaries. One comment from this article struck a chord with me and sums everything up better than I could:

“I grew up poor and now I am rich. Trust me on this, it hasn’t made me happy. I am still a grumpy git. I was once told that when you have no money, you have one problem. How to get some. When you’ve got money you have two problems. How to keep it, and how to get some more. I have come to the conclusion that a happy poor person will be a happy rich person, but becoming rich won’t make an unhappy person happy.”

Grumpy git-ness notwithstanding, this man seems to be right.

For two years, I made a lot of money for someone my age. I was miserable; the most miserable I’ve ever been in my life. This was despite having several weeks of vacation per year, buying clothes for myself almost every week, traveling at least once a month, and eating at restaurants as often as I wanted to. All this being said, I wasn’t pursuing the life that I wanted to pursue. I came into the job unfulfilled and knowing that the job would not fulfill me. (This is NOT a knock against my former job, as it taught me invaluable life skills, helped me forge life-long friendships, and is an AMAZING career for many people. I adore my company for everything it gave to me. But anyone who worked closely with me could tell you: I had taken the wrong train into the wrong territory.)

Nowadays, I make less money. But guess what? I’m absolutely stoked on life. I still have my ups and downs and am still in pursuit of many dreams. But at least I’m on the right train now.

My partner’s current dream is to open up a facility housing both a physical therapy center and a gym. In pursuit of this, he has honed in on an impressive philosophy regarding exercise; he feels that it desperately needs more mental engagement and more program personalization. I admire him so much that I routinely embarrass both him and myself with how much I brag about him. Because I know how successful he’s going to be.

Never once has my partner talked about acquiring vast wealth. He just wants to make an impact. But with the number of people who already respect his skills at age 25, it seems that fulfillment and wealth are at his horizon. What makes me so proud is not the idea of him being wealthy. It’s the idea that I’m partnered with a man who is pursuing his life’s intended work.

Back to redefining success: it’s not about money (though we knew that, hopefully? Kinda?) – it’s about pursuing our life’s intended work, or trying to find out what our life’s intended work is, with fervor, grit, and resolve. It’s about not settling for less. Most challengingly, it’s about tuning out what’s not important.

Now that I’m on the right train, I can finally focus on the beautiful scenery I keep passing. Here’s hoping you’re on the same train that I am.

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