Anything you want in life is yours if you work hard enough. Wanna climb the career ladder and be the best in your field? Get after it! Network with the right people. Take the right job offers. Still not there? Grind harder. You’re the only one standing in the way of your success! Still not there? Grind harder-er. If you’re not in the fast lane to success, you’re on the bus to MediocrityMart, chump!
Of course, that’s all bullshit. We’re flesh taped to bone living in a world where you can die from choking on a gummy bear. We control so little about our lives that thinking we can steer the ship of success into the harbor of life by trying hard enough is silly. Life can’t bend to our will. It’s not a spoon, and we’re not Uri Geller.
At the start of the Enchiridion, Epictetus, the slave turned Stoic philosopher, describes life in one sentence: Some things we can control, some we can’t. That’s what we forget: no matter how much we want to make something happen, reality is always trailing behind us for a quick shiv to the gut. You want things to be one way. Awesome. That’s not how it works.
Back in 2011, I thought I was on the path to “making it.” I knew I was a good writer, but I wanted to be the best writer. When people talked about me, they were going to delight in the mastery of my craft and the complexity of my creative mind. Year after year, I’d go to the big award shows to collect my trophies, until one year I’d politely decline further invitations because I had too many accolades.
Guess what? None of that happened. Eighteen months after moving to Toronto to write for a top-tier advertising agency, I was back in my childhood home in Winnipeg suffering from so much pain I thought I’d never be whole again. Everything I’d hustled to get was gone, and there were no answers for how it happened.
For seven years I struggled with unbearable pain. I couldn’t leave the house for long periods. I couldn’t sit in a chair for even an hour. The things that gave me purpose — writing and reading — were gone. I had to switch from reading books to listening to them on an iPod. I walked around my suburban neighbourhood for hours a day listening to audiobooks, thinking that if I walked long enough the pain would disappear and I’d be normal again. I wanted it to be one way.
I had to look at things differently. There were things I couldn’t do anymore, but there were still things I could do. I continued to learn through audiobooks and documentaries. I took classes at the university, making sure I was able to take tests on the comfy couch at the disability centre. I was in excruciating pain, but I was keeping my head above water. A year ago I even started growing gourmet mushrooms and selling them to restaurants in the city. I wasn’t getting rich, but I was getting out of the house and talking to people. To me, that was the same as having a billfold of hundreds.
Around the time I started growing mushrooms, something else started to happen. A medicine I took a chance on was working, and significantly. I went from needing opioids and constant bed rest to being able to leave the house for hours a day. Was I as healthy as I was before getting sick? I don’t think that will ever happen. But my life was better, even if it wasn’t like before. Why? Because the world of chronic pain is a hellish one. You float through life awash in pain with nothing to take it away. To now have days where I can be productive and surrounded by humans is a surreal and profound experience.
Some things are in our control. But many more things aren’t. What I’ve learned during my years of illness is that we can only control how we view our situation. I could have turned bitter because I didn’t get the life I wanted. But I chose to fight for understanding among the chaos. It’s a struggle that takes discipline, but it’s the only way to survive the madness. If you turn bitter, life will throw you to the darkness and never look back.
Whether it’s your career, your relationship, or your vintage wine collection, everything you think makes you whole can disappear easier than it appeared. Success in life doesn’t come from the title on your business card or the possessions you surround yourself with. It comes from understanding what you can control and what you can’t, and finding happiness somewhere in the middle.
As I continue to see my health improve, I feel ready to try writing professionally again. I know what being sick for so long does to job prospects, but I’m not worried. If I’m no longer good enough, I’ll find meaning in other things. But I love writing too much not to try. And if it works, I’ll have done something I’d never thought possible. That’s success. If there’s a cosmic lottery, I’ve already won.
With regard to everything that you enjoy, find useful, or love, keep their nature in mind, starting with the smallest things. If you have a favorite coffee cup, remember that it’s a cup; then if it’s broken, you can stand it. When you hug your child or your spouse, remember that it’s a mortal human being you’re hugging; then if that person dies, you can stand it.