What My English Teacher Taught Me About Success

A conversation with an old friend

Two people having a conversation
Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash

There is a new type of feeling associated with a major life transition that I never had the privilege to experience until only recently. Transitioning into university life — especially online — warrants a sense of emptiness at not knowing anyone or what to do and discovering that the stuff you were good at before turned out to be mediocre in a sea of equally passionate and talented people.

Saturday — the once most treasured part of the week — is now dreaded in fear of having to face a specific blank-state openness that results in you derailing from your momentum and having to exhaustingly start it all over again on Monday. In addition to the pressure of school work, I am in a period where all access I have to social interaction remains online, complete with the pressure of having to be perfect and good enough for my overly competitive friends.

I met my online friends via academic competitions, so it is natural that they would primarily gravitate towards fellow overachievers. Back in my old school, I was dying to get out because nothing felt like much of a challenge. Being from a small town, there were very little opportunities for work and competitions, no clubs or societies, and people just didn’t really care — or even had no knowledge of — these things.

So, I put in all my effort to get involved in things happening outside the borders of my town. However, networking with overachievers in big cities changed my relationship with time. Time is no longer a thing that your body passes through, it becomes a resource to be exploited. The blankness of weekends is dreadful to me, because nothing I do ever feels enough. There was always an opportunity cost associated with any activity I chose to do.

I find it extremely jarring how my social circle significantly distorted my relationship with time. Instead of turning to people or hobbies, I immediately find myself turning towards work. And, as much as I hate to admit it, it isn’t even productive work. Cal Newport calls it pseudo-work, in which people trick themselves into thinking they are busy even though they aren’t producing the ideal results.

Time is no longer a thing that your body passes through, it becomes a resource to be exploited.

People will forgive you for not being successful if you already use every available second you have to work. You are not lazy, you are just not as intellectually blessed as other people, I tell myself. People will praise you for putting more effort than others. This way of thinking reinforces the notion that work is more important than anything else. There is a hole inside me that I try to fill by doing anything worthwhile enough to excuse myself from dealing with it.

And at some point, you just get sick of it.

Fortunately, I had an encounter with my middle school teacher in a coffee shop, who taught me a valuable lesson:

You are not here for anybody else’s consumption.

Him: So how was meeting your old classmates? Did it feel like a vacation to a past life?

Me: …It was good. / Him: Good?
Sketch by the author

Me: They didn’t judge you based on academic achievements. Meeting them again humbled me a lot. Back in my old school, I was dying to get out. Now I realized life doesn’t always go uphill.

Him: Fair enough. Life basically is middle school forever.

Me: Yeah, you’d think we’d finally feel like an “adult” but it never comes. Now I’m academically more accomplished, but emotionally worse.

Him: It’ll get better once you get to Australia.

Me: I found out that the real reason my ex dumped me was because I was “average”, “dragging him down”, and that I “think small”. Now I’ve been obsessed with “self-improvement”, “productivity”, and “being a corporate sellout.”

Him: Fuck that dude. Date a bad boy. Someone who isn’t going to be employee of the month.

Me: He doesn’t even want to be an employee, he wants to be the boss.

Him: Your whole generation is a corporate sellout. / Me: I know right.

Him: There’s so much more to life than school, work, and success. I would worry less about those things. I may not be an executive like my brother, but I got a lot of good memories.

Me: I used to think that way too. But after having this spear lodged in my chest, there is nothing I can do to pull it out besides be successful.

Him: That comes when you’re 30.

Me: I didn’t care about success because being in love — with a person, with the world — already feels so good. But now I realized that if you want love, you have to work hard for it. My mother taught me that respect is earned, not given. I guess it applies the same for love.

Him: Oh my God. Who filled your head with this garbage?

Me: I’m not going to be an INCEL and blame it on men’s “unrealistic standards” anymore.

Him: I remember most guys being amazed to get any girl. The idea that she should be “successful” never came up. Are you dating young Republicans?

Me: That might be the case back then, but now every one out of five girls on Instagram could pass as a professional model.

Him: Do you really think that evolution accelerated in 25 years?

Me: No, but beauty standards have increased and beauty as a whole is much more accessible. When I was at early secondary school, I wanted to get plastic surgery once I turn 18. But my girl friend — who wanted to get it done herself — told me not to.

Him: Don’t. It also felt very accessible in the 90s. All the girls were bulimic.

Me: In that case, I have to compensate with accolades. I’m torn between wanting to enjoy life while I’m young, but also fearing that doing so would cost me in the future.

Him: You can do both. Try to find a boy who isn’t the boy version of you.

Me: I mean, I’m already doing that, but I’m not good enough to date even by my own standards.

Him: Something is wrong with this picture. I don’t remember you being a troll. Are you sure this “not good enough” stuff isn’t all in your head?

Me: I don’t know. I got used to the standards of my old circle of “friends”, I guess. They don’t befriend someone because they’re nice, they befriend someone because they get you somewhere. Cal Newport also suggested it in his book: Seek people with grand ambitions, not people who are happy with a decent job.

Him: Something is wrong here. You have the world by the balls. You have everything so many people would want. You’re studying in Melbourne for Christ’s sakes. If your life sucks there, then something is wrong. Are you sure these books aren’t messing you up?

Me: But what Newport says is true. If you want to get somewhere, you have to sacrifice some things.

Him: You should not be this miserable. And you have been miserable for about 3 years now. And it seems like you’re always upset because you aren’t good enough at being something that you probably aren’t even supposed to be in the first place.

Let me tell you something: I was born in Greenwich Connecticut. And I know that means nothing in Indonesia, but in America that like being from Beverly Hills. It is the epicenter of rich white douchebags in Bugatti’s. It’s all Birkin bags and plastic surgery and defunds and drinking martinis on the golf course and raising kids to go to Harvard and Yale. It is ground zero for “success.” And I hated it so much that I got as far away as I possibly could and I don’t regret a thing.

I am not saying you should move to the other side of world and teach English. I’m simply saying that if you’re not happy with one path, take another path. There is no “best” way to life. Success is not some Platonic concept that we strive towards at all costs. Success is something that you create yourself and you find your own version of. If you keep trying to accomplish some other version of success, you will never have it and always feel bad.

You need to find YOUR friends — not your idea of who your friends should be. And you need to set YOUR goals. And you need to live YOUR life, not someone else’s idea of what life should be.

Me: Wow.

Me: …Thanks. / Him: You deserve to be happy.

Him: You are not here for anybody else’s consumption. Remember that.

Me: …I will.

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Celine Hosea

Celine Hosea

Indonesian writer. 18 years old. Read my articles: http://linktr.ee/celine.hosea