On Success

Afraid of being a jerk, afraid of being a nobody.

Since I was a little girl, I’ve carried fantasies of being famous. Usually, I’m a pop star of some kind who also happens to travel the developing world and produce documentaries and is dating some dashing other famous person, rushing in the Golden Era of Brown People in America. In my fantasies, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, and I share the cover of Time magazine. Cover line: “THE NEW SOUTH ASIA.”

I don’t actually pose for photo shoots, though, see, because my religious beliefs dictate that mass reproduction of my image can constitute idolatry. At my concerts, you’ll never see my face on a t-shirt. I tell my fans not to put my face up on their walls, that I’m not worthy and they shouldn’t idolize anyone.

I write everything*: I write for television, I write award-winning nonfiction, I write screenplays, I write plays. I am a successful song-writer for brooding rock bands, and my songs for men win Grammys. (Rolling Stone feature coverline: “Sadia knows the shit out of men.”) I win awards but I don’t care about them. I give away 90% of my income to charity. (“If you don’t want to support Gaza, don’t buy my records.”) People like me.

Tragedy could strike at any moment. I get a serious illness, I am unable to have children, my lover dies in combat or is assassinated because members of Al-Qaeda hate me. They hate what I stand for, that I’ve reinterpreted Islam to be compatible with modern life, and they decide to kill the things I love to get back to me. (Killing me would make me too much of a martyr.) The world mourns when I mourn, the world hurts when I hurt. I live life openly, publicly.

Part of the time I’m also working for the CIA. You see, I actually got my big break because officials in Langley decided they needed a figurehead that could cross cultural barriers and bring people of many worlds together. I was designated as appropriate (curvy enough that white guys would fantasize about my supple breasts, but not too thin that bearded mullahs wouldn’t be into it). So, in addition to my talents as a writer and performer and storyteller and generally attractive person, I am also a trained fighter and killer. Before I made it big, I seduced terrorists and slit their throats (the halal way) in bed. I kept my identity secret until shots were fired at one of my concerts. When that happened, I slipped my hand under my dress and pulled out a 9 mm, firing point-blank at the perpetrator. The crowd gasped when I expertly found the culprit. There was some backlash, and some people felt betrayed by my affiliation with the CIA but I explained that I was just a government contractor and never supported drone attacks. Most people forgave me. Al Qaeda would soon cease to exist. People listen to my music during Arab Springs. India loves me so much they decide to take Pakistan back.

I have the cultural relevance of Madonna before Madonna lost her cultural relevance.

I went to a college where people wanted success but were afraid to admit it. A place where talented and capable people compared themselves to the perceived success of others and asked themselves: Her? She wrote this essay once on Proust that was horrible. I edited a story of hers that was inscrutable. Why not me?

I have a desire to be a great success. But this desire is almost always in competition with my desire to remain likable. To be likable, in my warped mind, means I can’t want too much or be too much. I have to stay grounded, and I can’t shine too bright.

Because for some reason, I am both attracted and repelled by successful people and I feel like many of my peers feel the same. Being successful means you’re a jerk or conniving or knew somebody or blew somebody or sold out or just got lucky. It rarely means you’re good and you deserve it.

I am both attracted and repelled by own ambition.

“She is so ambitious it’s scary,” people said of me in high school, a time when I was most unlikable. An A student with a lot of drama and not enough compassion. (Ambition makes you look pretty ugly, the song goes. For my younger self, it was true.)

Ever since my disastrous, depressive college years, I’ve kept it safe. B student safe. B students are always likable. They get invited to the Saturday night house party and teachers still like them. Being the B student has taken me far in the last 5 years. I’ve got fulfilling friendships and a great job and a very, very decent life.

But I can hear the call. It’s this voice inside my chest. It gets louder at night. You have to do more. You are not going to live a conventional life. You have to do more. It’s the feeling that I am not doing what I am uniquely called to do on this planet.

It’s also about not having the actual talent, of course. I think of myself as more of a storyteller than an honest-to-goodness writer. I’m not a fancy prose stylist, just more of an honest communicator. When I publish something, I am paralyzed by the reactions happening behind my back. I worry people will critique my grammar, my word choices, and ultimately say I didn’t deserve it. (When I was a reporter, it felt different. I always had the cover of an editor.)

So for years, I’ve remained in a limbo space, talking about my big plans but not actually pursuing my big plans. The book of essays. The talk show. The sex writing. The ideas salon. Living abroad. A screenplay. Learning Arabic. Even restarting a stupid, simple newsletter project. All stalled because of fear.

And worry. I worry about going for it and getting destroyed by failure, and I worry about going for it and getting addicted to winning. I worry that if I go for it, I’m going to light up the worst parts of myself. I’m going to be disliked.

Sometimes I hate myself for not being more like the person in my insane, decades-long dream sequence.

But! But. The call is getting louder and answering seems more and more irresistible. I read about people like me doing the things I’ve always talked about doing, and I want in. The past 2 years have been the closest I’ve felt to an equilibrium of selves, my high school ambitious self and my post-college compassionate self, converging to become someone slightly more actualized. I want things, like money and fame, but also deep friendships and everlasting love, too. Maybe I can have it all, without losing it all. Maybe.

So I guess this became more of a declaration: I’m going to be an A student again. And I am also going to let myself fail.

Because I have to do more.

Post-script: there’s a body of work around this issue, some call it lack of confidence and there’s a lot of connection between the perception of likability and gender. I get it. But I don’t want to bring gender into it. It may be a true pattern but to me, it feels sort of limiting to chalk up my fear to my identity as a woman. I don’t think I am afraid because I am a woman. I am afraid and I happen to be a woman.

*Not poems.

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