“It doesn’t matter what you do,” I will tell my children, “as long as you’re the best at it.”
I wish someone had bred that into me.
I wish someone had repeated it over and over, setting a hook deep in my gut to drag me forward from cradle to grave, a hook more unrelenting and irreversible than any inferiority complex or Asperger’s syndrome.
Friends and family wouldn’t matter. Romantic love, either. I could forget fun, and health, and adventure. Morality would go out the window, too, unless, I had a shot at being the most moral person.
My entire life would be music, or writing, or exercise. No, even more specific than that. My entire life would be concert snare drum performance. Hiking in the Olympic Mountains. Critical interpretation of seventeenth century Polish poetry.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re the best at it.”
I admire that line in the same way I’m jealous of orphans.
It’s a freedom unrestrained by love or commitment. It’s a freedom to dedicate fully, to don a monastic fervor and never remove it, to transcend humanity and become accomplishment incarnate. It’s the freedom to choose Sam Hamilton’s greatness: On one side you have warmth and companionship and sweet understanding, and on the other—cold, lonely greatness.
That line makes well-roundedness impossible and unnecessary. The elusively attainable “well-lived life” no longer matters. But achievement? Achievement becomes as instinctual and vital as breathing. I would strain toward success like plants in a woodshed, white and deformed and fully committed to my only option for life.
But instead, I’m a twenty-four-year-old Millennial who can’t make up his mind.
I know that the muscled, emotionally stable mountain climber who woos intelligent women, writes bestselling memoirs, and dispenses wisdom to a crowd of intimate friends won’t ever materialize. There’s a clog in that pipe dream; all that will leak through, at best, is a trickle. But I can’t decide what that trickle should be.
When I hit a PR at the gym, I think of the stack of books I’m not reading. When I update my website, I remember all the writing I’m not doing. When I go home for a quiet dinner with my parents, I imagine friends laughing and drinking and hiking without me.
I’m a pendulum. A see-saw. A tetherball battered back and forth that never breaks free, that never soars more than a few feet in any direction before a different urge snaps me back. Opportunity cost, the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen, is the rope that keeps me stuck. Opportunity cost, the benefit you could have received by taking an alternative action, keeps me swinging around a pole that is familiar, well-rounded, and unexceptional. And all the while, that rope keeps shrinking, wrapping itself tighter and tighter around mediocrity. Another year, another loop.
I’m not afraid of dying—no more than most people, anyway. Growing older, however, terrifies me. I might summit Denali, publish a story, take home $100k, and marry a beautiful woman, but all the while, my potential keeps shrinking. Another year, another loop.
Take away my choices.
Trap me in a monastery.
Throw me in a grad program.
Exile me to Alaska.
Someone make a choice for me, because I’m too afraid to do it myself. They say seven career changes is average these days, but some careers can’t change. Some require a lifetime of dedication, and I don’t want to rule those out. English professor? Corporate leader? Even short stints scare me. What will I miss if I spend a year in the oil fields, or two years in a master’s program? It’s not just job costs, but life costs. I want to watch my brother grow up, and I want to visit my parents on the weekend. I want the security of an office job and the freedom of a vagabond, the fame of authorship and the wholeness of loved ones and the excitement of traveling and the comfort of financial success.
I’m searching for the perfect life, and I’m failing.