Letting Go of Success Worship

A/N: I took a hiatus from writing to focus on my phlebotomy program. Now that I have graduated, I plan on posting more often (2–3 times a month). However, changes to my schedule over the next few months may affect my ability to post regularly. The best way to stay updated on my writing is to follow me on Medium directly, where you will be notified when I publish a new article. If you have any thoughts about my articles, or wish to contact me for business/media inquiries, feel free to email me at ajtanksley96@gmail.com. Happy reading!

“IF YOU DON’T HAVE YOUR NOTEBOOK OUT, YOU ARE NOT AN HONORS STUDENT!”

“IF YOU DON’T HAVE YOUR PENCIL OUT, YOU ARE NOT AN HONORS STUDENT!”

“IF YOU DON’T HAVE YOUR HOMEWORK OUT, YOU ARE NOT AN HONORS STUDENT!”

The hoarse, thundering voice of my PreCalculus Honors high school teacher shraved my ears as I frantically threw everything in my bag onto my desk. Tears streaming down my face. Mascara likely smudged. Homework definitely smudged with tears.

I had been in the classroom for a total of 45 seconds, and already our entire classes status as Honors students had been revoked due to the audacity of not having our materials out on our desk before our buttocks had landed in our seats. From that day forward, I vowed, I would always have my supplies on my desk the second I walked in the door. If I was to be the successful, perfect student I strove to be, I better become the Flash overnight.

Naturally, his words were completely ridiculous, and he ended up leaving my public school after only a year to work at a Catholic private school, where the institutionalization of guilt was likely to be better received. Nonetheless, his words stayed with me, and I grew into the obstinate conviction that the only way to avoid having my status as a perfect student revoked was to try a little harder.

A little harder. Just a little harder. 10% more effort. Now give me 100% more effort. 100% is not enough, I need 110% more effort. Ad infinitum.

I worshipped the words of my teachers in high school, and of any authority (real or fabricated) who spoke with the Old-Testament-God-voice of the iron wheel of success. I worshipped the words that told me that I would never get a job if I had acne, and spent hundreds of dollars on products. I worshipped the phrase, “NO EXCUSES!!!!!” The wickedness of excuses was thunderbrowed into my mind from the time I entered brick-and-mortal school to the day that I realized that excuses are a marvelous way to escape the horrors of social interaction.

I worshipped consequence, and unalterable scenarios, and abstinence-only education. I worshipped the inevitability of a university degree, and the importance of a growthgrowthgrowth mindset.

I prayed to God to make me a successful and more perfect human, to keep me a virgin that I may better serve His will. To burn away the anxiety that earned me migraines in fourth grade. I tolerated Bible verses slung at me during anxiety attacks by well-meaning family members. They were determined that my body’s natural physiological response to stress was poisoning me. If I continued to stress, I concluded, I would be fatsickpimplyunholy forever. I strove to avoid the poisons of stress at all costs, and became even more afraid.

I prayed to God to save me from sexual temptation that I may not get chlamydia and end up homeless and die. To grant me the straight As I needed for my exams so that I wouldn’t fail class and drop out of school and get chlamydia and end up homeless and die. To give me the resolve to make it through each school day without melting down from sensory overload, which leads inevitablyalwaysforever to failure.

I must always strive, try harder. If I don’t, I will be a failure. And failures drop out of school. And get chlamydia. And die.

Teachers who had kinder hearts than my PreCalc teacher assured me that I was wonderful for who I was. I refused to listen, so assured was I that success was the secret key I had to unlock to be accepted by neurotypical society. It was not enough to be good. It was never enough to be greatly conscientious and intelligent. I had to achieve, to soar, to be perfect, to fly straight into the sun and leave my mark on the world (spoiler alert: the mark you leave with this approach tends to be “splat” when the wax on your wings melt and your body hits the ground).

It never dawned on me until I was waist-deep in self-sabotage and mistake-making during my college years that there was a very large middle ground between “Nobel-prize winner” and “STI-infected corpse.” I was finally learning to make mistakes and make not-great decisions for myself, and the realization of my inability to be perfect nearly broke me.

I fought against that epiphany for years. I still wrestle with it sometimes when placed under the pressure cooker. I am recovering from the self-inflicted wounds of astronomical expectations, and letting go of success worship.

The fruits of success worship lead to bitterness, not betterment.

When I was little, I had a difficult time understanding why the eldest son’s attitude in the Parable of the Prodigal Son was widely condemned by theologians. Nursed on the milk of success culture, the eldest son seemed to be fully justified in his resentment of his little brother’s joyful homecoming.

He didn’t smokedrinkdrugssexparty. He was industriousdisciplinednosetogrindstonepullweight. He did all the right things, yet his strivings seemed futile when a loserhedonistsexpotgambleraddictwhore reentered his father’s life. Where was his damn fatted calf? Where was mine?

Many of the schools I attended went to lengths to verbalize their condemnation of plagiarism. However, the majority of my fellow AP and Honors students who I saw as exemplars of academic tradition were willing to plagiarize in the name of success — or, at least, did not vilify academic dishonesty to the extent that I thought they should. For years I was angered and deeply disgusted by this, going on lengthy rants to my friends. Many of my classmates were likely puzzled by my extreme hatred and contempt of plagiarizers.

This unnuanced hatred of academic dishonesty is the perfect example of perfectionism being a double-edged sword. My perfectionism bred a desire for moral excellence that earned me praise when I was young. However, my intense craving for external validation through “sucksezz and acheevment” combined with my unwillingness to break any rules led me to burn with resentment towards anyone who I condemned as lazy, whorish cheaters.

The fruits of success worship lead to bitterness, not betterment. Its fruits include chest and stomach pangs from decades of swallowing down bitterness. Success worship makes no room for empathy or a nuanced understanding of human behavior.

There is no room for compassion in success worship, either for the self or for others. Whips and flays drive the perfectionist, pills of resentment destroy the bodies of the disappointed idealist. In moving away from success culture, I have found a desire for wisdom not rooted in shrieking, frothing perfectionism, a desire for learning not rooted in golden stickers.

Wisdom pursuit, unlike success worship, does not guarantee an Everestian outcome followed by a downward spiral not mentioned in the fine print. In my interpretation of wisdom, there does not seem to be a tangible end goal; rather, an endless spelunking through caves of wonder, grief, and hard-learned lessons.

Success worship promises immortality through insipid neurotypical approval, which will inevitably turn to venom should your past sins be dredged up, or an incorrect turn of phrase uttered. Success worship does not even guarantee comfort, even though it often promises a comfortable material life. Success worship promises much, yet guarantees little beyond an obsessive need to proveproveprove to oneself/the cold eye of God and other that we are not the dreaded “f” word.

Wisdom…an endless spelunking through caves of wonder, grief, and hard-learned lessons.

Some religions preach that wisdom guarantees eternal life. In my (admittedly limited) understanding, however, coming to grips with finiteness and uncertainty has its own moral rewards that go beyond the promise of halos and white robes. Wisdom seems to make few guarantees, and hardly any assurances of comfort. Yet its fruit yields a serenity that can rarely be found in success worship, ironically in the absence of a guaranteed reward.

None of this, of course, is intended to shit on any and all who strive for success or aim to have a comfortable life. My father and paternal grandmother strove for success in their careers to provide a better life for their children and future generations. The aim for success motivated by altruism is a completely different philosophy, and outside of the scope of this article.

But insidious, perfectionistic striving for the approval of a crowd? The worship of reward/punishment models at the expense of love of self and others? How can any soul-bettering fruits spring from a hollow tree as the idolization of success?

Memento mori. Your house and 401K and body will fade from the earth, and you will become soil for mushrooms. Or succulents, if you live in a desert for some godforsaken reason as I do.

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Blogger, poet, and lifelong learner based in the Las Vegas Valley, Anna Joy Tanksley (she/her) writes about the intersection of philosophy and mental health.