TFW You’re Successful — and Miserable

Read this reflective narrative about chasing success.

Claire is a go-getter, and when she found a fitness organization that matched her drive, she dove all the way in, taking on a career with the business. She was succeeding in this work, but a restless feeling began telling her that she was chasing this work for the wrong reason — she was hooked on the value it seemed to give her in the world’s eyes. Here, she describes what it took for her to change course. 

During my freshman year of college, I joined a health and fitness organization that taught women a variety of different workouts. I was captivated by their motto: “To liberate girls from the elliptical.” They were committed to empowering women to try workouts that are traditionally deemed more masculine. I joined this organization because of their challenging mission, and to keep fit while in college. 

I found a wonderful community of women there who held me accountable in my health, and I wanted to do more for them. The next year, I became a small group leader, directing a workout at the gym for a group of girls once a week. It was a nice routine that fit in perfectly with my other commitments.

I quickly became dissatisfied with being a small group leader — it seemed like I wasn’t doing enough. As a type-A personality, I like to be in charge… but it quickly became more than that. At that time in my life, I wanted to create an image for myself that seemed impressive to other people. I wanted others to look at my resume and recognize my importance instead of trusting that they could simply acknowledge and love me for the person I was. 

Looking back, I can see that my values were in the complete reverse order. I thought that if I was succeeding in an external, observable way, I would find value in winning according to the world’s standards. That motivation drove me to become president of the fitness organization.

I still loved what the organization stood for during my time as president, but during the first few months of the school year, I could tell something was missing. I was chasing success for approval and validation, not because I was passionate about the work or wanted what was best for the organization. And it was draining. An activity that once brought me stress relief and fun seemed like another task to add to my to-do list. 

Although I knew something was wrong, it was easy to ignore my interior life when I was busy trying to meet some standard of worldly success. There was a gap between the surface-level decision making that caused me to immediately jump at this challenge and the deep-down gut feeling that was starting to tell me something was out of place. 

After months of mental exhaustion, I knew I needed to reevaluate my decision, but I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t want to be seen as a quitter, and didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t live up to expectations. Forcing myself to be busy with my commitments caused me to avoid silence and the reality that I was stressed and unhappy. Because I had no time to attend to my mind and heart, it seemed impossible to figure out what to do. It was clear I needed to attend to the deep-down hesitations I desperately tried to ignore.

First, I journaled. Writing surfaced insights and values that were dormant or hidden, and that shone a light on my situation. It was incredibly cathartic to brain-dump all of my thoughts — especially the ones I didn’t realize I am having until they appeared on the page. “Don’t think, just write” was the motto I had for myself. Journaling gathered the swirling thoughts in my head and put them on a logical pathway. The practice quickly revealed to me what was really going on inside me, so I’ve continued it. Each time I am faced with a decision and get stuck in my head, I journal for at least 15 minutes. I immediately go back and read what I wrote and find clarity. It helps me discover new patterns in my thought process. 

After writing, I found time for silence and quiet reflection. It is nearly impossible to find silence these days, and even now, I still try to ignore moments of quiet and stillness. When I started sitting in silence, it was wildly overwhelming to be left alone with my thoughts. But it didn’t take long to settle in, and the stillness allowed me to perceive a clear direction. Quiet reflection helped me confront and accept a difficult conclusion: the best thing for this organization wasn’t me. 

So I found myself swallowing my pride. While I initially got involved as a small group leader to give back to women who joined me in community, I became president for the wrong reason. A healthy dose of success is a wonderful boost, but I made it my everything. I lost sight of the things I was passionate about. I was doing it just to affirm that I could do it, and was spread pretty thin from all of my other commitments. 

It was incredibly difficult to step down. I still love this organization and what it stands for. I felt as though I was letting everyone down; I felt as though I was letting myself down. In many ways, I failed the world’s standards. But recognizing my limitations and learning when to stop has been incredibly freeing. I was able to appreciate the organization even more because I remembered why I enjoyed it in the first place. And if I hadn’t stepped down, I wouldn’t have found time to discover the truly fulfilling career path that I am currently in.

I learned that no matter what decision I have to make — hard or small — it’s so important to give time and energy to dig deeper. I could have gone with the flow and followed my surface-level instincts — and I would have been rewarded for that — but I wouldn’t be as centered or peaceful as I feel today. And that’s worth so much more. 

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