San Diego, CA
It was only an off-handed comment, but I remember it so clearly.
It was around 1997 and I was in high school. Specifically, I was hosting a dinner party at my parents’ house (as one does at sixteen). I set the table with china and crystal, carefully arranged the linens according to my recent studies of napkin-folding, and cooked up three different pasta dishes as a sort of ‘pasta bar.’ I was chatting with one of my guests when she turned to me and delivered bluntly: “You know, Meredith, if not for one thing, I would want your life.”
I felt wonderfully validated by the compliment. “You want my life?” I thought. “Well then I must be doing something right!” But beyond that, I became immediately fixated on this one exception: “Wait, what part of my life could she judge and find wanting?” I reflected. “I should definitely fix that right away.”
Much of my early years were spent striving to perfect myself. I worked hard in school for academic achievement, certainly studying more than necessary to get along. I poured myself into an appropriately diverse and engaging set of extracurriculars. Yet my definition of achievement wasn’t focused on resume-building alone. In addition to being the smartest and most accomplished I wanted to be the most well-rounded too. I journaled about my experiences and build a strong sense of self-reflection. I spent time with my family. I built emotional intelligence skills around listening and connecting. I committed to reading the Bible every morning and night as I plumbed for spiritual depth.
While I had a broad view of life, I had only one metric to measure every dimension against: excellence. Was I getting A’s on tests, devotedly going to the gym, cultivating both breadth and depth in my relationships, calling my parents, and taking on leadership roles? Was I being the best? My goal was to do everything required to become a ‘complete human being’ and to do it all well. Like my friend’s comment, I would know I was on track if people looked at my life and said “Gosh, I want what she has.”
There are plenty of issues with this worldview. To begin, this perspective set me on an endless quest with predictably unsatisfying results. I learned that there will always be someone who is smarter, funnier, more empathetic, better-read, more well-rounded, etc, etc, etc. It’s tough to be good at one thing, and much it’s harder to be the best at all things. Given that I didn’t always find myself at the top of the heap, I also had to become an agile mental gymnast to preserve my sense of self-worth. I looked for ways to reestablish my identity when I lacked hard proof of relative superiority (like test grades). One trick was to subtly reframe and recontextualize what types of excellence really mattered. “Yes, it’s important to be smart and emotionally intelligent like me,” I would think to myself, “but it’s not that important to have a great fashion sense or win at chess. So, in a way, I’m still the best.” I picked the constellation of things that I would judge on; it meant that I could still define myself as comparatively excellent in any range of situations.
Though this worldview drove my achievements and gave me worth, it became clear that these subconscious patterns didn’t help me connect with others. It’s no fun to sit in a room silently cataloguing the reasons why I’m smarter than this person, more engaged than that person, and more emotionally aware than that other person. I didn’t want to be constantly striving for more – or perpetually reframing why my slate of achievements are just as good as the next person’s.
So I’m working on giving up those old habit patterns. I’m redefining success away from ‘excellence, comparative superiority, and enviability’ to simply ‘authenticity.’ I used to make authenticity a sub-goal of my overarching quest to be the best (i.e., “Goal 283: Be the most authentic person around”). But I know it’s far more powerful when authenticity becomes the dominant lens. Who am I? What is innately valuable about me? And how do I sit with all the parts of me instead of trying to perfect them? Frankly, I don’t want you to covet my life. Instead, I want you to live your life fully, just as I want to live my life fully. With all it’s real messiness and imperfection.
This focus on authenticity neuters my reliance on external validation. I began my journey with a sense that if I made myself good enough then others would want my life; they would like me and I would have done well. But you remember my friend from high school and her one reservation about wanting my life? She said she would love to be me except… “you worry too much.” And so, as I throw out the idea of perfecting my life, I’ll also throw out my biggest worry about doing so: the fear that unless I make myself better and better, then I might not be worthy of your love and approval. Hopefully, striving for authenticity means that love and approval don’t need to come from you anymore; I should be able to find them independently.
It’s so easy for me – for any of us – to present only the Facebook veneer of a sublimated life: the travels, the engagements, the meals, the beach days with impossibly beautiful Californian weather. But regardless of what you see on your smartphone, here is the truth: I am not perfect. There is messiness and brokenness and not-all-put-together-ness in me. And far from being something I need to polish and perfect, I am more and more embracing those imperfect parts and loving myself even more. It has taken me until my earlier thirties, but I have learned that I don’t so much want to excel at life. I just want to live it.