On Success

Without career ambition, what does success look like?

Photo credit: Matthew Straubmuller, CC BY 2.0.

I was in Bolivia the night I decided not to become an anthropologist. It was a strange twist of fate, actually, because I was there to get the fieldwork experience I needed for PhD applications in the fall, having graduated with an MA from the University of Chicago early in the summer. I lived on the top floor of a teetering three-story house in La Paz, with an old couple — Carlos and Maria — who regularly boarded foreign students but seem to have trouble remembering my existence. Life, I suspected, was not easy for them; they rarely seemed to leave the house, and Maria usually spent the day in her bathrobe. Every time we met on the stairs, she’d ask my name again, and where I was from. (“Joanna,” I’d say, carefully Latinizing the pronunciation. “Australia.”)

It was a difficult time. I had no one to talk to, I was struggling with Spanish more than I’d anticipated, and my internship at a museum wasn’t what I’d thought it would be. Every day I wandered the streets of La Paz — a surreal city, all harsh sun and dusty streets, built on slopes that sweep sharply toward the cold blue sky — feeling on edge, as though I would burst into tears if anyone spoke a kind word to me. (No one did.)

From the outside, it looked as though I was poised for a successful future in academia: I had the fancy master’s degree, high grades, research experience, an internship. My parents were academics, and as their only child, I’d been training for academia practically my whole life. The loneliness of my life in La Paz was worth it, I assumed, because of the experience it would eventually add to my (precious, fussed-over) academic CV. Which would get me into a high-ranking PhD program. Which would get me a fieldwork period of a year or two. Which would get me a PhD. Which would get me a postdoctoral position, maybe, if I was lucky. Which would get me a tenure-track job, maybe, if I was very lucky.

I was lying awake, as I often did, my brain grinding through these familiar calculations. I had to finish my internship, stick it out in La Paz. I had to get to a reasonable level in Spanish. I had to finalize my list of schools, and write my proposal, secure letters of recommendation from my professors. I had to, I had to…

So few things in life happen like the movie cliché of a bolt from the blue. Rather, it’s a gradual slide into thinking in a different way: viewing the world through a slightly different lens, until you can hardly remember how things were before. But that night, it did happen like in the movies. I sat upright in bed, electric with the realization: I didn’t want to be an academic. Besides completing this torturous to-do list and being rewarded with a PhD acceptance, what made this actually desirable?

I considered the facts: the academic job market, for a start. The possibility of needing to relocate to find a job; the difficulty of making this work with a partner’s career. Then the necessity of taking several months each year to do fieldwork. I had always wanted to be a mother, but how would I reconcile regular, long-term field research with small children? I realized uncomfortably that most of the successful women anthropologists I knew were childless, or at least didn’t have conventional family lives. Even without adding children into the equation, my partner and I would bounce from one period of long-distance to the next; always a separation looming on the horizon.

In the past I had managed, with the blind naivety of the fatalistic (and/or the very arrogant), to avoid really thinking about this. It’ll all work out, I told myself, because it’s what I’m meant to do. Now the difficult reality loomed up at me in its entirety: what, after all, was I planning to do with all of this? And, perhaps more importantly: what would happen if I didn’t do anything? What if I just decided not to become an academic after all? It was something I had never even considered, but it took me less than thirty seconds to make the decision. Freedom, terror, and relief flooded through me: the future unspooling from its reel.

So I didn’t apply for PhD programs in the fall. I didn’t move to any of the exciting foreign cities in which I had dreamed of studying. Instead I flew home at the end of the summer, got back together with my boyfriend, and moved into a sunny little flat with a vegetable garden and several neighboring cats. I got a part-time job which I enjoyed and which left me plenty of time for other things: seeing friends, producing a community radio show, and writing on the side. My boyfriend and I went to the park in the afternoons and the farmers’ market on the weekends, and we rode our bikes to friends’ houses to drink beers on their back decks. I stopped reading anthropological literature. I lost touch with my old professors. One night at a party, a friend spoke to me in Spanish and I found myself unable to answer, my clumsy tongue tripping over words that wouldn’t come. La Paz and all its rawness — the misery I felt there, the city’s harsh beauty, the needle in the heart — became a memory. A postcard on my fridge; something that pointed toward the person I used to be.

That night in La Paz, I traded in the academic rat race for an easier life, and there is an extent to which ease equates to happiness. I am less lonely now, and less anxious. Most of the storm clouds that used to hang threateningly over my future — not to mention that endless hamster wheel of a to-do list — disappeared when I decided to swerve off the academic path. There are spaces in my life where academia (and my anxiety about it) used to reside, and for the most part I’ve filled them with friends, with love, with happy domestic rituals, with reading for pleasure.

But there is still an unanswered question. For so many years, what had driven me forward was the urge to prove myself; to be, in the eyes of everyone around me, a “success.” Without career ambition, what does success look like, feel like?

“My current situation is to totally abandon conventional success,” my friend Natalie* tells me. She was once on track to be a research scientist, but now she tutors privately and aims to never work full-time again. “Although that’s still a work in progress, in terms of it not affecting me… I’ve managed to get to a point where I don’t give a fuck in my own head. But I don’t like having to explain it to other people.”

“You need to figure out what your own personal definition of success is,” she adds. “And it might not be the same throughout your life.”

“I’ve kind of given up on success,” says another friend, Rosie*, who quit her lawyer job two months ago without anything else lined up. “I don’t think I’ll ever be a conventional success.” She has options — her phone has been ringing off the hook with job offers — but she’s decided to stay unemployed for now. She studied and practiced law for years, but now she volunteers, swims in the mornings, takes pottery classes. She doesn’t miss her old life.

“Success in the conventional, professional sense is quite linear,” she points out. “You get onto the conveyor belt and it carries you to the mysterious pot of gold. Or maybe it’s not! Like — it’s a basket of paper or something. I don’t know what you get at the end!”

“A pile of turds?” I suggest.

She laughs. “Yeah. But they’re polished up real nice!”

The three of us — Natalie, Rosie and I — are talking about this in the park, in the middle of a warm spring afternoon. The river beside us glints in the sunlight, the breeze moves through the trees, and the grass is soft under our picnic rug. It’s a Thursday. I think about how I could be at an office job, or I could be in one of those far-off cities I once thought I’d end up in, doing whatever it is that PhD students do. Teaching. Writing. Researching. Sweating over something, hating it, hating myself. Worrying all the time about not being good enough. Endlessly parsing the smallest critiques from my professors. Competing fiercely with everyone around me. Enduring cruelty from above. Lying awake at night jerking my brain around that old hamster wheel. Crying. Striving for the sake of striving, chasing success for the sake of success.

For now, it’s easy to say that I’d rather be on the picnic rug. Will I regret not having gone down the academic path when I had the chance? Natalie wonders the same thing. “I’ve found peace in the short term,” she says. “But then I wonder. I’ll probably have a crisis if I turn thirty and am doing the exact same thing I’m doing now… It feels like, it’s fine for now, but is it fine for life?”

This is the flip side, the other question that sometimes tugs me awake at night: how long can I keep riding the wave of happy-in-the-moment? How long can success stay defined within the delicate bubble of my own life? How long can the future be put off until later? Part of me still yearns to wrap my hands around the thorns of ambition, of challenge, of (if I’m honest) prestige. Part of me still needs success to be something bigger. It was difficult to write a neat happy ending to this essay, because there isn’t one. I’m still undecided as to which version of success I want more: mine or other people’s. I still don’t know where to draw the line between the two.

“Conventional success is taken from this huge, zoomed-out position — over your whole career,” says Rosie, toward the end of our conversation in the park. “It’s almost like a eulogy.”

Behind her, the sun is bleeding down slowly into the horizon. I think again of La Paz: the way the sun disappeared behind the mountain range so suddenly, snapping the city into cold night. I see my younger self huddled under blankets in her room at Carlos and Maria’s house, Vaseline smeared on her face (to combat the dryness of the air at such high altitude), painstakingly working through her Spanish grammar exercises or writing a tortured entry in her journal. I feel a great sympathy for her, and a great affection. She tried so hard. She did all the right things.

Beside me, Natalie stretches her legs out on the grass, catching the last of the sunshine. “Anyway,” she says. “There’s time. We’re going to live a long time.”

*Names have been changed.

Joanna Horton is a writer and radio producer living in Brisbane, Australia. Her work has appeared on The Millions, The Toast, 4ZZZ, and is forthcoming at The Fem. You can read her blog here, listen to her radio show here, and follow her on Twitter: @joanna_horton

This story is part of The Billfold’s Change Series.

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