I was driving home from work the other day on a four-lane street with red lights every couple of blocks. My tank on empty, the orange light slowly blinking its death dance. Like many other days of my life, I was panicking. Tears were streaming down my face in an over-dramatic fashion, my heart racing, my mind toying with thoughts of suicide — more for effect than attempt. Still, the deep feeling of being overwhelmed, and more importantly, lacking a clear, quantifiable route towards happiness, kept my smile at bay and the tears flowing.
Happiness is a word I’d like to be able to define, to purchase, to set on a shelf and put on one arm at a time when I need a heaping of motivation and will to live. But it doesn’t work like that. I’ve spent my life trying to find happiness and keeping myself from it. I can complain on and on about my parent’s poor job at instilling a sense of healthy confidence in me, but I refuse to blame them entirely for my failures, or successes. The truth is, though, having been raised by a family with no comprehension of non-narcissistic care or love, it’s tough to comprehend my own definition of success, and if that success should even equate to happiness.
If I were homeless, or unemployed for an extended period, my parents would certainly see me as a failure. I had never seen my father proud of me until the day earlier this year when I announced to him I had secured a $65 / hr job (well, contract.) He immediately bragged to other family members about my success. “My daughter is a real person now,” he said, beaming, and although he never really understood my job (social media marketing?) he was still quite content with taking some sort of credit for my income. And when that contract ended and I moved on to another job – lower paying albeit still of a good salary, he didn’t let anyone know my income had been reduced, though he quit bragging since I had again joined the group of Americans making under $100k.
Happiness… in my life… has always felt like something you need to strive for, in being someone other than yourself if you can’t be perfect. I was never perfect. I was far from it. As a child, my parents assumed I was smart, and because I could draw something that somewhat resembled a still life sat down in front of me I was also a brilliant artist. My singing voice, while something I enjoyed using, was not, however, reflective of natural talent.
My mother always beamed when I was on stage, however, as she both knew I had no talent and wanted me to be her shining star. For what it’s worth, she’s tone deaf, and I’m unable to maintain pitch, so quality vocals equated to being able to belt loud with a lot of vibrato, even though later I learned that my soprano voice could never accomplish that style in a healthy way (despite that, I still try to sound like Sutton Foster when I’m alone in the shower.) I always felt if I had talent people would love me, and I’d be happy. But talent, at least in the performing arts, has not proven to be my forte.
My father would always be proud of my academic accomplishments, though his praise faded once I reached second grade and lost my drive, focus, and/or care on academics. A math man who likely also has ADD (though he’d never admit it), he would teach me about math and science and I would not pay attention, then he’d get upset with me for not listening, and eventually he gave up trying to teach me, he gave up on my ever being an academic. And so did I. I would daydream in class. I never read my assignments or did my work. I don’t know how I got by school, but I managed to do as little work as possible, and make up stories when asked questions about history that were on occasion 75% accurate (or at least creative enough the teacher didn’t mind passing me out of pity and amusement.)
School was always about watching the red second hand slowly scroll around the clock. I enthusiastically participated when I randomly knew an answer, I dreaded gym class and wished art class were longer. In high school I took as many arts electives as possible and had to take the lowest level match class junior year because I had already completed the higher level math — taking Algebra I in 8th grade, Geometry in 9th and Algebra II in 10th, I needed one more year of math and Functions, Statistics and Trig was beyond my ability to fake. I easily see myself as a giant failure of academia. Whether that was due to lack of intellect, focus, or out of a deep-seated hatred towards my parent’s idea of success, I don’t know. I just failed. But, I also passed. I passed, I managed a 1230 on my SATs (back when the total was 1600), I showed off my paintings for college applications — having decided only to apply to schools for theatre design, not academics — and received admissions letters from four out of the five, with the fifth — Emerson — denying my admission since I had only taken one year of a foreign language in high school (the theater department told me I would have been admitted otherwise.)
I still hated school… but I was excited about college, about starting over, about maybe finding happiness. I hadn’t found it at home. My life was this — disappointing parents while at the same time parents being convinced that I’m the next Picasso (I’m not), being obsessed with people I admired, convincing myself that I was a waste of space, ugly, nothing, and not good enough for anyone I’d want to spend time with, sitting in the hallway painting flowers, trees, hoping that someone would recognize talent in me, see me as good enough, but I just felt more and more lost, removed from people, hated or misunderstood, but never connected. And the only thing that remotely brought me happiness was being a goofball, slightly annoying, and making my friends laugh. That’s how I had any friends… I was a joke, and that was my happiness.
In college I felt lonelier than ever. My major — costume design — which I choose because I wanted to be a famous actress but was told I had no talent in acting but only in art — was a terrible choice. I hated costume design, and I was jealous of the actors, and I disliked most of my classes. I didn’t fit in anywhere – certainly not in the theatre school, not the feminist group which I started to hang out with, nor with anyone else. I still got off on being the joke, found a few people who liked to roll their eyes at me and kept them entertained. But I was alone without a purpose — and while failure was not an option, it presented itself at the buffet come sophomore year.
So I was kicked out of the costume design program, but not entirely out of school. I almost had all my credits for theatre studies, so I switched to that, took some other theatre classes, things got a little better. Realized I was interested in some softer academic topics… specifically sociology… enrolled in classes that dissected culture, not frogs or the history of architecture. Loved my class on the sociology of celebrity. Even had some good classes in the theatre school… found I enjoyed theatre criticism, and the professor, a Chicago Tribune critic even enjoyed my reviews and told me I had talent.
Talent… that unique magic that makes one person better(?) than the next was still the only path to happiness I understood. So I clung to the rare moment when a professor would tell me I had — it. Some special way of looking at the world that held value outside of my skull. All I ever wanted was to feel special. And that was something I knew no amount of money could buy. But I wanted to be able to one day know that my parents were proud of me, and that I did it my own way.
Fast forward five years out of college. I’ve had a thousand ups and downs. More downs than ups. I’ve kept running, left college, graduated, moved to California, tried to start over again. Tried to put a claim on my own definition of happiness. To be applauded for something unique inside me so I could one day prove that I’ve achieved the necessary divinity to be a success in my parents eyes, and in the eyes of all the other kids, parents and teachers who didn’t know what to make of me, who bullied me, who didn’t even see me.
And, so, this week I’m driving home from work, tears pouring out of my eyes, like an overly dramatic soap opera star who had just been betrayed, listening to the horn of the train, thinking about how wonderful it would be if I could relieve myself of this duty to be special, to be anything, and just to end it all. Not that I ever would, I’m far to terrified of death, of the moment in which my actions made the end inevitable, and any pain I’d feel, or thoughts I’d have, but I bring this up only to share how lost I am in my quest for happiness, and how painful it is to have no direction. How scary it is to have all my motivation tied towards this blurry and constantly moving picture of success, an undeniably selfish and impractical goal that is on the top of a tall mountain with a cliff on the other side.
Why does this story belong in my personal finance blog? Because right now I’m torn in attempting to develop a healthy and reasonable definition of happiness. I live and work in an area where many are very well off, and the well off are often special in that way I dream of being special. They’re brilliant engineers and entrepreneurs who are changing the world. They’re millionaires and billionaires. They’re humble yet living in glorious homes with breathtaking views, nestled in the hills overlooking the Bay. They’re my coworkers. They’re the people I drive behind on 280, all sharing in the priceless scenery. They’re the people I stand on line with at Bloomingdales when I shouldn’t be buying a $400 dress, and they’re buying $2000 shoes to wear to a charity dinner.
I hate stuff. I used to want stuff. Not even nice stuff, just stuff. Being able to buy without concern about one’s bank account felt good. I wanted a nice house, all this stuff… and to get that stuff I needed money. And maybe that would be happiness, success, that would be enough.
But I’m over that. I’m over stuff. I still would like a house one day but that day seems so far off and unlikely. And I also now realize that owning a house would be a pain. I’d rather rent. I’d rather own little. I’d rather have an old car in case it gets a dent than a nice new car that I’m terrified to drive.
So… in this constantly shifting concept of happiness and success, I’ve finally come to a conclusion…
1) I want kids. But the reason I want kids, to raise them better than my parents raised me, is selfish, and probably won’t work. Therefore, it’s probably the best that I don’t have kids.
2) I could spend my life being successful and I’d be miserable. I’m only truly happy when I feel like I’m helping people. That’s selfish too, but maybe that’s ok.
3) I’ve never learned how to love, or to care for other people. But I have so much love to give. So much care. And I need a place to spend that without worrying about getting something back for it. Without money or success getting in the way. So I want to get my life in order by February, and then find a place to volunteer. Maybe with kids. Maybe at a hospital. I like to help people. I don’t know if I can, I don’t trust myself to be able to, but if I had a choice between a new pair of jeans or spending a day with a sick kid, I’d surely chose the later. So maybe I’m not as bad of a person as I think I am…
4) I need to start somewhere — to volunteer — see if I can maintain this generosity in action versus just in thought. If that works out, maybe I need to confront my career path and ask myself why I’m here. Marketing can help people, yes, but no one will pretend my current product is designed to help society. It’s designed to help business. And that’s great. And that’s capitalism. And that’s my ticket to maybe, just maybe, being a millionaire like the woman at the mall with the small dog and casual Burberry ensemble.
… but if I ever made it there, if my bank account statement ever read $1,000,000 or more, would that change anything? My father (if he were alive then) would call everyone he knows to brag that his daughter is a millionaire. My mom would expect me to buy her things, and complain that she never has enough money. My boyfriend wouldn’t care. I might be able to put a sizable down payment on a house here, but I’d still feel empty. Had I obtained the money through building my own company, maybe that would feel a little bit like success, but I’d still feel empty. I’d still feel like I’m chasing everyone else’s dreams.
Today, I want to find out what my dreams are. I started reading “The Last Lecture,” the famous book of lectures by a a then dying Carnegie Mellon computer science professor who wanted to pass on his legacy and wisdom. Two adderall and a now empty carpet into cleaning, I picked up the book that was gifted at a “Women and MBA” weekend at CMU, and started to read. I got to chapter three — entirely focused on the words, my mind not skipping any of them — and then stopped, and started to write this blog post.
What are my dreams? I think that’s to lead a simple life, to make people smile, to feel needed, to read, to love, and to care. Most importantly to feel it’s ok to care deeply for imperfection, and to strive for happiness sans external praise in the form of applause or paycheck. After all, life is extremely short, whether I end it myself today or live to 100, and as long as I’m living I might as well find the means to smile.