April 4, 2020

The Double-Edged Sword of Success

by Hannah Sheehy

I love success. I mean who doesn’t? I love the feeling of getting something that I have worked hard, sometimes for years, to achieve. Maybe this is just me, but success doesn’t always feel great. Success is a double-edged sword, one that can suppress happiness and restrict self-confidence. 

It sounds counter-intuitive, how can doing well feel bad? Maybe it’s some deep-down need to self-sabotage, to never truly allow happiness (which I know sounds so silly). 

When I was 15 I applied to a boarding school, I did not think I had the grades to get into, I wanted so bad to get in and go, I thought that it was the first stone of a set of stepping stones to success. So I applied and hoped that I would get in. Then I did, and I was like ‘Oh my! Yay!’ and then about two seconds later I was like, ‘wait do I actually want this?’ I completely second-guessed a decision that seconds ago I was sure of. Next, I began to question: If this boarding school accepted me as a student, it couldn’t actually be that good, right?

After thinking introspectively I realise it’s something that many people do. We only value things that we do not have, and once we have those things we no longer value them. 

I valued the selection process of my boarding school until I became a student, then I realised that the selection process couldn’t actually be that good. It is not just in academics, this happens in sports as well. I valued being a very good rugby player in Singapore, played on the national team, then I decided that it wasn’t enough, I thought how could the team be good if I could get on it? People who don’t self-sabotage would think, maybe I’m good at academics? Maybe I am good at rugby? But for a lot of people we don’t think with that kind of logic, we think ‘is it good enough?’ and ‘what next?’ Psychologists sometimes call this the ‘hedonic treadmill’, that we cannot allow ourselves to be happy (or sad for that matter) at least for long. 

I worked for at least four years (realistically longer) to get into university. I had been thinking about extra-curricular, about social media posts, about commas in application essays, about how to frame myself for years. Then suddenly I got into university, and it should have felt brilliant, I should have run upstairs screaming it from the rooftop and I wanted to - for about two seconds. Then I fell into the well-developed cycle of asking myself: Should I have aimed higher? Done better? Set more impressive goals? Done this earlier? 

It sounds selfish or greedy, constantly wanting more, and maybe it is. To always chase more and more, or as Mark Manson calls it ‘The Disease of More’, to always want to set goals that are higher and higher for just the point of setting them. 

I am questioning ‘Why don’t we ever let ourselves feel good about something?’ If a person’s motivation is not ‘the high’ you get when you achieve a goal, then, is it the perceived high of how good it will feel or is it that they truly enjoy the journey towards success? I truly hope it’s the latter.