This little 18-year-old girl screams in ecstasy from her bedroom. Her parents sit in the kitchen, smirking over coffee. Is she having sex up there? Did a serial killer break into the house?
No, she just got accepted into college.
You’ve watched the scene a hundred times. TV commercials. Movies starring Liam Neeson or Bruce Willis as the father.
This is how we’re trained to react to good news. As if we’ve just had mind-blowing sex. Frankly, it’s a problem.
Success doesn’t always feel like that. But we expect it to. That’s why I felt so strange when my tenure letter arrived. The official one. I stood there for half a minute, waiting for the flood of ecstasy.
It didn’t come. And neither did I.
So I said to myself, “Weird,” and finished making dinner. Since then I’ve been wondering what success really feels like. Here’s some thoughts.
Success can feel weird.
We think we know how to feel and act after a big win. We don’t. Not always. Not all of us. Sometimes it feels weird. Like you don’t know what to do with yourself. And that’s fine. Let yourself feel weird.
Almost everyone thinks they want a varsity jacket. We see them in the halls and imagine we’ll feel different wearing one. So we run six miles every day for three years. Then the day comes. We make varsity.
But you know what? Making varsity changed nothing. You feel the exact same as you did yesterday. It’s not that you feel cheated. You just didn’t need that jacket as much as you thought. You still love running. It’s still hard. Everyone still tells you to smile more.
And the jacket itself looks kind of lame. Turns out, the school colors don’t flatter us as much as we thought. You’ll stick to your normal black and red. Maybe the coach asks why you never wear the jacket. You say you don’t know. You don’t want it to get dirty.
Success doesn’t demand a spotlight.
The first thing many of us want to do with our success is share it far and wide. You’re supposed to do that, right? Everyone else does. Sometimes, maybe. But only if you want to. Some victories feel better in private.
Ask yourself if scrolling through superficial “Congratulations!” messages from a hundred people you barely know will bring you any real joy.
Consider why we always feel compelled to shout, as if the success itself isn’t enough. Maybe it’s because we didn’t climax like an 18-year-old girl in a Liam Neeson movie, like we thought we would, and it bothers us.
We think maybe one of our friends will do it for us. Or at least they’ll use enough emojis that we can imagine a real flood of emotion. But even the most masterful emoji arrangement can’t help.
Success doesn’t have to feel like Christmas morning.
Maybe you shouldn’t force yourself to feel something that doesn’t exist. Your best moments don’t have to make you burst into song.
Few events ever match the pure joy and excitement of waking up to find a bunch of wrapped boxes under a tree. We did almost nothing to earn them as kids. They were free. And so pretty.
And then we grew up. Now we don’t expect magical creatures to leave free shit under trees and pillows. But an expectation lingers.
We still hunger for the feeling. Instead of leaving out milk and cookies, we apply to elite colleges. We compete for awards. We go job hunting. Seek promotions. Submit things to publications. And we expect it all to bring the same Christmas morning feeling.
Success doesn’t have to surprise you.
Imagine the labor and planning that went into your last success. You didn’t just go to sleep one night and wake up to find a promotion under your pillow. You assembled it over time, piece by piece. You made it. Enjoying something you made feels different.
You’re an adult now. You forget that sometimes.
Maybe that Christmas morning feeling simply fades a little. Autonomy can be such a buzzkill. It feels good to earn something day by day. To watch something grow. But it’s not the same feeling.
Success makes you a little tired.
What really floods over some of us is a feeling of relief. A victory can make you suddenly realize how much work you’ve done.
You don’t scream and bounce up and down because you’re tired. You’ve busted your ass for this accomplishment. For years. So maybe you’re not going to pop open the champagne.
Maybe you’ll have some wine and go to bed early for once. You deserve to taste a life where you’re not constantly hustling. And yet, you also know you may have to hustle once more. So you’re going to enjoy a break.
Success can come in a steady stream.
Lots of us live for the viral moment. That’s about as close to Christmas morning as some of us get anymore. Who hasn’t gone to bed hoping they’ll wake up to a huge spike in traffic on their site?
Sure, success can happen that way. But we’ve forgotten that it’s not crucial. You can just consistently produce quality content over a long stretch. You can sell a product that actually helps people.
And you can be fine. You’ll support yourself and your family. You’ll do solid work that matters to you and others.
Success is just permission to keep going.
Success isn’t about the orgasm moment. And it’s not about the bling. In my 20s, I used to display my plaques and diplomas and starred book reviews on the wall of my apartment. Inspiration, right?
Soon after a string of wins, I fell into a web of struggle. Rejection still happened, on professional and personal fronts alike. The awards I felt so proud of started giving me a wicked case of claustrophobia. One of them even fell from its hook and hit me.
The universe was telling me something. So I listened and unhung all the proof of my so-called talent. Stuck it in a closet. My mind began to clear. Like everyone says now, if it doesn’t bring you joy… This idea applies to trophies, too. You wouldn’t think so, but it does.
Some of us don’t want our past wins stifling our future. We want to keep swimming forward. And we’re not even that interested in reaching a specific shore. We just like the swim.