Whenever I’m lacking inspiration, I love searching YouTube for interviews with some of my favorite creatives. It wasn’t exactly surprising, then, to find myself a few days ago curled up with a segment with one of my favorite authors, Roxane Gay. The program was mostly about Gay’s short story collection, Difficult Women (10/10 would recommend), as well as Gay’s thoughts on 21st century feminism. Around the thirty-minute mark, the interviewer asked Gay if she ever wondered why her books received consistent, widespread praise. Without missing a beat, Gay referenced several well-considered factors— her frank, honest tone among them— that she felt contributed to her work’s resonance. The interviewer moved on, but I sat still, working Gay’s response in my mind like putty between my fingers.
As per usual, Roxane Gay’s discourse got my brain reeling, and this time she had me thinking all about the s-word. No, not “sex” (what are we, ten?), but the other one: success. Seven letters strung together to make up one of the biggest questions of our day. In my experience, at least, the concept of success ranks with race, religion, and politics as topics that are outed enough for mainstream magazines, but are still too taboo for cocktail party convo. Because while we all brood over our own definitions of true success, we keep our hard-fought achievements under the radar.
Now, I know you’re probably saying “What?! Aren’t we living in the Age of Instagram, where everyone is showing themselves off 24/7?” I’d have to agree with you on that one, only to then ask how many times have you or someone you know responded to a congratulations with“Oh, it was nothing, really” or “I mean, everyone working really hard on that.” Better yet, how often have you or someone else battled imposter syndrome over an accomplishment, wether it’s a best-selling book or a high school diploma? The issue, it seems to me, is that we are perfectly wired to chase success— perhaps too wired, given that “success” is a fickle noun whose definition changes every time Kylie Jenner does something new. What we don’t know how to do is accept our achievements. Despite rave reviews in the Times or a diploma endorsed by the district, we are plagued by self-doubt and paranoia. That fear of being revealed as undeserving pretenders, I believe, is what fuels our need to share, share, share, to soothe our insecurities with a potent balm of likes and comments.
One of the quotes on my senior yearbook page is “We are what we believe we are,” from C.S. Lewis. The aforementioned Roxane Gay gets this. Her ego isn’t overblown, she’s not smug with pride, but she is realistic about this success she’s achieved, and allows herself credit thus. Her attitude alone is proof that we can talk about success without falling into “jerk” or “wallflower” territory. Something I had to remind myself of recently was that accomplishments are not something to “live up to”— to accomplish something means you’ve already done it. Whether it took five years of writing that novel or four years of high school, you did the thing! Smile, say thank you, and feel good about yourself, and start climbing the next mountain.