Jeremy Wagner

Achievement is No Substitute for Happiness

12 January, 2020

It was 2015. I had just paid off my student loans, bought a house with my partner, and gave a couple of talks at some local events. I was beginning to feel better about myself. Confidence had always been elusive for me, but now that I had a taste of it, I decided to double down on what I was doing.

So over the next four years, I poured myself into various pursuits. I wrote a couple books. I wrote a ton of articles for other publications. I became an editor for one of my favorite web publications. I did technical writing for Google. I spoke at events across the world. This was all in addition to the work I was doing at my day job.

My goal was to destroy my persistent self-loathing entirely through achievement. I never felt good about myself. So, if anything seemed like the way forward, it would be to achieve so much—at least by my own standards—that I could stand to look at myself in the mirror.

That plan never worked. That confidence I had built up slowly gave way to the thought patterns that had always been there. As Will Smith said, you can't achieve your way out of childhood trauma. He was right. I was trying to repair the emotional trauma I sustained when I was a kid through achievement. That's a road that leads you to a lot of places, some of which can even be incredible. It gave me a lot of experiences I wouldn't trade for anything, but it didn't fix me. Achievement can't fix you when you don't love yourself. It's like renovating your kitchen when the foundation is utterly compromised.

It's been over four years since I started going down this road. I still struggle to accept compliments. I still don't think most things I write are any good, and I still can't stand to see any video of myself talking on stage. The last of these is not surprising to me, because I still recoil in embarrassment and disgust when I see photos of myself as a child. So why wouldn't it make sense that this would extend into adulthood?

Self-loathing is a force you don't recognize until you've been steeped in it for a long time. Like the frog that doesn't know its slowly being boiled alive, you don't recognize the litany of self-destructive things you do to undermine yourself until you've been wholly consumed by your own caustic negativity. We talk a lot about imposter syndrome in this field, and the kernel of it is self-loathing in the form of a petty little asshole who can't let you feel good about yourself.

While I had ostensibly set out to help people in my writing and speaking, there was always an element of egotism involved. I deeply wanted to be recognized and accepted by my peers. While this is a valid need for anyone, it doesn't help the community if it's my sole motivation to do the work. It also doesn't help me if I can't convince myself that I'm worthy of that acceptance.

It's a new decade, so I'm kicking it off with a long overdue investment in myself. I'm beginning therapy to address the problems I've had my entire life. There's a neglected little kid inside of me who wants to feel better about himself—and he deserves to. Achievement is a fine end in and of itself, but without the help I need to be a kinder and more positive person to myself and the people I love, it's no substitute for happiness.

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