The first time I visited New York, my brother took me to sky-high vistas and kooky dive bars and secret late-night parties. He introduced me to interesting people in interesting outfits with interesting jobs, and I was so dazzled it’s embarrassing. On my flight home to San Francisco, I felt my priorities shift like puzzle pieces in a shaken box. I suddenly wanted a new job, more friends, better parties, and, in general, a different life. Ideally in New York.
I landed in SF like a deflated balloon. And in the following weeks, everything that used to bring me joy struck me as dull and amateurish. My entire setup seemed to carry the DNA of a version of me I wanted to discard. I became bitter and mean towards my former self. Why wasn’t my life different? Why wasn’t I different?
But as soon as this wore off, I started to resent New York for making me feel inadequate. “I used to think I wanted to move to New York,” I would say confidently, “but when I go there I become a worse version of myself, ungrateful and greedy.” Learning to want what I already had in San Francisco, I decided, was a much worthier pursuit than reaching for more. But eventually that wore off too, and then I was just plain confused — not quite grateful, not quite ambitious, not quite sure which was more deserving of my commitment.
Throughout those years, my personal definition of “success” was like putty in the hands of my fears and desires. I felt like a completely different person depending on what I wanted at a given time — an unease that ultimately defined my twenties. Such wishy-washiness is probably a rite of passage for cultivating priorities that can weather my multitudes, but in the moment, it made me feel nuts.
We are all shaped by what we want, on levels visible and ingrained. Babies cry when they want food, teens assimilate when they want friends, adults flex when they want recognition. This makes our shifting definitions of “success” — on societal and personal levels — an interesting problem to consider. When we dream of achieving it, or claim to be pursuing it, or deny we even care about it, what are we actually referencing? Money? Fame? Love? Leisure time? Passion? Authenticity? Wisdom? A little of each? And more interestingly, who do we become when we want these things? And how is our culture shaped by that?
This month on Man Repeller, we’ll be exploring the concept of “success,” generally and specifically. Is success a priority for you? Do you think it’s even possible to reach? Have you reached it? Let us know what you’d like to read on this topic in the comments.
Photography by Meiko Takechi Arquillos. Styling by Danielle Wood.