On April 11, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece called “The Moral Bucket List.” In it, he alludes to the unfulfilling nature of external achievement. In other words, career success, recognition and money have afforded him little depth of spirit. The timing of this piece feels oddly perfect in that, as a senior embarking upon who knows what, I find myself incapable of defining what I want success to mean. Success is subjective, but as we know it, it is defined by environment. And I can say, having been in a university environment for four years, that success in this environment is defined in terms of external achievement.

I believe that in order to achieve personal success, a success defined by you and only you, you must distance yourself from preconceptions, from the notion that to be happy is to be the best. What I’ll pose now is a distillation of life advice I’ve absorbed from friends, family, teachers, books and from myself in times of needed self-assurance. Hopefully, what this compilation of both generic and what I believe to be original advice will do, is remind you that the formation of a good and honest self is what will aid you in your definition of success. And that success, the kind that comes from the inside, as Brooks suggests, is the kind that makes you happy. Maybe not happy as we know it, but happy in deeper terms. Happy to be living. Worthy of our lives.

1) You are not special.
I have to say, I don’t like this one. I’m sure you have heard it before and have decided that it doesn’t apply to you because you are, in fact, special. Well, that’s just the point. You are special, and so am I, and so is your neighbor, and so is your super annoying classmate. We’re all special in our own rights, and therefore none of us are. Our grandparents’ generation was taught to think that they were just cogs in a machine, and we, unlike that generation, have been taught to think that sunshine comes out of our asses. In the crudest of terms, you have to make the sunshine spill out of your ass. Specialness isn’t inherent. Talent can be, intelligence certainly is, but it doesn’t make one special. Special implies that you’re more deserving, which you aren’t. It’s because we have opportunity and live in an insulated bubble that we think of ourselves as special. But I can say from the experience I have had volunteering within prisons, a forgotten place, that the people inside are truly special. They are as special as my friends, my family — maybe not to me but to their own families and to themselves.

2) As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.
Thanks to John Rubadeau for introducing me to this quote and to William Shakespeare for writing it. Its meaning — that life happens for no other reason than that it does — is something I sit with often. Shitty things will happen to us in our lives. Shitty things have happened to us. But to dwell on those things, to constantly terrorize ourselves over the whys, is to miss out on time. All we can do is accept our stories, have our traumas become parts of our identities and move on without questioning our pasts, rather letting them shape us in ways we wouldn’t have necessarily imagined for ourselves.

3) Stop feeling guilt over your privilege.
This advice is intended for my peers in the social justice world who so badly want to be good that they in fact put themselves and others down in the process. Privilege is a buzzword of the time, but for good reason — it has prompted severe racial and social inequalities universally. However, we have made privilege mean something bad, when it by definition means advantage. It’s not that we should wish to be disadvantaged, but rather wish advantages for everyone. We therefore don’t need to feel guilt about our own situations of privilege, constantly putting ourselves and others down due to our class and race based situations. Rather, we should fight for those who don’t have those same privileges, so that race and class no longer harbor such extreme weight. If you are white, you’re white. If you come from wealth, you did. You can’t relinquish your past or your identity because you’re embarrassed or guilty. However, you can work toward a world in which those identities don’t create unjust barriers for others.

4) Be alone.
Don’t jump into relationships just because. Don’t constantly seek out company because you don’t want to sit with your own thoughts. Those thoughts will be the ones that make you understand what you need from a partner or a friend. If you don’t know yourself before being with someone, you’ll never know yourself. And settling right now is no option at all. It’s like the Michigan winter causing you to appreciate the summer so much more. Being alone, at least for some time, will make you appreciate the benefits of real love, like a beautiful, perfect summer that needs waiting for.

5) Don’t define yourself or anyone else by the worst thing you’ve ever done or the worst thing about you. Recently, when discussing incarceration with a group of thoughtful, kind people, one woman said about incarcerated people: “Why are they defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done? We aren’t.” It was revelatory. I have been working with incarcerated populations for over two years, and I hadn’t been able to articulate that thought so succinctly. It’s revelatory because no one should be defined by the worst thing they’ve done, and this is because we don’t measure ourselves by that same standard. We naturally define ourselves by our best qualities. But to define others by their worst qualities, sometimes a natural inclination, is to make the playing field uneven. You can’t judge someone by their worst qualities and by the worst things they’ve ever done while judging yourself by your best qualities and the best things you’ve ever done. Instead, we should define ourselves and everyone around us by our goodness.

I hope that one of these points speaks to just one of you, even if just for a moment. These abstract, lifestyle choices won’t make you a living or find you a passion. But perhaps if you follow one of these guidelines, intended to quiet the self, you’ll start to understand what you define as success. And that will give you peace, I believe. As it goes, I’m still waiting for it, but it’s coming.

Abby Taskier can be reached at ataskier@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.