Your accomplishments mean nothing. No really, I’m serious, nothing. You will die and your titles, bank accounts, possessions, and relationships will disappear, be liquidated, or slowly fade away. The end result of everything you strive to do in life is inherently meaningless.
I’m doing it again, aren’t I? Making grandiose pessimistic claims. Clearly this is the familiar writing tactic known as the hook: Draw my reader in with something dramatic, be it inspiring or deeply disquieting, and they’re stuck reading whatever nonsense I choose to follow it with. Though I won’t say I’m not using this tactic, I will say it has a greater purpose. The above statements, in my mind, are true. But only if you interpret them in the way I intend.
No one can really argue with the fact that material possessions, status, and other fruits of human life cease to mean much once the person they belonged to is dead. Your bloated bank account may go on to support generations of trust fund babies with your last name, but your decomposing ass won’t be around to know the fucking difference. I recognize that people have trouble with the concept of nonexistence. If you think human souls consciously reside in some ethereal nothingverse before and after death, that’s your own problem. I’m operating from the seemingly logical standpoint (as there’s no real evidence to the contrary) that nonexistence is just what it sounds like: the absence of the ability to experience the world. It is literally impossible to be aware, let alone enjoy, anything in the known universe when your consciousness does not exist. Moving on.
My point is not to drill into you that you will lose everything when you die. It’s an important concept to be aware of, but it doesn’t necessitate repeating at this point. What I would like to do is place emphasis on the phrases accomplishment and success. These are the end caps of journeys and experiences. The little star you get when you turn in your paper. The trophy. The diploma. You get the idea. People are obsessed with accomplishing things. Most of us would probably skip to-do in favor of instant to-done if we had the option. When people are obsessively goal-oriented, you get millionaires who can’t stop being entrepreneurs and folks who pay thousands of dollars to have sherpas carry their shit up to Everest base camp so they can get the “climbed Mt. Everest” star.
Fucking cool: Now what?
I’m lazy so I would never fathom trying to climb a mountain. But I did notice my own obsession with accomplishment in the compulsion to finish books. If I didn’t get to the appendix, it was like I might has well have not even opened it in the first place. I needed to finish it to mark it off as done. I needed the accomplishment of reading that book. What I realized after some time is that nothing actually happens when you finish a book. When you turn the last page, you just close the damn thing and put it back on the shelf. No fireworks. No accolades. No one even knows you finished the book unless you tell them. Often, these accomplishments aren’t just meaningless after death, they are meaningless in life unless you decide to make a big deal out of them to other people.
One of the most liberating decisions of my adult life was to decide I didn’t have to finish books. I could read a book until it no longer felt interesting or important, than put it back on the shelf and possibly never look at it again. I no longer waste my time forcing myself to get to the end of a work of nonfiction that kind of fizzles out, or past the excruciatingly slow beginning of a novel (though sometimes this is worth it if you know something great is coming). There are literally millions of books out there. Why deprive yourself of a good one by using your limited attention on a bad one?
The obsession with finishing things comes from our focus on accomplishments, instead of the actual act of doing something. It has a lot to do with concept of the “disease of more,” which pushes us to constantly strive for new goals without even enjoying the ones we already surpassed. Yet, it’s hard to tell someone to revel in their success without encouraging them to act like an ass. How exactly do you enjoy success other than thinking about or telling people how awesome you are? I would challenge people to go a step further and not even focus on enjoying the success. Focus on what happens before. Focus on the struggle to make incremental improvements towards your goal. Focus on the, well, focus of your mind and/or body it takes to work on your goals. Revel in the fact that you are actually doing something with your life, when you could literally just sit around for 82 years and then die.
It’s not just the obsession with success that causes this problem for people, but our culture’s failure-phobia. Americans love inspirational quotes about never giving up and persevering against all odds. This culture is useful in much the same way teaching everyone to be a leader is useful (spoiler alert: it’s not). If you teach everyone to be a leader, you end up with a bunch of loud people who think they should all be giving orders while no one can listen their way out of a cardboard box. If you teach everyone to incessantly pursue their goals until an endpoint, because “failure” is not an option, you end up with a bunch of people killing themselves to finish things with very little benefit to themselves or society (and probably not enjoying it along the way).
Sometimes you just have to give up. But I would argue that giving up is synonymous with failure only in rare cases. To me, the word failure only applies when you actually eroded yourself in the attempt. Quitting rehab and relegating yourself to being a crack addict would be considered a failure. Letting your friendships atrophy when you move away to a new city would, in most cases, be considered a failure (unless your friends really sucked). In most situations though, the only things “lost” by a supposed “failure” are time and/or money. As I’ve previously stated, money is inherently meaningless and while I can’t say the same for time, chances are if you were wasting it before you quit you sure as hell would have been wasting it if you hadn’t. Payouts at the end of a struggle don’t give you back any of your time, they only serve to make you feel as if you haven’t wasted it.
Unless your goals are really out there, you probably have to do some learning and personal growth to attempt to achieve them. This doesn’t all evaporate when you end the pursuit. My experience working in a startup wasn’t erased from my brain the second I left. Sure, quitting a job you hate after two months doesn’t really look good on a resumé. But people often delude themselves into thinking career prospects are their only reasons for staying, when in reality it’s pure failure-phobia.
Next time you find yourself struggling to finish something you hate, do an experiment and try quitting. See if the universe implodes. Obviously, don’t be a dick. You should probably finish writing that birthday card for your mom and scooping your cat’s litter box. But quitting things that don’t affect anyone other than yourself can be shockingly empowering. Accomplishing things can often feel like taking charge, but really you may just be stumbling downhill, gaining speed as you go but loosing the ability to stop or change course. Choosing to withhold your time, energy, and attention can bring back a sense of control and serve as a reminder that you’re driving this fucked up train called life.