In the campy teen movie Napoleon Dynamite, there is a particularly pathetic character named Uncle Rico. He was quarterback of a high school football team that came this close to winning state. Now, decades later, he spends all day filming himself reenacting that game. He’s caught in his long-gone glory days, and nothing interesting has happened to him for two decades. Even his wardrobe and hairstyle are unchanged.
I was 20 when I saw Napoleon Dynamite, and Uncle Rico made me shudder. He was a nightmare vision of my possible future. By then, I had already achieved success that I naively thought significant, but I knew life would get harder, and I worried I’d never be able to continue delivering. I was afraid I’d peaked too early, and the rest of my life would be downhill. I was afraid I would end up like Uncle Rico.
I didn’t play football in high school. I was a student. School was easy and fun for me, a comfortable routine, a clear way to measure success and feed my ego. I worked hard and graduated as valedictorian. At our awards night senior year, I got so many individual subject awards that the emcee joked about giving me a seat on the stage to save time.
Even revealing this now makes me feel like I really have become Uncle Rico. Though I wouldn’t have believed it if you’d told me in high school, I realize that no one cares about high school accomplishments. Dwelling on them now does feel pathetic.
That early success gave me a boost of confidence, but in some ways, it spoiled me for later life. I felt devastated when my college graduation wasn’t a repeat of the adulation heaped on me four years earlier. I cried that even though I was graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, I hadn’t been singled out for any individual awards. Being just one of many names on a list — even a fairly short list of the most elite students at my small, but well-regarded college — wasn’t good enough. It felt like a letdown, like I wasn’t personally valued by the school and its leaders. I was angry — at myself for falling short in some way, for the fact that my best hadn’t been good enough, and at the school for not giving me the send-off I felt I deserved. I somehow convinced myself I had a right to feel betrayed, because I had taken out loans to attend a small private school in order to feel special and get individual attention, and the school wasn’t holding up its side of that unspoken bargain.
Later on, when life got even harder, I struggled more. In graduate school, when I took seminar classes with PhD students, some eight years older and wiser, I spent more time beating myself up for not already being on their level than I did learning from them. I didn’t trust my ideas, never spoke up, and never took the risks I needed to take if I was to learn anything worthwhile. Faced with the first real failures of my young life, I left academia.
Sometimes, I wonder whether I’d be more successful today if that coveted valedictorian title had eluded me. Instead, almost 11 years from the day I gave that graduation speech, I’m a high school teacher, doing a job I once thought beneath me. When I think back on the expectations I had for my future on that rosy day, I feel an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance as I try to reconcile my outlandish 17-year-old ambitions with the contentment I feel now with my modest, settled life. My younger self is telling me I’ve settled for a mediocre career, but somehow, I’m not as unhappy with “mediocrity” as I once thought I’d be. So I end up going back and forth, unable to decide if I’ve given up on my dreams or if I was silly to be so ambitious in the first place.
There’s still a childish, insecure part of me that would feel incredible satisfaction if I could point to a certificate, a title, some concrete proof to say, look, my early promise wasn’t an illusion! But measuring success in adulthood isn’t straightforward. For the things that matter most in life, there is no yardstick, no grading rubric or scoring system to show us how we’re doing as a spouse, parent, or friend. Even in the workplace, praise is rare, remuneration capricious, and promotion sporadic.
Since outward signs of success are so rare for adults, it has to be measured internally, by each individual. To define success for yourself can be fantastically liberating, but untethering your goals from others’ opinions can be more scary than thrilling, like tumbling down a rabbit hole of low expectations. If your personal definition isn’t rewarded by the outside world, then how will you know if it’s actually valid, or if it’s just a lame way to convince yourself that you’re not a pathetic loser?
To me, the real, deep solution is to have a sense of self-worth that comes from within, so that external validation is unnecessary. That’s easier said than done of course, especially when you’ve been trained to see life as a series of hoops to jump though for applause. The first step might be seeing this treadmill for what it is: a vicious loop that goes nowhere. Maybe when I recognized a bit of myself in Uncle Rico, I started that process.
Another name for that process might be “growing up.” Yeah, my job isn’t as prestigious as the one I once thought I’d have, but that’s at least partly because my priorities changed. I made choices that put my happiness above my ambition, and for the most part, those choices have given me what I bargained for. That should be something to celebrate, not a reason to wallow in coulda-shoulda-wouldas. Cognitive dissonance only comes when gratitude goes against our programming, when we’ve been taught to read contentment as complacency and a healthy work-life balance as settling.
There comes a point where all we can do is try to re-program ourselves. In theory, this can be empowering: to consciously choose what we believe rather than to passively absorb the beliefs of those around us, or to make mistaken deductions about life from woefully limited experiences. But it does mean disavowing the beliefs that drove our past success. And those childhood convictions don’t die easily. They cling to the emotions long after they lose hold of the logical mind, poisoning the satisfaction derived from modest accomplishments. My 17-year-old self might be ashamed of the high-school teacher I’ve become, but looking back, I’m a bit embarrassed by how arrogant and entitled I used to be.
Maybe one way I can measure the success of my last decade is in how different I am now from the way I was. Going against not only the crowd, but also against my less-mature self makes me feel all the more brave for redefining my own success. And maybe knowing that will give my new definition of success the glamour and honor it may lack in appearance. Knowing I not only did it on my own, but defined it on my own, might make success all the sweeter someday, even if it doesn’t look the way I once expected it to.