They say opposites attract, and Elise and I are different in a lot of ways. But one way in which we are alike is we are both goal-driven, motivated to succeed at our respective pursuits. We’re ambitious. We’re competitive. When we decide to take something on, we are at the same time deciding to give it our all, to be or do the best we can. Sometimes, this drive for success—and in Elise’s case, perfection in all she takes on—makes it difficult to relate to those who are resigned or not ambitious. We have to constantly remind ourselves that different things motivate different people, that by design people have varying calculi that motivates them, and that’s okay.
Elise’s drive for perfection in everything she does is obvious in her photography. What is finally developed or put out for public consumption is the reflection of hours of perseverating over every detail. She puts thought into everything she does. No detail is overlooked. Myself, on the other hand, while not being particularly detail-oriented, am no less competitive. I just have to harken back to my triathlon heyday and the gut-wrenching moment I realized I had become a recreational runner and no longer a competitive runner (sometime shortly after we came back from India, I finally acknowledged the fact, though the actual transition had taken place many years before. This reluctance to accept one’s fading invincibility on any playing field is probably why many professional athletes continue to compete long after they are actually competitive. Fortunately, I was never on that grand a stage). If I am not completely exhausted, unable to stand or even keep my eyes open by the end of the day, legs and body aching, then I feel as though I could have done more.
We are also susceptible to getting caught up in a cycle of happiness and unhappiness that is extrinsically linked to our perceived performance or other life factors that may be out of our immediate control. I was disappointed when I was passed over for a promotion last fall. Elise has garnered over 100,000 followers on Instagram, but every time she loses a fraction of those, she winces in palpable pain.
A few weeks ago, Elise sent me an email to let me know she had received an inquiry to shoot a wedding in Chennai. Though a longshot, she was excited.
A few minutes later, I received a second email, “Was just thinking I hadn't lost any followers in a while until I lost another 1,000 today. Woo hoo. #failing”
I had recently read an article in The Atlantic online, “Why So Many Smart People Aren’t Happy” by Joe Pinsker (here):
"If you take the need for mastery—the need for competence—there are two broad approaches that one can take to becoming very good at something. One approach is to engage in what people call social comparisons. That is, wanting to be the best at doing something: ‘I want to be the best professor there is,’ or something like that.
“There are many problems with that, but one big problem with that is that it's very difficult to assess. What are the yardsticks for judging somebody on a particular dimension? What are the yardsticks for being the best professor? Is it about research, teaching? Even if you take only teaching, is it the ratings you get from students, or is it the content that you deliver in class, or the number of students who pass an exam or take a test and do really well in it? So it gets very difficult to judge, because these yardsticks become increasingly ambiguous as a field becomes narrower or more technical.
“So what happens in general is that people tend to gravitate toward less ambiguous—even if they're not so relevant—yardsticks. People judge the best professors by the number of awards they get, or the salary that they get, or the kind of school that they are in, (or the best photographers by how many followers they have on Instagram?) which might on the face of it seem like it's a good yardstick for judging how good somebody is, but at the same time it's not really relevant to the particular field.
“And those yardsticks are ones that we adapt to really quickly. So if you get a huge raise this month, you might be happy for a month, two months, maybe six months. But after that, you're going to get used to it and you're going to want another big bump. And you'll want to keep getting those in order to sustain your happiness levels. In most people you can see that that's not a very sustainable source of happiness.
“What I recommend is an alternative approach, which is to become a little more aware of what it is that you're really good at, and what you enjoy doing. When you don't need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you're good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you're going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.”
I thought this sentiment timely as Elise grapples with redefining herself as an artist and photographer after our move from India. What are the yardsticks for being the best photographer? My work colleagues talk about their promotions, assignments, and performance reviews, comparing their accomplishments against their peers’. What are the yardsticks for being the best diplomat?
Ever since Elise and I first met, we knew our destiny lay west of the Rockies. She hailed from the misty mosses of the Pacific Northwest, and I spent many of my formative years in Colorado. In that vein, shortly after Sam was born, I applied and interviewed for several jobs in Denver. I wasn’t offered anything. I did a telephone interview from my hotel room in Denver on the same trip for a job in real estate with the Department of the Interior in Portland, but the position didn’t include a relocation package, and Elise and I couldn’t afford the move. By that time, I had been out of work too long and exhausted our savings, going as far as cashing in my 401k and life insurance policies to keep our fledgling family afloat.
At the time, we couldn’t have known that are destiny lay in Brazil and India. The Rocky Mountains would have to wait. We got out of Florida. A small victory. Mission accomplished. At the time, I thought a lot about what our life would be like when we moved west of the Rockies, to Denver, Seattle, Portland, or Boise.
Now, we rent a small house in a quiet suburb outside of Washington, D.C. The kids go to public school. I walk them to the bus some mornings and pick them up in the afternoon some others. Clementine attends a local church pre-school. She has “Godly play” and sings prayers at the dinner table. The kids play in the backyard, digging up rolly-pollies in the dirt and climbing trees. I mow the lawn and grill. I get up early and run. I bought a bike. Sometimes, we grab burgers at our favorite local burger place or tacos at our favorite local taco place. The kids play in the town soccer league. They wear reversible jerseys and are making new friends. There are seasons here. The winters are cold and it snows. Spring is long. And wet. The summers are hot. The falls, crisp and beautiful. The Nats are good, and we wear our caps with pride. Though we haven’t gone yet, the countryside is not far and there are vineyards, camping, trails, rock-climbing, and ski slopes that wait for us. In fact, living here is a lot like what I imagined living west of the Rockies would be like. I like my job. I take the train to work. Sometimes, I work late, but I always return to a full home. We could never afford to live here permanently. Rents are astronomical, and Elise and I like beer and wine too much; there are too many good ones to choose from. But I’m happy. We’re finding the routine that was lacking in the winter, but we are getting used to the creaking floorboards in our small rental house. We don’t have much in the way of adventure, but that’s okay for now, but may lose its appeal soon. When we first arrived, I couldn’t wait to set back out again. I am finding quiet respite in the waiting. I found happiness without chasing it. But the year will pass quickly and it will be time to leave before we know it and begin the pursuit anew.