Follow the joy instead of success

I’m writing this on the second day of a new year, right smack in the middle of all the newness and goal-setting and hope for the next 12 months. Normally, I embrace the dreaming and ambition that the new year hands me. I love this season of possibility. This year, though, I am taking a different approach.


Last semester, I won an award for my writing at school. I was so excited to get this award that I went to the office of our administrator in the journalism department just to say thank you for giving me the news. I don’t think she gets many exuberant students knocking on her office door to say thank you for sending an email because she looked surprised to see me, but I was pumped. You’d think that this excitement would have carried over into the award ceremony, but no. That award ceremony was one of the most anti-climactic three hours of the entire semester. I expected to feel elated. Instead, my chicken was dry and I felt bored and sweaty and generally uncomfortable. As soon as the event was over, I left to go back to class. I didn’t linger. I didn’t take a macaroon to go. I left immediately to go back to class.


After this experience, I spent some time re-evaluating my priorities in life. I am a high achiever. If I commit to doing something, I aim for perfect, even though I know consistent perfection is an unrealistic goal. I like to win. I like performing well. However, this award was supposed to be a peak experience. Wasn’t that what I was working for? If so, the payoff definitely wasn’t worth all the effort I was putting in. Something needed to shift in me, I realized, or I’d be consistently walking a road of stress to get to the destination of disappointment. 


I started with an examination of my definition of “success.” I realized that I didn’t even have a clear idea of what “success” was, other than: do everything the best. This, I realized, was both a vague and exhausting system of life guidance. No wonder I’d felt burned out and anxious for most of 2019. No wonder I didn’t feel like setting many new goals. Chasing success wasn’t working for me at all.


So what would work? I thought about this from many different angles and came up with a new guiding principle for 2020:


Follow the joy.


Follow the joy instead of “success.”


Following joy doesn’t mean “chase things that I think will make me happy.” It means evaluating what, in my life, brings me the most joy and focusing on amplifying that. I want to live a healthy, thriving, joy-filled life, and eating dry chicken in a sweaty blazer for three hours doesn’t really fall into my list of joy-giving activities. 


Writing gives me joy, though. So does hanging out with people I love, swimming for fun, reading, creating new projects, travel, and a long list of other activities that I’ve never tried, but want to. This list might sound incredibly boring for you and that is okay. All of our “joy lists” will look different. That is the point. If you are getting disillusioned or burned out by chasing society’s “normal” goals and success, I encourage you to make your own joy list and try to incorporate more of those things into your life.


Follow the joy in 2020. This doesn’t mean you don’t work hard or aim high. You can still do those things. The balance might be different, though. Your measuring stick of success will definitely be different, and that is good. Contentment will be easier to hold onto. I’ve been trying to live in this mindset for the past month and, already, I’ve been loosing pockets of anxiety in my heart and mind. I’d rather be propelled by joy than have the constant pressure of success pushing me forward. 


So here’s to a freer, more joy-filled year.


(Photo by Diya Pokharel on Unsplash)

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