An Unsuccessful Formula

Here is An UNSCRIPTD Journey written by Brandon Blackshear:

When Trevor Bell asked me to write this article, I think he expected something a little different. He was probably looking for the typical rags to riches type story. An inspirational drama. Something about overcoming my struggles and achieving success. Maybe I could talk about getting kicked out of my house my junior year of high school, only to go on and get recruited to play D-1AA football through hard work and dedication. Or maybe I could talk about my battle with depression and the medications it lead me to abuse, later healing myself through counseling and becoming a graduate of an Ivy-League School. Or maybe, I could talk about how a 23 year old from a small town in Oregon somehow was able to make a stable life for himself in New York City: complete with an apartment, a full-time job, and health insurance. But there’s only one problem with all that. If this is suppose to be your typical success story, why do I feel so unsuccessful? If this is suppose to be so inspirational, why do I feel so uninspired? I’ve faced my obstacles and achieved a life many had told me was admirable. Yet even with everyone telling me I’m on the right path, why can’t I help but feel like I am going the wrong direction?

For that reason, I almost didn’t write this article. How could I tell a story of success and fulfillment, if I felt so empty? Now I am not talking about the same type of emptiness I felt during my battle with depression or the same type of longing I felt when separating from my family. This was different. More subtle. An almost nagging feeling of disappointment. Here I had overcame the pain of my struggles, only to feel numb in my achievements. I felt stuck in a state of comfort and constraint. Of stability and complacency. I didn’t understand. Was I not motivated enough? Did I not accomplish enough? Should I try harder? Work more? Both? I constantly started thinking up possible solutions to the void I was feeling in my life, only to reject them once the emptiness continued.

Looking back though I realize many of my accomplishments had little to do with goals I consciously set for myself. I wasn’t chasing concrete aspirations, I was chasing success; or at least society’s idea of it. I was so busy chasing this idea, I forgot to define what success actually meant to me. Having no definition for the word, I relied on other’s opinions to guide my own. Success wasn’t just determined by my wants and needs but rather, which opportunity received the biggest applause from those around me. “Try to get recruited by the biggest school.” “Try to get the highest paying job.” “Try to get the nicest stuff.” My personal favorite was trying to “have the best plan.” You know, the one you say over and over in your head so you could impress your friend’s parents, or even your own, when they eventually ask, “so what are you doing next?”. Eventually though, I realized all these measures of a “successful” life were only fueled by the approval of the people around me. I was blindly reaching for goals, at the chance they gained more and more endorsement from others. But you see, people’s approval doesn’t last forever. It has an endless appetite and a constant need to be fed. And once the cheering inevitably stops, they forget to tell you the “nicest” or “biggest” or “best” things might not be the best things for you. I started to realize didn’t feel connected to my achievements because they weren’t mine in the first place. No wonder I felt so unsuccessful.

At first I thought I was alone in feeling this way. All around me I felt like I saw people who had their life together. People who seemed to be handling the successful formula to life just fine. But after talking to more and more people my age, I’m realizing I’m not alone. A generation choosing their path based on society’s opinions, not their own. It’s not our fault either, we are a byproduct of it. Standardized tests. Trophies in sports. Medals in schools. All measures of approval constrained to fixed categories and judged by others. Very rarely are we graded on the subjects we chose, by the scale we set. We grew up being told success was a bar created by someone else. And I assumed, like many, to trust in those opinions that determine how valuable my life was said to be. Not once did I ask myself the type of life I considered to be successful, the type of life I wanted to live. After all, the path was laid out for us. Get good grades in high school, to get good grades in college, to get a good job, to get a good home, to get a good life. I’m pretty sure I learned society’s formula to success before my multiplication tables. And I’ve done my best to achieve it ever since, but I can’t help but wonder if there might be a better solution to this equation… at least for me

I started to really think about these things towards the end of my senior year of college, which is now a little over a year ago. I, like most kids at the time, had no idea what I was doing with my life. Up until that point, life was fairly planned out for me. Like I said, the formula to success was kind of like my subliminal ABC’s. But now that it was time to take the next step and pick that “good job”, I had no idea what that good job would be, at least for me. I knew which jobs I was “suppose” to take, yet none of them seemed right. I had just spent a small fortune on readying my brain for a career and now that it was finally time utilize it, I was coming up empty. However, the pressure to figure out that next step was immense. Everywhere around me, my classmates seemed to have their paths lined up. Financial advisor here or marketing executive there. Medical school here or law school there. Whatever it was though, it usually fit nicely into the formula of success we had all grown to know. Why was I having such a hard time deciding my path? I felt myself fail at interviews I would normally breeze through. I even ended up missing not one, but two flights for an interview I had in Texas! At the time, I considered it bad luck, but looking back I don’t know if I truly wanted the position anyway. With the end of the year approaching, I had a few corporate offers available but nothing that seemed fitting. Still, everywhere I went, people asked what my plan was after college. I did not have an answer to give. I felt embarrassed. Maybe if I just accepted a job, I could have an answer and things would get better. Maybe once I got settled into the position, I’d like it anyway. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling I should do something else.

img_0607It wasn’t until my graduation that I decided to try just that. You see, attending Columbia University was some of the hardest years of my life. Every year I was there, Columbia was voted one of the most stressful university to study at… in the world. Combine that with living 3000 miles from home and being one hell of a naive and insecure kid; I more than struggled. But finally, after 4 years, I made it. There I was, on graduation day ready to receive my diploma and be met with that overwhelming feeling of accomplishment I had waited so long for. Unfortunately that feeling never came. As my name was called, I felt an immense amount of nothing. No sense of pride or relief. No sense of satisfaction or joy. I was disappointed to say the least. I didn’t understand. I checked the boxes. I followed the formula. If this was the path to success why couldn’t I feel it? I had just graduated from an Ivy-League school. As far as the college part goes, I thought I aced it. According to the formula, I did. So why did I still feel unaccomplished? It was then I started to wonder if maybe society’s formula wasn’t for me. Before that moment, my countdown to adult life was approaching zero and it was getting close to decision time. Of the jobs offers I had, I was feeling pressure to chose, regardless my feeling towards them. I needed to stick to the formula, and getting a respectable job was the next step. But at graduation something changed. Something wasn’t right. I didn’t know what it was, but I needed to figure it out. I decided I had to take some time to clear my head and understand what was going with my life. So, while it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, when my family asked me to visit them in remote Alaska, I decided to take the trip. After all, what better a place to get away and think than the great Alaskan frontier?

Now for those who don’t know me, this is also the same family whom I parted ways with while I was in high school. At the time our relationship was mending, however it was also fragile. This would be the first time I would see them in almost 2 years. Since then, we had worked to resolve our problems over the phone and through Skype. We had grown to move on from the past and work towards a new and healthy relationship. I was excited to be reunited with my sisters and begin restoring things with my family. That being said, I could not help but wonder how many places my body could end up missing in the Alaskan wilderness, particularly with how angry I had been known to make my parents. But once I got off my sixth flight and completed the 28 hour trip to remote Alaska, I realized I had nothing to worry about at all. Instead, I had all to learn.

You see, my family had recently moved to a small, native Alaskan village to become missionaries. They said they felt their faith called them to change their life. So in the matter of a couple months, they sold their home, their car, and a majority of their belongings, and moved to Port Graham, Alaska. I thought they were insane. Partially because religion has always been a topic we do not seen eye to eye on. So you can see why I was skeptical of their new religious calling. Also, while I thought Alaska might be a good place to clear one’s head for a few days, moving there seemed a little extreme. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting to find any answers to my life’s direction or the formula of success in Alaska. I was merely going there to reset.

So after getting off the four seater prop-plane in rural Alaska, I’d be lying if said I wasn’t examining my family’s newfound way of life. In fact, one might say I was even judging it; something I ironically used to complain about my parents doing to others. I quickly realized I had no idea what I was talking about.

img_0606Within hours, I was fishing, hiking, and hunting around the great Alaskan wilderness. I could feel my family thoroughly enjoy the chance to share their Alaskan lifestyle with me. They seemed different to me though. Happier. More free. The closer I looked, the more intrigued I became. They lived isolated from society with what most people would consider nothing, in a space that rivals my NYC apartment. No movie theaters. No restaurants. No bars. My twelve year old sisters didn’t even know what snapchat was! Yet, they seemed so alive. I saw a purpose in their lives that was purer than anything I had encountered back in the big city. I saw them become involved in the native community helping with projects, events and ceremonies. I saw them grow in their faith and as people, becoming the type of Christian’s I didn’t believe to exist. They did this not out of the fear of retribution or personal motive, but genuine belief in their cause. I saw how they enjoyed their life, a life they chose. It didn’t matter to them what I, or anyone else, thought of their life; to them, they were successful. I was inspired. Not only had my relationship with my family been mended, they had instilled in me a new understanding of what life could be. A new concept of success that was not bound by the previous formula I had grown so accustomed to hearing. They embraced their passion and their faith, fully creating their life around it. While our beliefs may be different, my family had the courage to embrace a life they wanted to live and for that I have the utmost respect for them.

So after spending a week with my wild Alaskan family, and I think they know I mean that in the most enduring way possible, I felt inspired to face my lost sense of direction. I was nearing the deadlines on my job offers and I needed to make a decision on the direction I was going to take my life in. After mulling it over, I realized once I took that next step towards a job or a career, it would be difficult to take time off for other experiences. Because I wasn’t completely sure which career I wanted to settle with anyway, I decided to try and accomplish two birds with one stone. I could hold off on joining the corporate world for a little bit longer while also doing something I always wanted to try: disconnect. I had just spent 4 years in New York City and was quite frankly, tired of people. I was tired of social media and text messages. I was tired of sirens and horns. I was tired of all of it. So, I got creative. If their was only one chance to do this, I better do it right. So I found myself in a somehow even more remote part of Alaska, commercial fishing. People thought I was fucking nuts. I loved every second of it. Sure, it was difficult. It even gave me an infected elbow that burst open like the scene from Alien at one point, but it was the best experience of my life. Never before had I felt so alive. I had set a goal and accomplished it. I was not guided by anyone’s opinion but my own, I finally felt successful. I was living a life I wanted to live. It was the most invigorating feeling I had felt in a long time.

As I look back and I try to explain that feeling to people I ironically can only describe it through a story of a fish. You see before I left, my best friend talked to me about fish and how they live in what he called the “Now”. The “Now”, he claimed, is a place without past or future. A pure state of being present in time. He said because fish have no concept of time, they get to experience this feeling. They don’t get caught up on their past, and don’t worry about their future. They just follow that urge that tells them to swim. Other than their cycle of life, and returning up river to spawn or mate, the daily life of a fish is, as he said, “in the now”. I thought he was high as shit. It wasn’t until I was on that 22 foot skiff setting a 300ft net in 12 foot swells, that I knew what he meant. I smelled like fish guts and body odor but I didn’t care, all I had to focus on was the task at hand. Life was so simple, yet so rewarding. I had gotten my taste of living in the now and I was hooked. I didn’t know the exact reason why I was feeling this way, but I knew I had to find out. img_0605

So like any responsible adult, I decided to extend my pre-career vacation and backpack Europe. The money I had earned from commercial fishing was less than I expected but Alaska had shown me that experiences are worth it. I was able to make my money stretch for 3 months. I traveled to 26 cities and 14 different countries. It was incredible. With every city I saw, the more accomplished I felt. With every memory I made. the more fulfilled I became. I was living in the now more than ever.

It was while traveling I started to understand why I had been feeling so alive. For part of the trip, I was backpacking Europe by myself. For the first time in my life, I had no attachment to anyone. While it may seem selfish, I had no one to worry about but myself. This was simultaneously invigorating and terrifying. On one hand, I got to go wherever I wanted. I got to do whatever I wanted. It was pure freedom. However, that also meant I actually had to make decisions. I had to determine what I truly wanted to do. With each choice I began to better understand myself. Whether I made the wrong choice or the right one, only I was responsible for making them. I was in total control of my life. Success suddenly became much simpler, it no longer revolved around what others thought, but instead was just up to me. Success was watching a beautiful sunrise in Barcelona or choosing to meet up with friends in Prague. Success was camping on the beach in Ireland or jumping onstage at a Hodor concert in Whales. Sure, sometimes I struggled, like when a horse trampled my tent in Ireland, puncturing it with it’s hooves and destroying any chance of it ever of being a tent again, let alone waterproof. But even in that struggle, I was living a life I chose. I defined success by my own measures. And even though I did not consider sleeping in the rain that night successful, knowing only I was the only one defining that measure made it bearable, even enjoyable in a freeing kind of way.

img_0604Eventually, my trip came to and end however. I couldn’t help but feel the draw to come back to modern society and begin the formula of success I said I’d return to. Facebook and Instagram, combined with messages from friends and family, reminded me of the life I had waiting for me. It was time to face reality and begin the path to success I was suppose to take. That and let’s be honest, I was broke. With the my payment installations for my student loans approaching, I really didn’t have much of an option. I also had some internal guilt about having a degree I currently wasn’t utilizing. After all, I worked for the the formula, I might as well use it. However, I thought I could take what I learned on my trips and bring it back with me. I could continue with the formula, but I could still live the life I wanted. If Alaska and Europe had taught me I could define my success, why couldn’t I do it back in New York?

So within 5 months, I had a full-time job back in New York City, where I currently still work. I live in an apartment on Manhattan with an awesome roommate and rooftop access. My work even gives me great health insurance and benefits, including a 401K! I have no reason to feel unsuccessful. But again, I find myself feeling lost. I didn’t understand it. A year ago, I felt as if life had opened up to me, but suddenly I couldn’t help but feel confined to the familiar space that constrained me my senior year. Just as before, I checked all the boxes: I had the job, I had the apartment, I had the car. I even felt like I was making my own choices, within the formula though of course. My job was bearable. My expenses were covered. I was stable. I was comfortable. I didn’t understand it, but I felt empty again.

This made me wonder: was I still letting other people’s doubts and opinions guide my life? In short, the answer was yes. While I had brought back some of the lessons I had learned from my trips, I ultimately had fallen back into the same cycle. I was, once again, prisoner to society’s formula of success. A formula guided by others opinions and doubts on where I should take my life. My friends. My family. My network. All had a pull one direction or another in my decisions whether they realized it or not. Instead of being confident in what I wanted from life, I chose to take the easier path, the one that satisfies everyone’s questions: the formula. Good grades + good college + good job + good money + good house + good stuff = good success. No one can argue with it. It is easy to explain, and ultimately secure. Except, what was “good”? Or the better question, who was I letting define it? I might have been making my own choices within the formula, by choosing my own jobs or finding my own hobbies, but only as long as they fit within the socially accepted parameters of the “good” I had grown so accustomed to know.

I started this article by saying I knew what Trevor was looking for when he asked me to write it. He was looking for your typical inspirational story. The usual tale of overcoming struggles to achieve success. However, mine is not that. At least not yet. I realized that no matter how stable my life may be or how many steps of the formula I may follow, I’m still not being successful to myself. I’m not living the life I want to live. I’m not even on the right path. But through this experience I learned something about myself, I know the type of success I don’t want. That is the type of success my life currently revolves around: society’s expectations. I think it’s time I chose my own definition of success.

So that is why last week, I put in for my two weeks at my job. I signed over my lease and sold most of my belongings. In less than a week, my best friend and I are driving west to start lives that we choose. We have no idea what might entail. To some, that might sound foolish. To us, it sounds exciting. Maybe i’ll work in an art gallery or for a creative agency. Maybe I’ll work at a surf shop or in a brewery. Maybe I’ll do something completely different. Whatever it is though, it’s time I have the courage to make that choice for myself.img_0603

But let’s be honest, I know people will have their doubts. Why wouldn’t they? We will have no job, no home, no plan. Most would be justified in doubting this scenario. But you see, I’ve learned people’s doubts are merely a product of their own insecurities. Their apprehensions come from the fear of what it might be like putting themselves in your shoes. Thus revealing their fear, not your own. And maybe from their perspective, quitting their job and driving across the country to start a life with very little plan is crazy. But I’m not them. I’m not naive either, I know it will be hard. I know I will have a lot to figure out in setting up my life. I am no stranger to that. But I have put in hard work for things I didn’t even want myself, imagine what I can accomplish for the things I do! And those things don’t have to be the “nicest” or the “biggest” or the “best”, just as long as they are the best for me.

And you know, maybe your idea of success is completely different from mine. Maybe it is the same as what society has you believe. Maybe it something completely different. But whatever it is, just own it! Come to that determination for yourself, no one else. Otherwise, no matter how many struggles you overcome or things you accomplish, you will still feel lost if they aren’t what you truly want from your life. Someone I owe a great deal to once told me, “F*** happiness. Just never let yourself down.” I’ve since come to gain a lot of wisdom from this quote. You see, your idea of success might be hard. You might not always be happy. You might be stuck on a boat in Alaska, rocking back and forth, unable to see anything with account of the freezing rain hitting your blistered face. You might be packing up your NYC apartment wondering how many nights you’ll be sleeping in your car as you drive across the country. You might have different struggles you need to overcome on your path. Others may think you are crazy for even attempting it. But at the end of the day, at least it is a path you chose. After all, since it’s the life you live, why not make it the life you want?

This is my UNSCRIPTD Journey,

BrandonBlackshearSignature

One thought on “An Unsuccessful Formula

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  1. Brandon, thank you for sharing your story. My take away is, living by a formula and having others define what success is not a life that is fulfilling. Defining who you are is for you to do, not others. Go and embrace life and this coach, counselor thanks you for providing me a lesson on life. W. Otto

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