I have had, by many standards, a very easy life. That’s not to say I never worked, never experienced failure, never felt rejection or regret—you can be familiar with all those things and still live an easy life. I’ve just never really had to overcome anything significant.
My whole childhood went very smoothly. My parents were accommodating to me and I to them, because that’s just how I was. School was never very difficult—so long as I paid attention and did my homework, classes were a breeze. Finances were never much of a problem either.
But let’s get one thing straight: This says zero about my character or personality. Here’s the truth: I’ve had, since I can remember, a horrid work ethic, minimal motivation, and almost zero direction—because I haven’t needed any of those things to be successful. And I’m honestly just a little ashamed of that.
The one decision that defined my life’s direction most was what to study. Even then, I only did it because I was good at it. Every other choice I made was just to do what I was supposed to do. I took tough courses because you were supposed to challenge yourself. I did homework because you were supposed to do homework. I applied to colleges that my counselor recommended because you were supposed to take their advice. And, admittedly, I did pretty well for myself by just doing what I should. Then I went out into the real world.
Here’s what did not happen: I did not stumble into the real world and find it to be cold and unforgiving. I did not learn that I needed to work hard to succeed. I did not learn that people could tell the difference between a hard worker and a good worker. The truths I learned were more uncomfortable than that.
A little over half a year ago, I made plans to assist in scientific research in my department over the summer—because, as a student in my field, that’s what you’re supposed to do. My situation was pretty lax—the gig was purely coding, so I got to set my own hours and often worked from home. As long as I got whatever I was assigned done, I was doing enough. And so, I did exactly what I was supposed to; never mind that there was a whole host of relevant science behind the numbers I was crunching, and that I was working with some of the smartest people in New York City. I didn’t need any of that to do my job. I just needed to crunch. So I crunched. And it was it easy.
Three summer months went by, and at the end I felt like I had accomplished nothing with my life. Three months of weekly grind with no beginning, no end, just output. Three months with nothing to show for it but a few esoteric skills, a fistful of dollars, and a block of text on my resume. Three months of missed opportunities.
I wish I’d done worse. I wish someone would have told me I’m not working fast enough, or even threatened to fire me. At least then I would’ve had reason to change something. I would’ve tried harder. I might have even felt like I had actually accomplished something by the end of it all.
In general, there are two kinds of virtue: internal and achieved. But I’ve only ever known the first. I find myself viciously jealous of the people who can achieve, because those are the extraordinary people. For them, there is no “good enough,” but only “better.” So for the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to live for “good enough,” to live a complacent, boring, ordinary life. That frightened me—to think that I might spend 50 years being pretty good at something but never feeling fulfilled, because “pretty good” is enough to keep me sedate.
Seeing what an “easy life” is like taught me how I could end up if I didn’t change my attitude, like a ghost of ennui future. Since coming back to school, I’ve reworked my personal standards, trying to fashion myself into the extraordinary person I want to be. But I’m still terrified that it might just be who I am. I’ve spent two decades living an easy life, essentially preparing myself to be boring. Should I be surprised if I end up just settling?
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in physics.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.