Why The Pursuit Of Greatness Won’t Make You Happy

“A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.” – Cool Runnings


Around the end of 2014, a movie called Whiplash came out. I’d been anticipating it for half a year, ever since a friend had gone to an early screening of it through her job at LA Weekly and told me about it. The story follows a determined young drummer at the most prestigious music conservatory in the country and his ruthless teacher who punctuates his points by throwing chairs at students’ heads and spitting insults inches from their faces like, “You’ve got 10 minutes, you fucking pathetic pansy-ass fruit fuck.”

I loved it.

While those around me pointed out that the relationship of Andrew Neiman and his teacher, Fletcher, is clearly toxic and abusive, I was utterly invigorated by it. To barrel full-force ahead for the thing you care about most, to be pushed harder and further than you think you can go, that’s where it seems you tap into being most alive. To sacrifice everything – in Andrew’s case, to literally bleed – for your passion is how I felt you’d really find fulfillment. The takeaway for me was clear: in tireless persistence for the thing you love – in greatness – there is real happiness.

I think we all want greatness. Of course, with greatness and so many other things, it’s not so much about the thing itself, but what it represents. We want recognition; we want to know that we’re touching others, that they feel the things we feel. We want to be less alone. We want to feel valued and celebrated. We want to know that we’re moving forward and upward, always toward the purest and most exhilarating form of living. We want to believe that we’ll find our true happiness if we can become great.

I did, at the very least.

Shortly after seeing Whiplash, I hunted down a favorite screenwriter’s email address and asked him if he might be willing to get coffee with me. He said yes; I was thrilled. This was the guy only a few years older than me whose movie had just killed it at Sundance and then gone on to receive not one bad review from critics. This was the guy whose movie had landed him the request to write his next one for Jennifer Lawrence.

All of this is to say that I felt that he possessed a secret, that his very energy would be different. Above all else, I thought that he would be completely fulfilled, no longer empty or searching. I thought very wrong.

When I met with him, what I came face to face with was a gentle, fragile individual who felt totally unsure of what he was doing and apologized multiple times for not being able to give me any real advice. He chalked his success up to luck, though he was hesitant to even call it “success.” Perhaps he simply hid behind humility and modesty and grace, but it seemed like more than that. He talked under the weight of heavy shrugs and shoulders folded inward. He didn’t seem to be able to find the joy I’d expected him to in the beautiful movie he’d created, to see how wide his reach had been and how affected those were who’d seen it.

When I got back to my car afterwards, I couldn’t kick a nagging feeling of disappointment.

I pushed back the terrible thought that I might be standing on shaky ground, that something about the formula for happiness that I’d created could be wildly off-base.

Just a few weeks later, I stumbled across a study that further unraveled the fragile worldview I’d built and clung on to. Here’s what it claimed: we find more happiness in ordinary behavior such as:

  • A good morning hug and kiss from our fiancé(e) before work
  • Noticing our plants growing in the garden
  • Getting a perfectly made frappuccino

…than we do in extraordinary behavior such as:

  • Getting married
  • Going on vacation in Hawaii
  • Giving birth, at home, unassisted

This was not only depressing – it was absolutely infuriating. What could you possibly mean, sir researchers, that working and saving up all year for a once-in-a-decade tropical vacation isn’t going to make me happier than stepping onto my front porch and noticing the sun is out? How could my wedding day NOT trump a well-blended drink?

Most importantly, where is the greatness?

Something is “depressing” when we see it is truth and, while we wish it wasn’t so, we’re plainly accepting of the facts. Something is “infuriating” when we’re forced to realize that we’ve been living in utter denial of the truth and now that it’s been brought to light, there’s no shoving it back into suppression.

How I wished that I could shove all of these truths back into suppression.

At a point like this one, I think we have no other choice but to fall in love with our ordinary self and our ordinary life if we ever want to be happy. To live in the stubbornness and to use up the energy it requires to maintain a state of denial is futile and exhausting. To change the way we see our day-to-day is to release ourselves from the confines we’ve created about what a “happy life” should look like.

This doesn’t mean that you should suddenly abandon all of your goals or that you won’t be able to reap any joy when you finally reach a meaningful milestone. What it means is that if you’re waiting to wake up to life, if you treat it as something that’ll happen to you when you accomplish X goal and get Y status, you’re likely going to end up disappointed, angry and full of regrets, perceiving “time” as if it’s spent your life hunting you.

What it means is giving yourself the awareness and thus space to find the joy in your work itself, rather than always waiting for some far-off payoff that we’re never really promised or guaranteed anyway. It means learning to be candid about the reality of your life, about the reality of most of your days, and becoming more accepting and less judging of the plain truths of your existence.

It means training yourself to approach life’s seemingly never-ending tasks with awe and appreciation, not making your happiness some lofty thing to aspire to in the future, but rather something that you find every day, at home, at your job, in your errands – in all the ordinary work that happens in between all the extraordinary adventures. It means building a sense of trust and faith that this right here is what life is about.

And so what else is there to do? – but wake up every day and find the joy in your ordinary life.

Unquestionably, keep at your goals, doggedly and without ever letting your passion or wonder wane. Push yourself harder than you think you can go; sacrifice everything in your pursuit of the thing you love, of the exhilarating potential for greatness.

But in the meantime, while you’re laboring away over a task at work, and trying so very hard to be noticed at the thing you love most, and doing the dishes, and running another load of laundry, find the secret joy that’s hiding just beneath the surface of it all. It’s there, waiting to be seen, and on the day when you do stumble into your greatness, it’ll be there next to you and all around you, for the very reason that one day, some time ago, you learned that if you ever wanted to find real joy in greatness, you’d have to first carry joy with you everywhere you went.Thought Catalog Logo Mark

About the author

Kathryn Stanley

I’ve got the same Myers-Briggs type as Hitler and bin Laden, but also Gandhi. It’s been a confusing existence.

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