Live Through This

The Gray Cloud of Success

I have nothing to fear but happiness itself.

Illustration by Kendra

Illustration by Kendra

I was raised to believe that success matters. I was also raised to believe that the good things I do or accomplish are even better when they also look good and prestigious to outsiders. My family is a bragging family—my grandparents still love to crow about it when I achieve something—and as a result I sometimes feel defined by my accomplishments, and invisible when I’m not actively out there doing brag-worthy things.

Even though I’ve dealt with a lot for someone my age and my life has not been overwhelmingly happy, a lot of positive things have happened to me: I got a scholarship to my first-choice college. I was a contestant on The Glee Project. In my adult life, I’ve had only jobs that were interesting to me, incorporating at least one of my passions: music and writing. (I told you I come from braggers.)

But here’s the thing: I don’t feel like I really made any of those things happen. I didn’t have to fight any foes or scale any obstacles to get them. Everything good that happens to me feels like purely a matter of luck: being in the right place at the right time. None of my good fortune seems fair. And that’s where the problem lies. What will I do when my luck runs out?

This question haunts me, and casts a shadow over even the happiest of occasions. In any given situation, at any time, I can’t stop myself from thinking of the absolute worst possible thing that could happen. It’s bad—whenever one of my friends goes away on vacation, I wonder if I’ll never see them again. I finish every phone call with people I’m close to with an “I love you,” just in case it’s my last opportunity to tell them. Someone’s blowing up a balloon? It’s going to burst in their face and they’re going to be blinded by a latex fragment. You set a drink down near the edge of the table? I will actually be your drink security guard and hover nearby so I can catch it before glass shatters everywhere. My brain is a constant negative-thinking machine, so that I will never be taken by surprise. Because if I expect something bad, I might be able to handle it better if and when it actually happens, right? It’s like insurance against disappointment.

When I see something bad happen to someone else, I immediately fear that it will happen to me too. Disease. Death. Homelessness. Job loss, injury, accidents. Why do these things happen to other people? Why do they happen at all? Why not me? When will my life be turned upside-down by negative experiences? How can I prepare if I don’t know if and when bad things are coming?

Take writing for Rookie. Yearbook One came out before I worked here, and stumbled upon it at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. I sat in the bookstore for three hours reading it cover to cover. When I got home that night, I came to the site and looked for a submission link. Next to the link was an advertisement for a Rookie event and signing the very next day, 10 minutes from my apartment. I couldn’t believe how great the timing was. Luck! Even though I was too broke to buy the book, I waited in the signing line just to tell Tavi how much I liked her work. When I got to the front I told her I’d love to write about trans and queer issues for Rookie. She told me to email her a few writing samples, which I did as soon as I got home. It wasn’t long after that that they asked me to be on staff. So my being able to publish my writing here is really the result of being in the exact right place at the exact right time, plus the fact that I happened to have a perspective they were looking for someone to write about.

Yeah, they must have liked my samples, but there are a million people out there with good writing samples, and there are lots of better writers than me. With this and anything else the universe give me, I feel undeserving, and that makes me anxious. Which means this can’t last long. Disaster must be right around the corner.

I just ran into one of my musical idols, Sia, outside of a restaurant. To me this means I’m due for an accident, just to balance out my excessive happiness. I do think I deserve good things and happiness, I just don’t know why I deserve them more than anyone else. I don’t! We all deserve positive things in our lives; we all deserve happiness and to achieve our goals. So why do positive things happen to me when a friend of mine across the country is on the verge of homelessness?

I’m not sure if everyone is as anxious about all this as I am, but I do know that many of my friends also worry about too much success. I saw a friend’s Facebook status a little while ago that said something like “I’m so happy. I have a job that I love, my amazing friends and family, and a wonderful boyfriend. I’m just worried that it’s all going to come crashing down somehow.” I instantly identified, of course. Why are so many people afraid of success? We all seem to know it’s fleeting, but we don’t stop to enjoy it while we have it—we’re too focused on worrying about what’s going to happen when it’s gone. What would happen if we all learned to savor the great things in our lives instead of preparing for everything to crumble?

I don’t want to be this way anymore. I want to be the kind of person who can bask in my success, not run from it. I want to be more like Cristina Yang, Sandra Oh’s character on Grey’s Anatomy, who works her ass off to get what she wants (usually a chance to get in on a once-in-a-lifetime surgery opportunity) and doesn’t care what those around her have to say about it. She knows she’s cutthroat, and that’s what makes her a great surgeon. She celebrates with victory dances and owns her I’m-the-best-of-the-best attitude. She knows that she makes things happen for herself, and for that reason, she takes pride in her successes and knows she deserves them. I’d like to also be proud of jobs I do well, no matter how they came to me.

I know that success doesn’t drop out of the sky and into people’s laps. In the future, success and happiness will come or it won’t, but it’ll mostly be up to me. And I’m the only one in charge of how I react to it. I don’t know if I’ll ever reach Cristina Yang levels of confidence, but I could at least stop raining on my own parade. ♦


  • meaganelizabeth September 26th, 2013 11:41 PM

    I honestly can relate to this so much. Thank you for writing this piece! (:

  • aliastro September 26th, 2013 11:47 PM

    As someone who was also raised with addicts, it’s a common thing, thinking that chaos is right around the corner. But I promise it’s not.

    Because the cool thing about growing up and moving out is that we get to run our own lives. And people who have overcome things are often the most successful ones–the types they go up and say “hey how about a write for you?”. That’s kick-ass not luck! All the best to you.

  • spudzine September 26th, 2013 11:50 PM

    I honestly thought I was the only one with this anxious train of thought. Bless you for being honest, Tyler. Bless you.

  • sarahf September 26th, 2013 11:53 PM

    you are still deserving of success even though you fear it. if you think success is something that just happens to you, then let it happen.
    also, maybe you can redefine your definition of success if you’re not comfortable with it?

    i feel that you should keep writing about this, and not be fearful of the fear itself. it is the most human thing.

  • elliecp September 27th, 2013 3:12 AM

    This is so awesome. Thankyou for being so honest…it really helps to hear people speak truthfully and not pretend like they live in a perfect world all the time <3

  • NotReallyChristian September 27th, 2013 4:44 AM

    Ugh, I know this feeling. All through school I was one of the smartest without really making an effort – I did all my work and studied, but I never felt like I was really being challenged, and even when I felt like I didn’t do that well I’d get a great mark. I always lived in fear that somehow the exams would catch up with me, and all the smartness that I magically had would disappear. It kind of happened, as well – I’m at a super-nerdy university now so everyone is smart, and some of them are legit geniuses so I’m just normal here, and that’s kind of stressful: when part of your identity revolves around being ‘clever’ it can be tough to adjust to just being regular. It’s good though, it’s helping me find unique parts of my personality that aren’t about to come crashing down if I don’t get a top grade.

  • margharita September 27th, 2013 5:31 AM

    Tyler, your article, especially the last part about Cristina Yang, reminded me of a recent This American Life broadcast (How I Got into College). You should listen to it, because one of the things it mentions is that sometimes people who work hard for their success are actually less happy because they feel the world is hostile and must be overcome (by their own hard work), rather than a place full of infinite possibilities and benevolent forces. Just because you’ve been lucky in the past doesn’t mean it’s going to run out–a lot of that “luck” came from you, by being open to others and pursuing what you love. :)

    • aliastro September 27th, 2013 2:22 PM

      Yes! I loved that This American Life episode. It’s about the story we tell ourselves about our life–crazy how many versions there can be.

  • soviet_kitsch September 27th, 2013 9:33 AM

    oh man, i identify with the 4th paragraph so much. i always freak out when my friends go on vacation or when my mom comes home from work or when a relative goes somewhere. it’s a good habit to tell someone you love them a lot, but it shouldn’t be out of fear (which i am guilty of on a daily basis, so no judgements here).
    and also i wish i could relate to the worrying about good things signifying a horrific, crashing end, but nothing’s fallen into place like that in a really long time. i’m stuck in limbo and when good things happen i’m terrified it’s the end. didn’t mean to be such a debbie downer but…uhhhh here we are. tyler man, you’re a great writer and you deserve this spot.

  • amescs September 27th, 2013 1:38 PM

    Thanks Tyler, this was a really great article and I feel a little more normal now. <3

  • Collagingcolors September 27th, 2013 4:21 PM

    I think the problem here is the society always telling us that we have to fail many times to make our dreams come true, but what happen if we don’t fail ?
    don’t we deserve that ? of course yes ! and you have to be proud of it !!!!

    PS: my english sucks!

  • Sophii September 27th, 2013 5:40 PM

    Everyone says that for every high there’s a low etc. but just because /they/ say that I don’t think it /has/ to be that way. I wish that I was more successful but whenever I do anything remotely successful I feel bad about mentioning it at all ever as I think that I am instantly made to feel as though I am showing off. I wish that it was more socially acceptable to bask in success- no matter how briefly we have it and for what reasons and no matter how big or small that success is xoxo

  • ColoredSoft September 27th, 2013 8:03 PM

    AHHHHH SERIOUSLY TYLER, bless your articles. I mean this so much. I’m happy that you happened to be in the right place at the right time. I can relate to this subject…omgomgomgI’mnotgoinganythinggreatthatmeansthatIsuck. But yeah, it’s not true. And when we have success, it’s good to

  • lucy e September 27th, 2013 9:34 PM

    Dear Tyler, I recently saw you interviewed on Australian TV and was so impressed by your insights and creativity. I work with refugees often from war zones. Some of them have had little or no education, very little money and have experienced loss of all kinds. They are resilient and they are making the most of the opportunities they have. You have so much talent, enjoy it and keep making use of it. If something bad happens move on, learn from it. Failure can be an amazing opportunity to change direction and have insights you wouldn’t have had otherwise. My own failure in high school has given me empathy to work with people with low levels of literacy. I suffer from depression and I can relate to people who do to. Some of my difficulties have become my greatest strength later in life. You will find this too as you get older.

  • Arianne Zurbano September 29th, 2013 10:43 AM

    I could totally relate to this.

  • aela September 30th, 2013 10:34 AM

    you might want to read “outliers: the story of success” by malcolm gladwell. it shows how success does not only come from inner ability and hard work but also has a lot to do with external factors such as the culture you grew up in, your family and simply “being in the right place at the right time”.