Achievement Anxiety, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 29 2013 @ 8:46pm

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A reader writes:

In what I trust will not be breaking news: achievement anxiety (particularly in relation to others) is nothing new. Consider this famous anecdote from Suetonius’ “Life of Julius Caesar”:

As quaestor it fell to [Caesar’s] lot to serve in Further Spain. When he was there…he came to Gades, and noticing a statue of Alexander the Great in the temple of Hercules, he heaved a sigh, and as if out of patience with his own incapacity in having as yet done nothing noteworthy at a time of life when Alexander had already brought the world to his feet, he straightway asked for his discharge, to grasp the first opportunity for greater enterprises at Rome.


I’m a 22-year-old, freshly graduated, unemployed, parents’ basement-dwelling sometimes-writer and aspiring comic. I just watched all of Girls. I think it’s great. I think it’s also maddening how greedy Lena Dunham is with all of the material I was going to use – right down to HPV. I can’t speak for anyone else my age who similarly strives for creative success, but for my part, I’ve gradually become used to the idea that it’s not going to happen over night.

That’s been really hard and hugely important for me. Writing in particular has really taught me patience. No, actually, I’m still not that great and neither are the things that I write. Why would they be? What have I done? What do I know that’s worth writing?

Mark Twain is one of my idols. Being Mark Twain is my career goal. Which is why I have to remind myself that when Samuel Clemens was my age, he was still Samuel Clemens, and he still had a few years of steamboat operation ahead of him before the “Celebrated Jumping Frog.” And that he claimed to have met every character in all of his stories while working up and down the Mississippi. Which he did, as a dream-fulfilling career, for years.

So good on Lena for all of her successes; may she grace us for years to come. But to the others like me who are prone to frustration and anxiety and discouragement and ice cream: don’t be in such a hurry to finish your masterpiece that you ignore all of its characters and dialogues and subplots waiting to be discovered on your steamboat or in your office or at the bar you tend or on that trip you couldn’t take because you really, really need to focus on your writing this year.


One of my best friends from college struck it big as a designer shortly after graduation and was a millionaire by 24. But the success went straight to his head, causing him to alienate most of his closest friends. He also never felt satisfied with the project he was currently doing and was always trying to live up to that sudden and overwhelming success of his early twenties. His experience reinforced my long-held belief that slow but steady success that ends in greatness is a far more preferable path. That way you get to savor every stage of success and never take it for granted.