The Trip that Changed Everything:
Finding success by looking for happiness
I have struggled with the concepts of success and happiness for quite a while. It could be argued that I had moderate amounts of the latter and almost none of the former.
The words are innocuous enough. Success is defined as: the “favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors.” Happiness is paradoxically described as “the quality or state of being happy.” One is an end, a “termination” of levels, while the other is an ongoing process, a “quality.” There is a distinct moment after an activity has been finished and one can declare themself successful—or not.
Happiness is the more elusive noun. It cannot be quantified. You do not finish a moment of your life and declare that it is happy. Instead, you feel happiness as you attempt to create success, as you fail at being successful or as you give up on the idea of success.
Given the difference in these two concepts, it is surprising that we feel the two share a symbiotic relationship. In order to be happy, I always assumed I must find success.
Somehow, through sheer grit, determination, and a touch of luck, I now run a successful social media business. My clients include Fortune 500 businesses, luxury fashion labels, and a notable museum. I set my own hours, hire my own employees, and travel whenever I want to. In the past year, I’ve taken over 2 months worth of “vacations,” hung out on red carpets, lamented being too busy for a puppy, and very recently been asked to consider running social media for one of the largest companies on the Fortune 50 list. Sometimes, I have to pinch myself— I’m only 26.
I don’t know how I came to this exact spot. I’m not sure why I get to shake hands with Nobel laureates and celebrities. I don’t know how I started being put up in 5 star hotels, having Facebook be my water cooler, and twitter my microphone.
But it wasn’t always like this.
The search for success led me to pursue a Master’s degree in International Security. I studied genocide with a depth and intensity that Hitler himself would appreciate. I can recite the death toll of every genocide, the major international ramifications, the resulting treaties, or, more often than not, the failures of international action. I wrote a 20-credit thesis and positioned myself (or so I thought) as a scholar in the field. Upon graduating I imagined great success and enormous future job potential.
Unfortunately, it seemed that in 2007, genocide wasn’t hiring.
I found myself in a lack-luster non-profit job in Washington, D.C. Not just lack-luster, but creepy. My boss hired me because I looked like his wife. He liked to come up behind me and rub my shoulders. Now, not only was I not a successful scholar of what I considered the most important international phenomenon, I was one step from being a sexual-harassment cliché.
Few things degraded my faith in future success more than knowing I was hired for my blonde hair, big breasts, and average sized waist. It seemed that in 2008, sex was hiring.
Almost three years later, I still occasionally get hired for my looks, but I’ve made peace with it and have occasionally sold it. There is nothing a men’s website likes more than a social media director who can flirt with potential vendors, new business partners, and successful actors. It, though, is a miniscule and often forgotten part of my life.
I’m not quite sure exactly what I did to make this change happen, but what I do know is the exact moment when I didn’t take the other choice – the choice to give up, to let failure overrun happiness.
In December of 2008, I found myself adrift. I was a little tiny rowboat that had not only lost its oars, but its oarlocks. I was too far away to see land but close enough to know that metaphorically a storm was brewing.
I had tried to ask for a raise at my no-good, low-income non-profit idealistic job, only to be fired. I had convinced myself that I had fallen in love with a boy, only to have him call me unlovable. This seemed to be a moment in which my ties with all the things that mattered seemed severed.
“Who was I without a task to do? Who was I if deemed unlovable? Who had I become and where could I possibly be going?” I wondered.
This wonder turned into a deep and irreplaceable depression. I’m sure most people would have sought psychiatric help, taken medication, and gotten on with it.
I’m a New Englander at heart. My father was a dairy farmer and my grandfather was a lobsterman. They are people who pride themselves on grit, determination, and a steadfast ability to make one’s own future. They are the salt of the earth. They grow old with wrinkles and arthritic hands. But they still have straight backs and strong arms. These men don’t take pride in the girl who asks for help, but they beam at the daughter who makes her own way and finds her own future.
I didn’t see a therapist. Instead, I turned on my computer and bought a one-way airplane ticket that would take me as far away from DC as possible on just $350. The destination was the perfectly situated beach town of Cartagena, Colombia and the goal was simple- either find a reason to keep living or kill myself in a place where no one would find me.
Colombia is the perfect place to disappear. Its history is based in sordid national wars, the narcotics trade, and magical realism. It’s a conflux of cultures—slaves, Indians, and whites –and behaviors—fighting, loving, war, drugs, violence, pressure, release, intoxication, irrelevance, and importance. In short, Cartagena seemed the one place on Earth with more problems and more complexity than my own head.
The city is like no other. Its light is golden brown, but streaked through with shards of copper. The ocean radiates vitality, shimmering and dancing in the background. But, its greatest feature is a stone fortress that surrounds the city. The walls are 20 feet high and somewhere between 1 and 3 meters thick.
These walls are simple. Lovingly built out of concrete and rebar with the sole purpose of protecting the city, and yet, they are literally alive with the drama of the everyday. They pulse with secrets, rejoice in every kiss, quiet every tear, and embrace the throbbing rhythm of the city. The walls are the most perfect kind of juxtaposition: insular protection and radical embrace in one heavy, satisfied, and slightly tired breath. The city without these walls would be nothing.
Atop the walls, residents stroll and hold hands, and in the windows carved into the walls, lovers sit. I see them, as I walk alone in my blue cotton dress, my hair dyed red and my skin burnt sienna.
They sit in the windows curled into each other as they curled into the walls. The setting sun backlit their bodies and they seem almost an extension of the stone. You see lovers caressing, lovers crying, lovers fighting, and lovers dying. Somewhere in this perfect setting, the minutia of living is engulfed by the fortress walls and a society goes about its daily routine.
In my first few days in the land that captivated Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I do nothing but walk. I like the way my legs stretch and my skin browns. My head burns, and I hide beneath a giant straw hat. It flaps and covers my face, so in the moments when I am overcome with failure I cry uncontrollably, somewhat hidden from their eyes.
I do that a lot. I weep out of a sense of failure. I weep from the sheer loneliness of barely being able to communicate. I bawl in my bed at night because it finally feels okay to cry now that I am far away from my friends, my roommate, and the confines of what I call home.
I sit in my failure and I wallow in it. For days, I soak it in. I begin to imagine what it would feel like to swim so far out to sea that I can no longer move. I suck in sea water and I slowly sink. As I descend further down, I see octopi and manatees. Somewhere between living and dying I see mermaids, and then everything is cold, black, and finished.
I think these things as I sit in a bustling square in Cartagena. Men are playing guitars and horses are drawing carriages. There is music and laughter and a swelling of voices. The crowd beats time with the dancers. Christmas lights twinkle and I breathe— for the first time in a very long time.
In the captive chaos of their world, I begin to find a way to accept, momentarily, the chaos in my own head. It’s as if chaos begot happiness in this darkened sunset. I feel myself moving to the music, being drawn into their chaos, and I breathe again – this time with more gusto, the kind of breath that pushes air into my belly.
I suck in the warmth of the air and the happiness. I stretch my toes out and feel the ground pulsating with their joy. Through the crowd, I see a lack of movement. A woman sitting two tables away has fingers barely tapping. My body has been swaying slightly, but she is sitting there stoically as if her body is too pained to move. She has the grace of someone who has come to this same spot for years, who knows all the dancers, and all the people. This fact is proven as I watch her. I notice people stop by and put an arm on her shoulder or kiss her bronzed face.
I am intrigued by her. Somehow I know she is full of the kind of life that has filled these walls with stories. When she looks directly at me I see she is missing teeth and possesses a face of ancient withered wrinkles. We look at each other for a moment, a passing bit of nothingness, and then she smiles at me. We say nothing, but she has seen a tear roll down my cheek and I am not ashamed. She has accepted me simply and unequivocally.
For that brief moment, we share our lives, our sorrows, our disappointments and then somehow, I feel her joy. I feel renewed and accepted without reservations, my existence reaffirmed, and then slowly loved. It was as if, somewhere, I had been forgiven for my failures. I stare back and catch a glimpse of light reflected on her cheek. Somehow, I knew she had found these same redemptions. In the light, I see a tear is also rolling down her much older, slightly wizened face.
In that second, I knew that I had pushed past failure. In that moment, I briefly experienced pure happiness and I finally understood that success in itself was not the goal that I should have been striving for. Instead, focusing on the quality of being happiest was the path forward.
There was no longer the need to go on an endless swim. Instead I began a steady plan for uphill attack. There was going to be a future and a career. I would find a way, figure something out, and then attack.
So I begin to write. I take a little black notebook and I jot out the things I like, the things I hate, and the goals I have for the future. I create a list of 100 things to do before I die and I make them challenging. I decide that tomorrow I will learn to scuba dive, and then next month, I will take cooking lessons. Along the way I decide that I want to move to New York City, be an entrepreneur, and some day be featured in a magazine.
In my mind, I decide to take the spirit of Cartagena and adapt it as my own. I want space for spontaneous loving, space for spontaneous crying and mostly, enough room to dance. I will temper it within a giant fortress, but I will let anyone in. I will create walls built on the foundation of this moment, walls reinforced by the affection of strangers and furthered by the love of those within my life.
I will steel the walls with the determination of my father, the tenacity of my mother, and the adventurous spirit of my grandfather. I will let them clamor in my windows and see the ocean from my walls. I will feed them, love them, and embrace them because that is where I find a sense of happiness.
Most importantly, though, I resolutely decide to only make decisions that bring me happiness. It is in that pursuit that I have found the most joy. If something makes me happy, I will keep it. If it makes me confused, discouraged, or angry, I will let it go. When I work to maximize my happiness, I am most efficient, most kind, and most prosperous.
Success can go its own way. It can find another companion. The whole concept of judging success only after the completion of a task I will leave behind. Instead, I’ll focus on quality, the beloved child of happiness. It is in quality that I will find happiness, and if success has to tag along as a by-product so be it – but I won’t let it stand in the way of my bliss.
So that is how I got to where I am now. By deciding to shoot for happiness, I determined to resolutely leave DC and found myself in New York City. Its innate chaos, acceptance of anything, and anonymity have found companions in my own soul.
Somewhere along the road, happiness drove me to a six-figure salary, to start an NYC-based women’s group, and to one hundred and one storybook adventures. But the thing I’m looking forward to most is making my mom’s lifelong dream come true by taking her to Sweden.
I’ve managed to accomplish all this not by having the best degree or the best job, but by simply trusting that making decisions for their added value to my happiness was the best way to make decisions. I’ve never looked back.