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The Archeology of Success

A student of mine had just been admitted to her dream school, a school that we both knew was not a guarantee by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, she explained that when she first shared the news with her friends, she heard someone nearby whispering, “Wow, she got in where?!? I didn’t know she was that smart.”

Overhearing this comment, even in the midst of her excitement and overwhelming joy at the life changing news she had just received, launched her into a tailspin so that by the time we met the following Friday, she started the meeting by asking me to confirm if the school she had been admitted to was actually a competitive brand name school or if maybe it was easier to get into than she had thought. Just to prove a point, I showed her that her school ranks among the top 15 schools in the United States, right next to Cornell and Brown, according to US News and World Report.

I spend much of my life and work convincing families that there is much more to the college experience and to the value of any given school than ranking, but this seemed to be a case in which ranking was actually useful! In the weeks leading up to this decision, this same student had scoured her application, even AFTER it had been submitted for any possible errors. Each week that we met between when the application went in and the decision came out, she had a new question about some feature of her application that wasn’t quite right. And now, even though she had been admitted, she was already beginning to doubt the magnitude of her own accomplishment. She’s starting to sound a little crazy, but she isn’t.

We ALL do this. In fact, I think we can all relate to scouring something after there’s nothing we can do for that one little typo, particularly when the stakes are high. And imagine how we feel and behave when we do find a typo, which is often the case because of that persistent pest called imperfection that seems to plague the human experience: we fixate, obsess and justify this whole process with idea that there’s always something to learn from failure and that’s what makes it tolerable.

But, imagine for a second if rather than a negativity bias, the human brain were biased toward fixation on the positive. In this alternate universe, the student and I would have spent the weeks of waiting for her decision relishing this word choice, that effective use of punctuation, savoring the beauty of her writing and marveling at the authenticity and self-awareness present in her essays. And though that alternate universe is not the one in which we live, because in fact the brain is like Teflon for positive experience and Velcro for negative experience (see Rick Hanson), we do have the power to tip the scales ever so slightly in the other direction through conscious effort.

What I suggested to my student is that she owed it to herself to treat this success with the same “enthusiasm” and rigor she would treat a major (or minor) life failure. That is, I know that she would have Monday morning quarterbacked for days, weeks, months if she hadn’t gotten in. Every detail she scrutinized before she even knew the outcome of her application would be rehashed, reassessed for its role in this failure, and countless other possible explanations for the rejection would be explored.

So, I suggested she do the same kind of archeological dig on her own success. Borrowing from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley’s exercise called Mental Subtraction of Positive Events, I urged her to write down all the complex events, all of the people in her support network, all of the inner qualities and personal strengths that culminated in this incredible moment of recognition and fulfillment. I also asked her to reflect on how things might have turned out differently if one tiny detail in the vast interconnected web of events that led to this single moment hadn’t happened in just the way that it did.

The point here is not to induce fear, but wonder at the exquisite fragility and abundant serendipity present in the story of our own success. It usually follows that from this sense of wonder and awe emerges a natural impulse to give thanks. I encouraged my student to remember the people who had helped her, but also to take this moment to express gratitude to herself for having the courage, persistence and grit to arrive where she is today. She loved the exercise so much that she added the idea of listing some of the failures and negative experiences that had been part of her journey so that she could integrate them into the story of her success.

Each day of our lives, we have the opportunity to do this: to drop one small and brilliant nugget of gold into the positive side of the scale whenever we are willing to take the time to savor the good in our lives, small and large. If you think you don’t have time, get honest with yourself about how much time you already spend ruminating about the small failures in your recent past or planning to protect yourself from shame and embarrassment in a future that hasn’t even happened yet. We have time, you have time, to uncover, polish and delight in the treasure of your own life.

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