Choosing 100: Confessions of a Recovering Underachiever

FeaturedChoosing 100: Confessions of a Recovering Underachiever

When I was in high school, I had this gym teacher.

He was a real hard-ass—the kind of guy who would make you do 4 laps around the school in the middle of winter if you were even 2 minutes late to his class.

One day, we were all in the weight room doing what people do in weight rooms (for me: standing around and talking, mostly).

Without explaining why, our teacher decided to call each of us up one at a time and ask us what grade we wanted to get in his class, jotting down each person’s answer.

“80…90…85…93…”

Each student would walk up, say his answer, and then go back to doing his thing.

My turn came and I went up.

“What grade do you want to get in this class?” he asked without looking up from his clipboard.

Now, before we continue, let me say that during the tail end of my high school years I wasn’t exactly a model student: skipping class, getting high at lunch, coasting through math on copied answers, and landing myself in the occasional trouble—just so you fully understand the seriousness of my answer.

“100?” I shrugged.

“Everyone. Come here,” he said. A circle formed.

“This is what everyone should be aiming for. Why would you only want 80 or 90 percent of anything? Braveen is the only one who said 100. ” He looked at me and nodded and dismissed us all.

Have you ever felt 25 people rolling their eyes at you?

“Fuck you, Braveen,” said one of my classmates who knew I was full of shit.

I was. I didn’t care what grade I got in P.E.

In fact, when it came to grades, I was pretty comfortable with mediocrity—70% is a glass that’s more than half full, at least by my standards back then.

But what I didn’t realize was that this attitude would hold me back in the one thing I did care about:

Writing and putting my ideas out there.

When it came to that, I did it every chance I got because, to me, it was fun flexing my imagination and having an audience.

It was fun spending a month writing whole 60-minute comedies, bringing them to a stage, hearing people laugh, penning poems, performing sketches, coming up with jokes and spinning works of fiction.

But I had a line I wouldn’t cross: on the other side of it was caring and trying.

The thing about underachieving is it feels great to do well when it isn’t your goal. But by contrast, it feels terrible to fall short after trying to do your best.

That’s why we sometimes choose 80 or 90 instead of 100. We’ll lower the bar so our goals are achievable, even if it means deliberately denying ourselves a better outcome.

If you achieve it, you feel good. If you exceed it, you feel great (for about 5 seconds if you’re an underachiever, then you realize: Oh shit, I have to do this again?).

But if you fall short, well, you’re a failure and why the hell did you even bother?

It’s a paradox that plagues me and many people. It’s much easier to choose to play a game you know you can win, even when the prizes aren’t the ones you want.

So when it came time to decide what I was going to do with my life, I was thisclose to committing to a career as a teacher despite dreams of being a real writer: the kind whose soul’s purpose is to leave a bunch of words in his wake.

For some reason, being a teacher seemed safer and more realistic. Writing could be a hobby, I thought.

Even if I managed to navigate around all the broken dreams a career like this attracts, I had been convinced the pay wasn’t worth it. Plus, I didn’t see many bylines like “Braveen Kumar” in the things I read back then.

I’d probably be an unhappy teacher right now, if it wasn’t for a teacher who showed me the paths I could take and all the jobs I could reasonably get as a writer, mostly in marketing and journalism.

Because of her, I chose 100 and I made up my mind:

I was going to become the best writer I could be.

By my own estimates (and other peoples’) I thought I’d be writing shit no one would read for $30-something-thousand a year at 20-something years-old.

It didn’t help that when I shared my ambitions with most people, they’d react with basically the in-person equivalent of a lowercase “lol”.

But at least I was directing all my efforts at something I could get behind:

  • I started a satirical blog where I would publish a piece of creative writing every week and jokes every day, whether they were funny or they flopped.
  • I took on any writing-related job that came up: resumes, essays, press releases, website copy, consulting, blog posts, grad school applications, and favours for friends, helping out on their projects.
  • I consumed everything I could that would help me improve my craft.
  • I pitched and wrote for whatever publications would accept my work.

In the process, I got a lot of invaluable real-world feedback—good, bad, and weird—from the total strangers who read my stuff:

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Thanks, Mike 🙏🏾
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This one is my favourite.

 

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Some people were actually nice.

With a lot to gain AND lose, I just did a bunch of things. I didn’t know how much effort it would take, so I gave it everything.

And then something happened.

I hit 100—at least relative to my low expectations.

I got my first job out of college as a “content marketer” (basically what writers call themselves these days to get better pay). I was getting a steady paycheque to do my favourite things: come up with ideas and write them into being.

A year and a half later, I landed the best job I could hope to get at a great company. I’d broken 100 when I only expected 70.

This sounds great. It was. It is. But for the first time in years, I didn’t have a concrete goal anymore.

My “why?” had become “what now?”

I still felt the rumblings of my old hunger—to be a real writer—but I didn’t need to feed it anymore. It was already well-fed, decently paid, and couldn’t complain about its commute.

But here’s the thing: It’s never good when your soul lingers too long in “liminal space”the place of uncertainty that exists between answers.

Ambition without a personally meaningful direction eventually hollows you out and becomes restlessness and depression.

Despite everything, I was still afraid of failure and the helplessness it creates, still afraid of success and the expectations it creates.

Looking back over the years, I can see how bit-by-bit I shrugged off my dreams in favour of a safer path: a career in marketing.

Without realizing it, I went back to choosing 70.

My old ambition gathered dust. I told myself that I’d outgrown it, that most writers eventually do. But I still lugged it around. every. single. day.

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This is what writing looks like when your heart isn’t in it.

When you deny yourself something that is so central to your identity, it changes you. In choosing 70%, I also became 70% of who I really was.

I didn’t realize this until recently when I forced myself to write this.

For two weeks, I sat down after work to at least stare at this page for an hour or two, no matter how exhausted I was.

For two weeks, I wrote and edited for free—for me.

And for two weeks, I felt more productive, happier, and more like myself because caring about something—really giving a shit—is contagious and will infect every part of your life.

So, here’s the thing I’ve grown to accept:

Ambition is the purpose woven into the very fabric of your life and it tends to ask a lot of you. Some people can ignore it and live happy lives. But the bigger it is, the louder it gets.

It’s better to embrace it.

That’s why I finally published this: the first piece I’ve really cared to write in a very long time.

And it feels good.

Not because I think you’ll like it, but because nobody told me to do it and because I really tried.

So going back to my old gym teacher (how the hell did we get here?), I think he had a point. Kind of.

I still don’t give a shit about P.E, but this?

One hundred fucking percent. 

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Embracing Your Inner Raccoon (Or: The Problem With Pandas)

Embracing Your Inner Raccoon (Or: The Problem With Pandas)

I love pandas as much as you do. 

They’re adorable. Just look at this little bastard.

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A Giant Panda in captivity. Also me at the club after a few drinks.

But be honest with yourself.

Aside from the awws and oos that their derpy demeanours provoke, they’re not really that impressive.

Even if we weren’t destroying their habitats so that there are now less than 2000 left in the wild, pandas aren’t exactly the poster bears of survival:

Can you really argue with me?
This is a GIF so you can’t hear the ferocious sound of the baby panda sneezing.

Still, we love them.

We ignore the sad reality that these animals have become prisoners of their own fate.

For the most part.

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Some pandas can be pretty clever. #NotAllPandas via CBC News

In captivity, where we usually see them in GIFs and YouTube videos, panda life is synonymous with a lot of eating, sleeping and repeating the last two things.

It looks like a pretty dope life, aside from the whole “being endangered” thing.

In fact, if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably forgotten that pandas are technically a kind of bear.

It’s hard to believe “panda startled by sneeze” is related to “grizzly that ripped Leonardo Dicaprio’s face off”.

Pandas remind me that destiny is a depressing concept.

Raccoons, on the other hand…

Raccoons—or “trash pandas” as they’re unaffectionately called—are on the other end of the spectrum of survivability. They’re the entrepreneurs of the animal kingdom.

We don’t like them because they’re the very thing that pandas aren’t:

They’re resourceful and relentless.

In fact, raccoons are one of a few animals that constantly force us to adapt to them.

Raccoon vs. Raccoon-Proof Bin. Spoiler alert: Bin wins—but not without a fight.

Raccoons give zero f*cks.

They can get into garbage bins, break into your home, and even open jars (something many humans struggle with).

Plus they’ll eat pretty much anything.

“Cat food? This is raccoon food now! Snee snee snee!”

Your Panda vs. Raccoon Instinct

I think everyone’s got a panda instinct and a raccoon instinct. Kind of like “fight or flight”, but more like “can or can’t”.

When you do something new, something that forces you to learn from scratch, your initial reaction might be, “I can’t do that.” And I think that’s perfectly normal.

When I was learning how to write and no one read my shit, when I was learning how to dance and tripped over my own feet, when I was learning Tae Kwon Do and couldn’t kick over my head, when I was learning how to build my first ecommerce site and it looked like 💩, I remember giving up countless times. I remember thinking these things were beyond me. I remember believing I was a panda.

I’m not afraid to tell you I’ve thrown my hands up and said, “Screw this” a **lot** in my life. Sometimes I really meant it and that was that.

But every time I couldn’t quite commit to the idea of defeat, something else happened: I became okay at those things.

When we’re faced with something so far away from what we’re used to—a new job, an unfamiliar problem, a foreign skill—we sometimes mistake a learning curve for an inability to adapt.

We grossly underestimate our inner raccoons.

Our panda instinct tells us we are what we are because it’s easier than going off-script and trying to be more. But when you fight past that doubt, you draw out your inner raccoon.

And we’ve all got a little raccoon in us—the proof is all the times you’ve been forced to be resourceful:

  • When your back is against the wall
  • When your job is on the line
  • When you need the money
  • When you’re facing a deadline
  • When someone is shoving the end of a broom into the make-shift home you’ve chewed into the ceiling

That’s when we shift our perspective.We shed the panda mindset and adopt the raccoon’s:

  • “I don’t know” becomes “I don’t know yet.”
  • “I can’t do that” becomes “I’ll figure it out.”
  • “Am I allowed to do that?” becomes “Let them stop me.
  • “What if…?” becomes “Screw it.”

Resourcefulness seems like a respectable trait on paper. But it’s messy.

It’s desperate. It’s hungry. It’s ungraceful. It’s obsessive. It’s a shit storm of trial and error. And it can be a bit of an asshole.

It’s sidestepping the red tape—sometimes real and oftentimes imagined—and doing what you need to do, ignoring what the world thinks about it. It’s Googling what you don’t know. It’s drawing on other people as a resource. It’s making time when you don’t have it. It’s trekking through the “grey”.

But above all, it’s sticking with your problems.

None of this guarantees success, but it does ensure that you look everywhere for it—outside of your comfort zone and beyond the cards you’re holding.

Like them or hate them, unlike pandas, raccoons embody our better instincts.

So the next time you feel like you’re being a panda about a problem, take a step back and ask yourself:

“What would a raccoon do?”

The answer is: Whatever it has to.

Note: No pandas were harmed in the writing of this piece. Not even emotionally. Because pandas can’t read. Besides, they’re technically not on the endangered species list anymore, so they’re safe to use as a rhetorical prop here 🐼.

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New Year, Same Resolution? This Will Make You Feel Better

New Year, Same Resolution? This Will Make You Feel Better

“I’m gonna quit smoking.”

“I’ll hit the gym more.”

“No more fast food.”

“I’m going to stop being an asshole.”

Is your new year’s resolution the same as it was this time last year?

Fret not. You’re not alone. Only 30% of 20-somethings manage to stick to theirs, a number that drops to 15% for folks over 50.

Apparently the older you get, the less you give a crap about time-consuming things like “change” and “personal growth”.

So what if we’re all missing the real point when it comes to making new year’s resolutions?

Instead of failing year after year, succumbing to the first temptation that breaks our resolve, and feeling crappy about ourselves, let’s change the way we look at this time-honoured and incredibly tired tradition.

Why are abstinence and persistence so damn hard anyway?

Here’s What I Propose…

Maybe new year’s resolutions shouldn’t be about creating big, positive change in your life.

Maybe it’s really about the fleeting feel-good pat on the back we give ourselves that last week of every year and the first month of every new one.

Maybe it’s about the potential for change that comes with new beginnings — that small glimmer of hope in light of the likelihood that who you are today is probably who you’re going to be tomorrow.

So let’s make this whole thing easier on ourselves. A minor stretch of the imagination and a short hop through some linguistic loopholes is all it takes.

Because finding technicalities to get out of the promises you make to yourself is really what New Year’s Resolutions are all about.


The TRADITIONAL New Year’s Resolution

This is how we typically define “resolution”, in the same family as the word “resolute”:

[RESOLUTION]= A firm decision to do or not do something.

But with just a few small tweaks (and ignoring some basic rules of English), we end up with a much more accessible concept that takes away all the commitment and pressure to succeed.

The NEW New Year’s Resolution

[RE-]=Once again.
[-SOLUTION]= A means of solving a problem.

[RESOLUTION]= A means of attempting to fix the same problem once again!

Like magic, you’ve now stayed true to last year’s resolution by making it again this year.

Now you can experience that short-lived feel-good energy of changing yourself for the better in the new year without the inevitable disappointment of caving a few months in.

Because when you fall off your horse, you don’t reevaluate your mode of transportation in the 21st century. You try and try and try again without any shame or self-reflection.

So Go Ahead — Make ’Em And Break ‘Em

Whether it’s in a few days or a few months, smoke that cigarette and eat that cheese burger with a clear conscience. You got what you wanted out of your new year’s resolution, after all: The empty hope of a better you.

If we really wanted to change for the better and for good, we wouldn’t wait for the start of a new calendar year when we have bigger things to worry about, like accidentally writing 2016 in the first two weeks of January.

So have a happy new year! And here’s to another year of more of the same: the same flaws, the same half-hearted effort, the same you.

How Religion Helps Me Understand “Mindfulness” (As an Atheist)

How Religion Helps Me Understand “Mindfulness” (As an Atheist)

I may be a bad hindu in many ways—a hindDON’T, if you will—but I do appreciate the symbolism and the stories of the religion I grew up in.

So if an atheist is allowed a favourite god, mine would be Ganesh.

And not just because he’s a quarter elephant with 4 arms. Or because he’s literally part of the Marvel comics universe (not joking, look it up). 

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Marvel movie adaptation starring Ron Perlman as Ganesh. No? Okay, another Spiderman reboot then.

What I like is that he’s considered the remover of obstacles and the god of wisdom.

And like most Hindu gods (and Power Rangers), Ganesh also has a dedicated “vehicle” or animal mount—in his case, a mouse.

I know what you’re thinking: *Someone* drew the shortest straw. Especially when some of the other gods roll through on tigers and lions.

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Shotgun! Oh…wait…

But I like to think this mouse represents those pesky, destructive thoughts—thoughts like envy, fear, anger, regret, “what if” and “never will”—that nibble holes in our happiness.

These unproductive thoughts enjoy biting at our heels and have the potential to become bigger obstacles than anything in front of us.  But Ganesh, with the weight of his wisdom (his body too; he’s not the slimmest god), knows he’s bigger than the mouse —these thoughts.

I’m still not sure what “mindfulness” means, or why it seems to be the cure-all for everything today, but I think this at least makes a good metaphor, a powerful reminder, that our own bodies are bigger than our thoughts.

It’s not only what you do to take care of your body, but how much time you spend taking care of your mind and cultivating good mental habits—something I’m trying to focus on as my life gets more hectic.

If we pay attention to ourselves—if we learn to step outside of our minds and put our foot down whenever we feel the need to stray toward negative thoughts—we can stop ourselves from being controlled by our thoughts, from letting them take a piece of our peace of mind.