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 who 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.

But he inadvertently taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my life.

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

Without explaining why, our teacher decided to call 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 rejoin the class.

Then my turn came.

“What grade do you want 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, clowning around, 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 in his usual stern voice. 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 thought 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 a big way when it came to what I actually 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 full-length plays, bringing them to a stage, hearing people laugh, penning poems, performing sketches, coming up with jokes, and spinning up short stories.

But I had a line I wouldn’t cross: on the other side of it was taking writing too seriously.

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 reach your goal.

That’s why we often choose 80 or 90 instead of 100. We’ll lower the bar so our goals are achievable, even if it might mean 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 a lot of young people. Some people go their whole lives without ever overcoming it. 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 entire life at the tender age of 18, I was thisclose to committing to a career as a teacher despite my dreams of being a real writer: the kind who left a body of work 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.

You know, 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 go all-in on being a professional writer.

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 28 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 only time to lose, I poured my entire self into it. 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 decent 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 what is now one of Canada’s most valuable companies. 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 thoughts linger 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 evokes, still afraid of success and the expectations it sets.

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

Without realizing it, I had gone 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 only half your heart is 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 will 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 I can say it came from me.

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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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.

Cages

Cages

 

If they cut your harness, I hope that you still climb.
If they tie your watch’s hands, I trust you’ll find the time.
And if they throw stones, you must have strength enough to be kind.

Stay standing, because only the audience sits.
People can only put you in a cage
If you’re small enough to fit.

 

The Perfect Person



The perfect person has no acne, blemishes or scars. He is the ideal weight, height and complexion. He is also a she. They can do anything on their own, even give birth. They do not need to eat or drink, so they never feel hungry or thirsty. For them, even breathing is an option.

They can walk, run, fly and be anywhere at any moment; they are never late. Their hair is always the right length and style; it doesn’t ever grow. They will never need a doctor. In fact, they’re immune to all disease because they also cannot die.

The perfect person can create from scratch, anything. They can even fix what’s broken, anything at all. They don’t suffer from doubt or indecision. They always know what they are doing. They do the right things and never make mistakes. Because of this they never learn; but then they already know it all. They know how and who they should be, where and when it’s appropriate. Everyone likes them, nobody hates them. All want to be them.

But the one thing that the perfect person can never be is real. Because no one is perfect, no one is even close. The perfect person does not exist. Instead what we have are people, not long for the world, with needs and limits, who depend on others to exist. We have the broken pieces of people who know nothing of this world. We have people who are knockoffs of perfection, whose sloppy stitching you can see at a glance. We have people who project standards of perfection onto others while their own cracks are showing. We have people who know they are not perfect, and hate themselves for it.

Perfect may sound better, but if everyone was perfect they’d be perfectly the same, perfectly predictable like a perfect math equation. So perfect is not human. It is imperfection that creates variety in us; it is what allows people to be different, unique, the people who they are. I am imperfect and you are imperfect. He is imperfect and she is imperfect. And despite appearances, all of them are imperfect too. But we are all who we are because we are not perfect, and for that reason we can always become better. Perfect is the best, and so perfect has a limit. Perfect cannot be better, because perfect does not grow.

Perfect person, if indeed you do exist then you have nothing but my pity. Being perfect you must be fragile, for do you understand what perfect means? It means living inside absolute terms of never, forever, always. One flaw, a single mistake, one exception would destroy you, perfect person. But us imperfect people can survive a little inconsistency because we have room enough to grow. And that one strength, which all imperfect people possess, I believe is worth every other weakness.