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.
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:
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.
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.