Shadow of Success

On and off. Black and white. Ying and yang.

Success and shadow.


It was something I hadn’t considered — that every success has its shadowy side, the underbelly that you don’t always talk about. We all know that success takes hard work and commitment, but that’s usually where the story ends, right? But every success contains sacrifice in some other area and there’s always a push and pull that forces us to choose between what we want, what we have and what we could be.

This concept didn’t just appear, wholly formed, in my brain; I read an excellent essay by James Clear who used Picasso as his main example, and then said the following:

Do you want the shadow that comes with the success? Do you want the baggage that comes with the bounty? What kind of pain are you willing to bear in the name of achieving what you want to achieve? Answering this question honestly often leads to more insight about what you really care about than thinking of your dreams and aspirations.

It is easy to want financial independence or the approval of your boss or to look good in front of the mirror. Everybody wants those things. But do you want the shadow side that goes with it? Do you want to spend two extra hours at work each day rather than with your kids? Do you want to put your career ahead of your marriage? Do you want to wake up early and go to the gym when you feel like sleeping in? Different people have different answers and you’ll have to decide what is best for you, but pretending that the shadow isn’t there is not a good strategy.

It’s all a matter of choices. Sometimes it’s a relatively easy decision (at least in theory, if not in execution), like, “Can I give up 1.5 hours of TV a day to work out and take care of my body?” But other times, doing one thing can negatively impact something else you care about: “Can I give up 1.5 hours of time I could be spending writing to instead be lifting weights or running?” Sometimes the choice involves a little heartbreak.

It’s life’s biggest joke — so many things to want to do and never enough time to do them all in. Instead you have to prioritize and decide what’s really the most important. Perhaps you’re lucky enough to have a life where you can simultaneously juggle two or three important endeavors, but even still, life will never gift unlimited amounts of time and energy to anyone. It will always come down to figuring out what you can accomplish in your allotted time.success

And so this is what I’ve been thinking about this week: I have my goals that I set out for myself — are they really my top priority? Is getting physically fit and strong the thing that deserves my undivided attention ahead of all other goals? And more importantly, am I prepared to accept the pain that this involves, including taking time away from writing, not eating whatever I want (in quantities that I might want) and doing battle with the habits that cause me to want to snack incessantly?

Right now, my answer isn’t too difficult — my “yes” comes knowing that being single with no kids allows me more time and energy than the average person. And more importantly, being fit will allow me to fully enjoy the activities I really care about — hiking, exploring, photography, going on adventures. My sacrifices and pain are mostly caught up in the challenge of changing my habits and beliefs, which are comfortable, ingrained and not going anywhere unless I force them out.

In the end, I think that recognizing and accepting the sacrifices you need to make to reach your goals is just as, if not more, important than deciding what kind of success you want to achieve. Because if you can’t deal with the shadow side of success, you’ll never end up succeeding anyway.

On a vaguely related tangent: week one of my new plan is complete and so far, so good. Well, kind of. I checked all the boxes (moved at least a mile every day, strength trained 3 times, really focused on mindful eating), but on Friday I jacked up my back doing deadlifts. It’s not of the “lay on the floor and don’t move” variety, but careful and cautious movement is in order. I can still walk slowly — and so I have been — but nothing too much more for the time being. Any strength training is on hold for at least a week, but I’m hoping to ease back into cardio that actually causes me to sweat (which, I’ll have you know, is an incredibly low bar) in a day or so.

To sum it up, I was doing great — I got out on my tri bike, had a kick ass run on the treadmill, and then my back decided to put the brakes on the entire enterprise. Needless to say, I’m pretty pissed off at my back right now (the expletives that erupted from me the moment I knew I had done it, well … they would make me ineligible for a PG-13 rating). But, I need to look at this as an opportunity and certainly not an excuse to throw everything away. A twitchy back won’t keep me from my mindful eating habits. It also won’t keep me from my mile a day (though it’s really slow at the moment). Success is never easy. Here’s my first real obstacle. Let’s see how I handle it.


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  1. And awful though that back injury is, it has been instrumental in helping you consider your challenges, and conclude that yes, you really do want to get fit and change your eating habits (as I type this comment I am eating two slices of white bread, toasted, with salted butter spread thickly, because I forgot to have any dinner this evening). You ate so right about prioritising, I spend every day of my life juggling the needs of others against my own, and that usually means my needs come way down the list. That is one of the reasons I enjoy blogging, it is a bit of ‘me’ time! Hope your back improves very soon ! X

  2. “Do you want the shadow that comes with the success?” Liz Gilbert, author of Big Magic, calls this “The shit sandwich.” Everyone has to eat one with the lovely life they want.

    Gretchen Rubin who writes for The Happiness Project talks a lot about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    You are onto this here. It’s so challenging. Choices. I hate making them. The cereal aisle was always the bane of my existence when grocery shopping because the choices never stopped. Now, I rarely eat cereal. 🙂 I make as few choices as I’m able to get away with. Minimizing choices makes me feel more free.

  3. Those two authors are two of my favorites (their podcasts are also fascinating!).

    And I love the idea of minimizing choices — streamlining non-important choices leaves more brain and will power for other things.

  4. I could survive on buttered toast. 🙂

    Sometimes I wish prioritizing would be easier, that there were more time to devote to All The Things!, but I don’t suppose that’s going to happen, eh?

  5. I think life is a constant juggle of how we balance life/work/pleasure/joy – you can choose and adjust your pace – maybe your body is letting you know ?! I hope the back pain has eased now .

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