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Emily Layden Headshot

Success or Happiness: A Fork in the Road

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They call us aimless. Lacking focus. When the generational warfare quells for a moment, there is the benefit of the doubt: The recession has wrought a unique havoc on Generation Y. These labels, especially for a certain subset of Gen Y, are fresh ones. If we are aimless now, we were until recently perhaps the most driven generation: Our identities lay tied up in honor rolls, all-star teams, standardized test scores, and entrée into the most elite colleges and universities. For us, the issue is not one of inattention, but of indecisiveness. Our lives are measured in increasingly exaggerated definitions of success, and so we have become paralyzed by a choice: Should we be great, or should we be happy?

I graduated from Stanford in June 2011, and like many of the other 900 Stanford student-athletes, led a fairly focused, goal-oriented upbringing. Children are dreamers; for us, somewhere along the road, dreams shrank to manageable steps: All-American, a certain SAT score and class rank, phone calls from coaches on mandated dates. A scholarship offer. A degree, then four years in pursuit of another degree, and finally: An alumni card that doubles as a ticket to the world's best rides. A Stanford education can be attributed in broad stokes to hard work and talent and many helping, supportive hands; it is also the result of remarkable tunnel vision. This new indecisiveness comes as a shock.

The devil is in the definitions: In failure, in success, in greatness, in happiness. We have been trained to be ruthlessly unforgiving of ourselves: that tunnel vision is an all-in, all-out devotion to achievement of the highest kind, and that highest kind has become tied up with wealth and power in troves -- to be definably, indisputably great. What is greatness, though? The invention of Instagram? Of Facebook? Steve Jobs? Two thousand Twitter followers? Like Lady GaGa, 26 million Twitter followers? When you're told, like we are at Stanford, that you might have the world, success is quickly oriented in terms of anything less than. Failure is to fall short of the very, very best: To become a judge but not a Supreme Court Justice, a senator but not president, a writer but not Stephen King, an editor but not David Remnick. We were told we had the tools to become world leaders; we gave that truth a subtle shift, and turned instruction into command. Greatness has become not a personal score but a social measure, and lost along the way was that silliest, most trivial definition of success, that thing we had ever day on our sunny California campus: happiness.

My fear is this: That happiness and success have been thrown into such superficial lights that they are each becoming increasingly unattainable. The only success we know is inarguable greatness; to want mere happiness is child's play. And although it goes against every bit of my deeply ingrained tunnel vision, I am sure that it is the latter towards which we should strive.

It has been a year since I graduated from Stanford, and already I have held and left one job in favor of another very different job. In August, I'll move for the third time since last June. These steps have not been made without nail-biting, stomach-clenching, hand-wringing worry and self-doubt -- but they are each made with an eye trained, now, on happiness. Here's the thing: If we are old enough to make these decisions, we are old enough to take responsibility for the discourse that brought us here. I have not used the term helicopter parenting (until just now) because we are too old to blame our parents who financed our unpaid internships and SAT prep courses and personal training; they wanted nothing more than to give us the world. I believe mine wanted nothing more than for me to be happy.

At Stanford, we had both greatness and happiness -- did one beget the other? I'm not sure, now; I cannot remember fairly because nostalgia has clouded the entire experience into a film dissolve of fountains and sun and ease. What I do know is that on that campus I was not told to be great, but rather that I could be. This greatness, and the importance of our happiness, is ours for the determining.

Read other Quarter-life Crisis posts here and on The Good Men Project.