“You Need to Struggle More!”: Are We Capable of Choosing Contentment Over Success?


“You Need to Struggle More!”: Are We Capable of Choosing Contentment Over Success?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

You need to struggle more! Your generation has it way too easy,” an elderly uncle tells me, with his fists clenching harder, as if to emphasise the proof of his own life’s work in his weary, wrinkled hands. I had just told him about my plans for a short holiday to the hills, where I was going to do nothing but read and write. As a freelance writer, I had been struggling with writer’s block and was looking forward to the prospect of escaping.

Sometimes I find it difficult to ignore the opinions of others, so his words rolled like marbles in my head. “You’ve done nothing in the past year and have used the pandemic as an excuse to feel flustered, depressed, and lazy. Do you really deserve this break?” By the time I packed my bag, this ballooned into the sort of shame you feel when you win a medal for a race you didn’t even run for.

Yes, my life was easy. How sad.

Thankfully, before I could spiral further into the self-flagellating guilt-trap, my friend tugged me back, “Why do you let these randos get to you? Do your own thing.” We’re good that way; we make each other feel incredible just for existing, and do our best to cope with the anguish caused by the world outside our bubble.

So, I went on to have a great trip, chilled amid the trees and birds, scribbled frantic notes about the meaning of life when I had chai-induced epiphanies. I read a memoir that made me cry and wrote a short story and returned.

While the idea of struggle is relative, I believe there’s a socially dictated equation for the logic of success. You can put it together yourself, from what you’re taught in school (“Hard work pays off!” Go Moral Science!), the trends around you, memoirs of famous folk who beat the odds. It goes something like – Struggle + Sacrifice + Ambition = Money + Security + Yay I’ve made it in life-wala feeling. Contentment and joy may or may not turn up in the answer, but that’s not part of the problem we’re told to solve, is it?

My parents regale their gritty tales of walking for miles to school, splitting one cooked chicken between eight people, studying by candlelight. They tell us all of this to make us realise how lucky we are while subtly (or not) reminding us that they worked hard to make our lives easier. I can’t help feeling that, like the hot and bothered uncle, they secretly resent us for it.

But in today’s smartphone-powered, Netflix and chill, Tik-Toking world, how do we define the idea of work? Where do we draw the line between working to survive and be fulfilled?

What about the burned-out souls who trudge it out and get what they think they wanted only to find themselves feeling hollow?

We have been conditioned to believe that pain is essential for growth, that if we’re living comfortably, it means we’re not going at it hard enough. It’s almost as if misery must accompany our aspirations.

For me, the real struggle is figuring out what you want and then deciding to go after it. My parents slogged at frustrating jobs they sometimes enjoyed but mostly kept at so they could sustain a family. They did this so we, my sister and I, would have choices. We take that privilege pretty seriously.

I have been doing my own thing for a while. So have a lot of people in my life. There’s the friend who is using all her savings to go back to art school in her mid-thirties, the cousin who refuses to learn how to run her father’s business so she can choose her own line of work, the stranger I met on a WhatsApp group who took a year off from her well-paying job to volunteer with a forest conservation group. Most of us are in therapy, not just because of our problems but so we can become better humans. We have struggled, but with our hearts.

Suffering to be successful is a dreadful cliché. And so is the “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life”. These are nothing but spectrums that try to simplify the process of purpose.

I’m lucky that I get to do what I love on my terms because my partner has a stable job with a fixed income. If this were not the case, I’m sure my story would be very different. Feeling guilty for such a luxury makes little sense. Gratitude is a better option.

My accomplishments are not like silverware to be brought out and displayed. I don’t need to show the world how difficult things can be just so I feel worthy.

It’s okay if my life is easier. After all, it is mine to do what I wish with.