esmé weijun wang at world domination summit speakingcredit: Armosa Studios

So how, then, do we let our achievements become not mere facts to be rattled off or included in a CV for future use, but actual experiences that get bone-deep? That add to our sense of self? Our self-efficacy?

Listen to me read this piece here:


 

In the above photograph, I’m standing in front of 3000 people on a giant stage, while my giant image is shown on a giant screen behind me. And because this may not be obvious: such a circumstance was not one to which I was accustomed.

I was at the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon. I’d been selected to deliver an Attendee Story — a two-minute talk in between main stage speakers — and so at a bit past 11 AM on a hot summer Sunday, I took the mike and tried not to sway from anxiety in my stacked-heel ankle boots, reminding myself that I’d been practicing with a toothbrush-as-microphone just that morning.

And I opened my mouth.

(You can see the video of my talk here, if you’re curious.)

 

A lot has happened in the last month, and most of it unexpected. I published an essay for an online magazine that then became a staff pick for Longreads and the New Yorker Online; it was written about in the MIT Science Journalism Blog. I spoke at the World Domination Summit. I was invited to appear on a terrific podcast. And the entire time, I thought about a recent conversation I’d had about success. Or, really, conversations: discussions about whether or not we ever take the time to celebrate our wins. How we often stay away from publicly acknowledging celebration. The danger of the word “lucky.”

What I want to talk about right now, though, is what happens when we don’t take the time to feel good about our accomplishments — on a neurological level.

flowers and binder

According to Dr. Rick Hanson’s Hardwiring Happiness, humans have evolved for a negativity bias. The default setting, he says, is for the human brain to “overestimate threats, underestimate opportunities, and underestimate resources both for coping with threats and for fulfilling opportunities.” Which explains why twenty kind comments on your latest blog article can be obliterated by a single searing paragraph from a troll. We’re built to overestimate threats, even if they do come in the form of a typo-ridden diatribe from RightWingnut13.

But what does this have to do with success? Success is about, in large part, fulfilling opportunities; when you’ve fulfilled an opportunity, it’s time for some electric happiness to light up your brain.

Celebrate, we’re told, and so we do.

We indulge in a luxe meal, or buy a pretty new toy that lets us do our work more efficiently. But does this help our brains actually figure out the happiness component of success?

Unfortunately, no. According to Hanson’s book, “most good news has little or no lasting effect on implicit memory systems in the brain.” Implicit memory provides memory’s automatic functions. We want our memories and experiences of success to wear pretty little grooves into our neural networks… which, as it turns out, is a challenge. Our minds are designed to take positive experiences and store them as plain ol’ memories — memories that take time to move into long-term storage, and even then don’t help to remind us that we’re capable of achievement in a deeper sense.

So how, then, do we let our achievements become not mere facts to be rattled off or included in a CV for future use, but actual experiences that get bone-deep? That add to our sense of self? Our self-efficacy?

Well, we might give ourselves time to sit with the actual sensations of pleasure, of joy, and, well, of happiness that flit through — except that we try not to let them simply do a fly-by-night. We consciously let those feelings stay with us like an invited visitor for ten, fifteen, or even twenty seconds, as recommended by Hanson.

I’ve been working on it. Achievement, definitions of success, and a chronic lack of celebration make up a constellation of knotty topics that I’m hoping to write more about in the future. In the meantime, I’m savoring what’s happened to me… fifteen seconds at a time.