In Defense of Small, Quiet Accomplishments

Two days before the New Year, while scrubbing the morning’s oatmeal from its pot, I took stock of 2016 and felt glum. Not because the year was without highlights, achievements, and growth, but because each of those things seemed very small and personal. I made baby steps, not grand leaps ahead—tiny triumphs to tell my wife over dinner but not crow about on Facebook.

Looking closer, I found every shiny success came with a critique hidden within it, like a shadowy worm burrowed inside delicious fruit. Not good enough, that creature whispered. You could have been bigger and better, looking back on the past twelve months free of regret, happy with all you’ve done.

This sour internal monster goes under several names: insecurity, envy, shame. For me, he rears his wicked green head at this time annually. It’s hard to avoid him as he seems part of our very culture in the US, with year-end lists evaluating all the year had to offer in extreme terms, separating the best from the worst—and friends on social media doing the same. What amazing accomplishments have you done this go round the sun? they all seem to ask.

These messages are compounded by the consumerist images of luxurious holiday splendor: stockings fat with gifts, a lush evergreen standing tall amid a floor strewn with presents, friends and family laughing in front of a gigantic flatscreen playing sentimental Christmas movies. More, more, more.

These things aren’t for me. I like a different kind of life, and that’s something I know and usually love about myself. An intimate, small Christmas spent with my wife and our little boy. Writing in my nook of a home office till it’s time for school pickups, at which point I lay my work aside for romps in the park, playdates, homework, and errands.

Both my identity as a writer and a dad require gargantuan amounts of patience, imagination, empathy, and faith. Neither role pays well nor carries an impressive status, at least as far as traditional measures of success go. I never have to wear a suit to an important meeting. On the contrary, I work alone and often in pajamas, which I love. And yet some days, especially when December rolls around and the cultural, commercial conversation reaches a fever pitch, the noisy quest for showy big success drowns out my quiet ideas and way of being, and I feel depressed.

My anxieties that I’m not living loudly enough are focused through the lens of parenthood and marriage. My anxieties tell me that if I had more—money, success, friends, things—my son and wife would be happier. Which is why, five days before Christmas, I rolled out of bed at dawn and, my eyes watering from the arctic December Brooklyn breeze, headed to Best Buy at a nearby mall. I expected to join a small number of die-hards like me, lining up to get one of the store’s limited supply Nintendo classic video game systems for my son. Instead, I found I was one of hundreds standing, waiting outside the doors, some of whom, rumor had it, had spent the entirety of the freezing night there. I knew the chances of me getting one of these impossible-to-find systems was slim to none and that I’d have a happier morning if I headed home or to a cafe with a book. But I wanted to be the super dad who nabbed his son the perfect present, and so I joined the line.

Around eight o’clock, the security guard opened the mall doors, and we moved inside, closer to Best Buy. Along the way, a group of people waiting near the door merged with the line, butting in their way to the front. With only minutes till the store opened, what had been to that point an orderly and calm experience became a loud and chaotic one. Several fights almost broke out, as people confronted those who had cut in. Back where I was, we craned our necks to look but didn’t join the fray. “I’m leaving it to God whether I get one or not,” the woman standing behind me said.

Then, when the store’s gates went up and the manager came out, the front of the line became a full-fledged mob, pressing into him. “Get back! Get back!” he yelled.

While I worried I had made a mistake by coming, the woman behind me lit up when she heard him. “Oh, I know that guy,” she said happily. “That’s my friend.” She headed toward the gates, phone in hand.

A few minutes later, after rumors that the police would be coming to enforce peace, the manager announced they were sold out of Nintendos. As the line dispersed, I approached him along with a few other people from far back in the line. “What do you mean sold out?” we said. We didn’t see a single person enter the store. Nor did we see anyone leave with a bag of merchandise.

“We had fifteen systems,” he said. “A select group were taken from the front of the line and brought to our staff entrance.”

That, I realized, was where the woman behind me went. She knew the right person, whereas I had wasted two hours getting first frozen and then stressed out by the tense scene—and I’d still not “succeeded.”

Here’s the thing, though. After walking through the mall, I ended up finding my son a mechanical dinosaur that he absolutely adored. He didn’t look at it and say, “This isn’t a Nintendo.” He looked at it with his mouth hanging open and said, “Wow!” And even that he didn’t play with for two days because he was occupied with his other presents.

In other words, that Nintendo wasn’t necessary for him to have a good Christmas. There was no need for my anxiety, but I became infected with the idea of creating an ideal Christmas for my little boy, which included this year’s rarest, most sought-after gift. Just as later, while doing dishes, I evaluated my year not based on where I was but on where I thought I should be. I imagined myself at the back of a line of writers, each clamoring for the limited supply of a certain kind of flashy success—some willing to fight for it, others relying on whom they knew to achieve it.

Going against the grain, maintaining a small, serene life in a culture and a country that seems to favor a certain kind of loud-mouthed, brassy, self-aggrandizing personality can be exhausting. There will be moments when living—and parenting—contrary to our status quo may leave you down.

When that happens for me, at the turn of every new year, I take a moment to forget about what I think I should be as a parent, or a professional, or a partner, and instead focus on the parent, professional, or partner that I am. When I do, I find plenty to feel proud of and to love about my life.

This year, I resolve to remember that the only evaluation that matters is a self-evaluation and that maintaining a peaceful, safe bubble for myself amidst all the noise of culture and social media is an achievement in and of itself. A quiet life can be its own reward, and it’s one worth celebrating.

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  • Delancey

    “A quiet life can be its own reward, and it’s one worth celebrating.” Beautiful. Thank you Brian.

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  • Linda Grimes Brandon

    Such a great article! I’m the youngest of three siblings, two of whom are absolutely outstanding older brothers. One of those has led a great big life, with international praise and acclaim. He’s directly improved the quality of the lives of thousands of women by providing deeply compassionate abortion care in some of the most heartbreaking, life-threatening situations imaginable. I’ve always held myself up against their accomplishments (the other brother holds a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and is a successful computer programmer working on things like the systems that tell our cars how to function) . . . . and I’ve always found myself sorely lacking. Then, about a year ago, I realized that not all of us need to lead great big lives. That simple realization almost instantly eased my mind and assuaged the guilt I felt at being “just” a normal person. (Sure, I’ve worked hard and had some successes, and I’ve always been the best citizen of the planet I could possibly be, but I’ve never dazzled anyone. . . . .) The world needs those of us who are “just” normal people every bit as much as it needs the stars.

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  • Brian Barker

    We can’t all be Bill Gates, like it or not. Live small and humble and be happy. What more can you ask for?

  • Sathyanand S

    I’m a father, an aspiring writer. Felt like I was reading about myself.
    I’m almost crying.
    I’m exhausted – really am. To fight the self-aggrandizing ecosystem around me.. I felt alone. But thanks for this wonderful article. I can cry without guilt.
    I hope, really really hope the world learns the value of little things, the simple pleasures and pains. It is the stuff that life is made of.
    Thanks again.

  • Britta

    One of my favorite quotes ever is from Eudora Welty: “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”

    I think going against the grain as an introvert is extremely daring…especially in our extroverted-oriented society. It is also exhausting…but, in the end, I think it’s worth it.

  • Nancy Ridder

    This article resonated with me as I am the same way. A number of years ago, my daughter in elementary school had to interview a successful woman and she chose me. We had this discussion about what success is… is it the way the world defines it or is it accomplishing what we set out to do while being true to ourselves.
    So when I start to feel “less than” I remember that discussion and know that I am successful.

  • Carmen Jorge Faz

    Reading you was a delight. I am sure you are doing a great job as a parent, being your true self, enjoying the small stuff, the details and the silence. Oh, the silence… the one that lets you think and just be aware of life. This is the best gift you can give to your son. We need more gifts like these and less Nintendos.
    Thank you.

  • Akilan Mc

    I really like the article, especially ‘the only evaluation that matters is a self-evaluation’. Great!!! Thanks

  • Michelle Messina Reale

    This is awesome. I maintain the same fort of lifestyle, often feeling out of step with the world around me, but it’s authentic.

  • Natalia

    Thanks for this. Landed in just the right place for me, at just the right time.

  • Robyn Wells

    I throughly enjoyed your article. What I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around is why small quiet accomplishments needs to be defended? Big things happen because of small actions and ideas. I tell my students all the time there is a reason we have one mouth and TWO ears.
    Last year, I had a very quiet and introverted class. We accomplished more that year than any year I have ever taught. Because they were good listeners we did so many enrichment activities. The lack of “noise” helped us focus on what needed to be done so we could have time to do the activities we wanted to do.

  • Maria

    Your article really moved me.And the phrase “my anxieties that I’m not living loudly enough” expresses
    exactly my own feelings.Thank you for this.

  • Jennifer Van Lenten Riina

    Thank you for this essay. At the beginning of the school year I left a job I loved working for a very modest salary as a teacher assistant to become a classroom teacher and I have come to realize it was perhaps the biggest mistake of my life. I just felt incredible pressure to live up to the expectations of all those around me saying that I needed to “push” myself to achieve and the lure of a greater salary to help pay my son’s college tuition. Now as I look back I had success and happiness and didn’t listen to my true self. I am hoping that after this year is over I can return to work I love and I am good at and find other ways to find additional work doing what I am good at rather than forcing myself to take on roles I can not do for the sake of “success” . I am so relieved to hear a voice saying more is not better and “good enough” is perfect.

  • Linda Sand

    A friend recently gave me a tool that took care of that year end regret. He said, “Make a list of five things you enjoy. Make a list of the five things you spend most of your time doing. Compare and adjust.” I was thrilled to realize I spend most of my time doing things I enjoy. That enabled me to let go of the “should” list.

  • Sahdia Khalid

    Same here. The only noice I enjoy is that of music in my earplugs or when I watch a figure skating competition. When you keep trying to achieve things because that means succes to our society, you are actually missing out on life. We’re all different people, so we need different wins in life. I love to do what is important to me and I enjoy doing that most in my own ‘life tempo’.

  • Deborah Drucker

    In the past few years I have gradually come to value more a quiet life and not feel I need to be driven to make some kind of great impact on the world. I have definitely stopped the frenzied gift shopping at holiday time. But I know there is more pressure when your kids are young to get them just the right present because I have been there too.

  • Quiet Revolution

    Why are you embracing the quiet life?

    • Kris McCrady

      There is a lot of peace in the quiet life. I am learning to be myself and spend more times doing things I truly enjoy instead of trying to be something I am not.

    • Britta

      Because the more I embrace who I really am (a Highly Sensitive INFJ who loves to help others, but ultimately functions best in quieter settings) the happier and less anxious I feel!