Diana Wakowski is a poet who authored a letter for James Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice, a combination of letters from creative people. In Wakowski’s letter the poet writes, “Try to balance the material world and the idealistic one, so that your standards always remain high but you learn to gracefully accept and be second best.” This quote is difficult to understand when you look at it from a surface level, and it seems to run against the ideas and visions of success that are programmed into us from the time we enter elementary school. I think that unpacking this quote, examining our motivation, and defining success are at the heart of Wakowski’s vision.
Throughout school we are constantly competing against our peers and being rewarded by congratulatory stickers and medals. Whether it is academics or athletics the competition aspect of life is built in from a young age. Success in both areas for many people is driven by the material rewards and social benefits that accompany outstanding accomplishments. In sports, the desire for shiny medals or trophies may be the motivation for some to spend hours practicing, while in academics, certificates and self satisfaction from achieving the highest possible grade can be the drive.
What Wakowski is saying in her quote is that the outward benefits of success that many so strongly desire need to be combined with an understanding of the world we live in. Striving to achieve a level of success in order to call oneself the best can be detrimental to not just ourselves but those around us. When we begin to see this, it is important that we consider our motivations. Working hard is not a bad thing, but pushing ourselves to the point where our health is in question and the relationships around us become strained is dangerous. If our motivations are based purely on outside recognition and material gains, then the sacrifices we make to our health and relationships will leave us in a place we never wanted to reach. In addition, striving towards material goals and desires often leaves us working towards goals and lifestyles set by other people or companies. These types of goals are not aligned with our true desires or our inner personalities.
In her quote, I do not believe that Wakowski is suggesting that we leave all material desires and outside motivations behind us, but rather she is asking that we become aware of those desires so that we can align them with our true selves. We cannot do this if we have not spent time trying to understand what our motivation is, and where our desires come from. Having high standards and expectations is a good thing in our lives, but constantly driving to be the very best may take away from parts of our lives that could be more meaningful than the boost to our wallet or social image. Settling for second best in this view is not settling for good enough, but rather striving to be excellent at what you do, but not to a point where you are unable to enjoy the success that accompanies the hard work. If you reframe your goals and desires then your success become more aligned with who you truly are and what you truly enjoy so that you can have better motivation to pursue excellence.