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#51 What's the actual cost?
On how to calculate success (and 10 years of not drinking, kind of)
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Almost ten years ago I came to Sicily for the first time, with a friend and his family. We started somewhere in the middle, on a farm with peacocks and extremely good pastry, and then we went to Siracusa and eventually to Taormina, which is where I’m writing from today (actually that’s not true, by the time I ended up sending this I’d moved to Palermo).
I was three months sober on that trip, and perhaps it’s because of that proximity of time and how close those two events were that Italy feels almost inseparable from my sobriety. I can’t think of either without combining them. Italy makes me think of sobriety, and sobriety makes me think of Italy.
So I suppose it’s only natural that I’m here, on this island that I love and where I feel part of my life was conceived, on the tenth anniversary of the day I quit drinking, which is April 14, 2013.
I started to write the piece I want to write about turning ten years alcohol-free, but it’s a monster essay with big topics and, I decided after a few hours of writing it, not something I want to crank out just yet. This leads me to the thing I’m actually interested in talking about today, which is how at ten years sober, or maybe just how at age 44, or maybe it’s how after a few years of going through some kind of major underworld journey where my guts got yanked out and steamrolled and I felt totally stuck and lost and bereft of all meaning or purpose—or maybe all of those things and maybe other things I’m not even considering—for the first time in my personal history, everything feels like enough. I feel like enough. What I have feels like enough. My efforts feel like enough. My life feels like enough. Everything is enough, which ironically is more than I could have asked for.
A few weeks ago I watched an NYT short documentary about rethinking how we measure economic success, called “Alexander Skarsgård Explains the Answer to Everything”. It’s short and worth the watch, but in summary: It asks us to imagine a soccer team that counts its success in goals scored only, not goals scored net of goals conceded. Then it explains that our measurement of economic (and therefore sociopolitical and therefore personal) success, which is Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, is misleading because we do not offset GDP growth by the cost of environmental degradation (an actual and real number called ‘natural capital’). The conclusion: because we haven’t included the cost of nature's decimation, even our most ‘successful’ economies are not that successful when measured in real net growth. Much like a soccer team that maybe scored seven but gave ten away and still thinks it’s in the lead, it looks like we’ve been accumulating wealth only because we’ve counted gross assets, not assets net of debts. (Which, duh.)
For the past few years, I’ve struggled deeply with the idea that because I’m not doing the normal things that many in my position do or would do, and what I used to do—such as post to social media regularly and engage and build my audience on a social media platform, or start a TikTok, or run (another) online course, or start (another) new podcast, or start (another) new company, or post on Substack more regularly, or enable chat here or any of the other Substack features that would surely bring more money and a bigger audience and more readership, or always enable comments or always respond to your comments which would surely build a bigger and more active community, or start a Youtube channel, or say yes to the many requests for interviews that I mostly say no to, or write with more velocity, or write a follow-up book to my best-seller (like a journal or a workbook), etc.—that I’m not doing it right.
In other words, because I’m not capitalizing on my earlier successes or my privilege in a maximal way, turning everything I do into a profitable venture, I’m not doing it right. Foregoing what ‘everyone else’is doing, and what we all know to be the winning formula in terms of building a brand or building an audience or getting your work out into the hands of your market and thus amassing wealth, or at least trying to, has felt like I’m losing some kind of opportunity, leaving money on the table, allowing myself to fade into obscurity, and in general just totally fucking myself over.
To be clear, I am not saying this is what has happened—I’m not saying I have lost out. I am saying this is what it has felt like and what I’ve believed to be true for the past few years.
My career has felt like a foregone opportunity, and mostly because I couldn’t do what many around me could. [I also need to be clear here, if I could have done these things—and I mean mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—I would have, and this is not an indictment of a single other person that exists, nor an assertion of some moral superiority. I was just not okay, and that’s why I didn’t try and further my career by doing the tried and true things that would have furthered my career.]
What I mean to say is that for the past few years, I’ve been doing the same thing we’ve been doing with the GDP: measuring myself against a number without netting it against the cost to nature. What I mean to say is that for the past few years, I have not counted the invisible and unscored cost against the very visible successes I’m supposed to covet. I have looked at everyone’s follower count, book deal check size, vacation homes and other markers of wealth on social media, likes, popularity, virality, esteem, output, growing presence, Netflix specials, Oprah endorsements, and general ability to do what I could not. I never thought to net that against what it might have cost them (which I cannot know because I am not them), or looked at whatever savings I accrued.
And the savings I accrued? Well, they’re hard to measure because I don’t track them in my bank account or any other kind of dashboard I’ve grown accustomed to referencing to establish a baseline of success. They’re qualitative. But I’d say the savings are things like how I can sleep at night now, and I mean as soon as my head hits my pillow, and I mean all the way through the night. Or like how last week when I was asked to measure my stress level I circled the number 2 and described myself as ‘chill’. It’s the fact that I never think about Instagram or think ‘in Instagram’ and that for the most part, I have no idea anymore what anyone ate for lunch or who’s on vacation where or how many likes Brenè and Glennon and Oprah are getting compared to me (lololol why was that a measure I ever used?). It’s that I now believe that I can do whatever the fuck I want and not what everyone else is doing and still make a living, and still have a good life, and still make an impact, and still feel like my work matters. It’s that I now believe I don’t have to do things that hurt my soul or my brain or my body in order to be successful. It’s the tiny mad idea that I can trust myself even if myself is saying to do something absolutely unpopular or stupid or economically ruinous. It’s not worrying all the time about what I said or didn’t say or how I reacted or whether I covered the latest horrible tragic heartbreaking thing properly with a fucking social media tile. It’s feeling like I’m in integrity. It’s feeling like I’m being true to myself. It’s feeling like I can actually take my time and be on my own schedule instead of the schedule that will most maximize my reach and engagement. It’s feeling like I get to enjoy my life, and even have fun? I could go on and on and on, but you get it.
And all these savings were only possible at the cost of growing my own GDP. Kind of like how nature gets preserved only if you don’t extract it to begin with, these things were available to me only because of what I didn’t do.
If you’re here reading this, you’re probably reading many of the same things I am. You know technology is a disaster and social media is even worse. You understand enough about drinking culture, diet culture, beauty culture, racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and every other systemic and systematic oppression that exists. You are aware of the climate disaster, the fragility of democracy, and our return to Victorian-era norms in terms of reproductive rights. You are aware of so much! Me too. But being aware is just that—being aware. It’s a step after ignorance and a step before change. Change is when you actually do something with awareness.
An example of this using alcohol addiction: For a long period in which addiction is increasing (when you move from casual use to problematic use to drinking in the shower or whatever), most people often don’t know they have a problem, even if it’s extremely obvious to everyone around them and even themself. Then (if they’re lucky), they start to think Maybe I have a problem? Or This feels awful, or something like that—they have an inkling. After that inkling (if they’re lucky) comes awareness, where they can fully conceive they have a drinking problem. To get that awareness is a crapshoot—many people never do—and it doesn’t mean anything changes behaviorally. It just means rationally a person knows they have a drinking problem. Someone can be fully addicted to alcohol, know it, know its cost, and still keep on drinking and not make a single change to their lifestyle. In fact, a good number of people in active addiction live here, in the part where they know before the part where they change.
And that’s only because changing means sacrifice, or actually doing something different, or actually breaking the social contract, and no one likes that part. We are comfort-seeking missiles who value belonging and familiarity even if it’s killing us. We hate the idea of the other side, even if the other side has certain promises we desperately want. We can die still drinking or even from drinking, having known for years we needed to stop.
All this together sounds like a splatter of different thoughts that don’t overlap or connect, and maybe they won’t for you. For me, they go together like this: Most of what we are told to covet and work toward is an iceberg, where the visible ten percent looks really great and we all rush to it in part because we’re all rushing to it. But then we get there and 90% of it, the part out of view and totally hidden from us, is a fucking nightmare. And everyone kind of knows it, but no one is willing to say it, because they don’t want to be the first one to say it. But no wait, someone starts saying it, and then everyone starts saying it, and now we know: the iceberg is a shit show, and no one likes it at all, and actually it’s costing us every other opportunity and potential. But to leave the iceberg is too much. Everyone’s on the iceberg, and leaving the iceberg means god knows what—financial ruin, no social life, being an outcast? We don’t know because it’s an unknown.
What I mean by saying I feel like enough at ten years is this: I (mostly) don’t stay on icebergs anymore when I know what’s underneath is ruining my life. What I mean by saying I feel like enough at ten years is this: I don’t think I missed out on something by not being able to do what everyone else was doing for the past few years. What I mean by saying I feel like enough at ten years is this: Sometimes not being able to do what everyone else is doing is the only way you can actually calculate the true cost of what everyone else is doing.
(Also what I mean by saying I feel like enough is this: I can send a potentially terrible and confusing essay before I edit it five hundred times because I’m in Sicily and there’s some exceptionally low-priced and delicious food I need to go eat.)
Links coming Wednesday. Ily.
Note: while I do have a degree in economics, I am not an economist and this is a gross interpretation.
And might do again!
Whoever everyone else is in my own echo-chamber