It’s early July, 1998, and I’m standing with my classmates in the hall of Ecole Normale Superieure at 35 Boulevard Jourdan, in the 14th district of Paris. The glass walls look out onto a dreary garden, the weather is mild, and my heart is racing inside my rib cage. A tall woman arrives with white sheets of paper. She opens a glass pane, sticks up the paper, closes the glass, and walks away. We press forward, eager to look, stars twinkling in our eyes. I see my name, halfway down the left column of the left-hand page, the word ‘admitted’ at the top. I gasp. After two years of intense, competitive preparatory class, I will be joining the most prestigious college in my country. Four years of monthly payments ahead of me, and lifelong academic tenure after that. I can leave a dysfunctional family behind, and lead a life devoted to knowledge. Freedom, prestige, happiness. My stomach sinks in. I passed.
Fast forward five months, and I’m sitting on a park bench in Jardin du Luxembourg, flows of tears pouring from my eyes, lwailing – so much so that a couple stops and asks me if they can do something for me, gently patting my back. I thank them, and cry a bit more, less painfully now. I just received an ice-cold letter from my mother, I’ve been feeling friendless, idle, purposeless, for weeks. I’m in a deceitful relationship with a woman, knowledge brings me no solace, and life is pure darkness. There is no more exam to pass and tell me that I’m worth something.
That moment on the bench was a memorable low ebb. Things later did bounce back up. I found other battles to win. A year later, age 21, I was at trinity college, Dublin, teaching students older than me. At 24, I was on the (very junior) staff list of 700 year old Sorbonne. I wrote books and received rejections gracefully till I finally published something. I came out, found a cute boyfriend with matching pedigree – and lived with him in a cute apartment by the Pere Lachaise, ready to conquer Paris. I made friends, and discovered more of life. A few years and adventures later, I followed an Australian love to Melbourne, made new friends, bought a cute apartment, taught myself Chinese, shot a film, spoke in various forums, set up a china-focused NGO, and got a new scholarship for a second PhD.
Another bench story now. It’s 2015, and before starting the THNK program in Amsterdam, I sat on a bench in Westerpark, reflecting about my life. I felt a deep sense of contentment. I remember thinking ‘I have done exactly what I wanted, and I could die happy today.’ I listed my proud achievements in my head: published a book, made a film, learnt seven languages, travelled around the world, integrated in a new country. I even founded a charity. Most importantly, I made friends along the way, and when I fell in love, I had the guts and insight to recognise what happened, drop a situation in Paris, and re-think my life anew.
After the end of the second module, though, mid-2015, doubt came creeping in. It started with a game of Charlie’s Angels: we were all in a room together, and each invited to make one ask of the group,to help get forward with our key project. Anything was possible, but I realised I didn’t clearly know what I wanted, right then, or more broadly. And how could I ever succeed, if I don’t know what I want.
I used to say, half-jokingly: ‘I’m an ambitious guy, I’m aiming for a Nobel Prize in literature’. At other times, I’ve said I wanted to become a modern-day monk, selflessly devote myself to welfare, liberation and enlightenment. Yet when I look at these ambitions, I feel rather dejected, far from track. My only published book is a minor gay romantic comedy, my film an independent short, with minor YouTube success, my charity but an averagely executed, unsustainable digital nonprofit in perpetual beta mode – at most, it’s having some marginal impact on a few privileged children and adults. As for my current writing – well, I haven’t touched my latest novel project in over a week, and I haven’t published anything since 2008, or written anything publishable. I like saying that the whole system of literature and ideas has been turned upside down by the Internet, and that I’m desperately trying to catch up and engage with the new shape of that world – I do write stuff online, but does that even count? Or is it only lazy lies? Others seem to be doing so much better than me.
Guilt creeps in – with so much potential, how did I achieve so little? Did I make a terrible mistake to start again and leave for Australia? Was following love just a foolish, selfish thing to do? On better days, I think I’m building broad and deep foundations, and the edifice I have in my head is only just coming out of ground – but is that all pure delusion? I don’t have a clear master plan…
So, whether I’ve succeeded at anything is unclear – whether I’m heading for success, even less – but what about failure? I failed at many things. I lost friends, whether I offended them during a troubled younger age, or simply didn’t make an effort to keep our relationship alive. I did not manage to build close and healthy bonds with some of my family. I failed at defending a first PhD. I failed at getting other novels published. I failed at making my vision into something that would sustain me. Maybe, many times, I’ve only just missed the mark – and if I’d stuck with it just a bit longer, tried just a bit harder, who knows, I might be in a better situation now, others might be too.
At times, and disturbingly for a self-professed believer in austerity, I feel embarrassed financially. At 37, always a brilliant achiever by most accounts, I still have regular money worries. Two years ago, I only survived by renting out a room in my apartment – coffee out had become a luxury. Last year, I had to partly rely on my partner. And this year, I can only attend THNK because my father agreed to cover the fees. My half-brother is 22, he’s on his first internship with a trading bank in London, and makes more money a month than I’ve ever made in my life. Should I be proud I never sold off – happy that I managed to get-by all these years, not alienating myself to the market – or have I wasted good cards idiotically, living the parasitic life of a sterile dilettante, drip-fed from powders of family cash, distracted from a higher goal by dumb money troubles? But isn’t success about buying a Porsche, or a secondary residence on the seafront? At least I got some of that teaching.
Twelve years ago, I read a book by Gombrowicz called Ferdydurke. The narrator is a writer in his thirties, mocked and guilty for having achieved no clear position, identified no very clear vocation, past the age of thirty. At the time, my Sorbonne self had an ambiguous reaction. I remember thinking, ‘how could you be that way – I’m twenty-five, I’m settled in the world, and I know where I’m heading.’ At the same time, I felt envious of the freedom that such uncertainty would give – the stories and adventures made possible by such an unclear position. Now at thirty seven, I find myself much closer to that narrator, with no clear profession or ongoing source of income, unsure what success even is, mildly guilty that I might not have fulfilled whatever ‘my potential’ is or was. Wondering.
I suppose things are not all dark. I have, at least, retained a capacity to love and understand new things – I am still able to be moved by people I meet, form new friendships, let new people shape my inner self. If anything, I’ve become more capable of love, more capable of seeing beauty and worth around me than I was in 1998. Maybe this should count as success, nurturing one’s own capacity to change, even as achievements and failures add up. Maybe success is just an horizon that keeps on shifting – no more than a temporary prompt to get over the line – a mirage. Maybe success is writing this, and having a friend to share it with? Or maybe success only comes when we gracefully stop worrying about it?