I had a P.E teacher in high school who was a real hard-ass.
Let's call him Mr. M.
He was the type who would make you run four laps around the school in the middle of winter if you were two minutes late to his class.
He had this weird habit of dropping life lessons on his students in the form of little tests. Whenever he put you through one, you knew you were being taught something—you just weren't sure what.
There's one lesson in particular that stuck with me, though it took a full 15 years before I understood it.
It was 1st-period fitness class and I was in the 11th grade. We were in the weight room doing what boys do in weight rooms (for me: standing around and talking).
Without explaining why, Mr. M decided to call us up one at a time and ask us what grade we wanted to get in his class, jotting down each kid's answer.
Each student would walk up, say his answer, and then rejoin the rest of the class. Mr. M simply nodded at each number in stern silence.
Then my name was called.
"What grade do you want?" he asked as I approached, without looking up from his clipboard.
"100," I shrugged. Mr. M put his pen down.
"Everyone. Stop what you're doing. Come here for a minute," he said calmly, looking at me with a face I could never read. A circle formed. He was going to chew me out for being a smartass.
"This," he said slowly while gesturing to me.
"This is what everyone should be aiming for. Why would you only want 80 or 90 percent of anything? Braveen is the only one who said 100." He looked at me and nodded before dismissing us all.
Have you ever felt 25 people rolling their eyes at you?
"Fuck you, Braveen," whispered one of my classmates who thought I was full of shit.
I was. I didn't care what grade I got in P.E.
In fact, I was pretty comfortable with mediocrity when it came it grades—70% is a glass more than half full by my standards back then.
But what I didn't realize was that this attitude would hold me back when it came to what I did care about:
I wasn't good at many things growing up, but when it came to words and ideas, I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard every chance I got.
I'd fill up entire notebooks with my ideas in middle school, write pages upon pages in a Word doc on the family computer, spend months in high school planning full-length plays to bring to life on the stage, keep a little notebook of jokes, pen poems, perform sketches, and write essays on my personal blog.
It was the one thing I was recognized for by my teachers and my peers alike.
But I had a line I wouldn't cross: on the other side of it was taking writing seriously.
I was a chronic underachiever.
The thing about underachieving is it feels great to do well when you're not trying very hard. But by contrast, it feels terrible to fall short after giving it your all.
Underachievers choose 70 or 80 instead of 100 to leave ourselves room for the best excuse in the book: "I only failed because I didn't try."
We'll drop the bar to the floor so we can step over it and ensure our goals are achievable, even if it might mean denying ourselves a better outcome.
If you achieve it, you feel good. If you exceed it, you feel great (for about 5 seconds if you're an underachiever, then you realize, "Oh shit, I have to do this again?").
Fall short though and, well, you're a failure and why the hell did you even bother?
The Catch-22 of underachieving is one many creative people know well. Some go their whole lives without ever overcoming it. It's more comfortable to play a game you know you can win, even when the prizes aren't the ones you want.
So when it came time to decide what to do with the rest of my life at the tender age of 18, despite my desire to be a professional writer—the kind whose voice carried across a large audience—I was this-close to committing to a career as an English teacher.
Being a teacher was realistic and safe. Writing was a hobby.
Even if I managed to navigate the broken dreams a writing career attracts, I'd been convinced the pay wasn't worth it and that I wasn't good enough. Plus, I didn't see many bylines like mine back then. There were more Brian Johns sitting at the top of articles than Braveen Kumars.
In a parallel universe, I'm a high school English teacher right now.
The only reason I'm not in this one is because of a 12th grade Writer's Craft teacher named Ms. Edwards who showed me all the paths I could take and all the jobs I could get as a writer, mostly in marketing and journalism.
Because of her, I chose 100. And for probably the first time in my life, I committed: I was going to go all-in on being a professional writer, so I could make a living writing while supporting my own creative expression, trusting that it would ultimately amount to practice.
By my own estimates (and other peoples') I thought I'd be writing shit no one would read for $30-something-thousand a year at 30 years old.
It didn't help that when I shared my plan with most people, they'd react with the in-person equivalent of a lowercase "lol".
But at least I was directing all my efforts at something I could get behind:
- I started a creative writing blog where I would publish a piece of writing every week and jokes every day on my Facebook Page, whether they were funny or they flopped.
- I took on any writing-related job that came up: resumes, essays, press releases, website copy, consulting, blog posts, grad school applications, and favours for friends, helping out on their projects.
- I consumed everything I could that would help me improve my craft.
- I pitched and wrote for whatever publications would accept my work.
- And, hardest of all, I put myself out there.
In the process, I got a lot of invaluable real-world feedback—good, bad, and kind of weird—from the total strangers who read my stuff:
With a lot to gain and only time to lose, I poured myself into my craft. I didn't know how much effort it would take, so I gave it everything.
And then something happened.
At the age of 23, I hit 100—at least relative to my low expectations.
I got the first full-time job of my career as a "content marketer" at a tech company—it's what English majors call themselves these days to help their career prospects. I was getting a steady paycheque to do my favourite things: come up with ideas and write them into being.
A year and a half later, I landed the best job I could hope to get at what is now one of Canada's most valuable companies. I'd gone well past 100 when I only expected 70.
This sounds great. It was. It is. But for the first time in years, I didn't have a concrete goal anymore.
My "why?" had become "what now?"
I still felt the rumblings of my old hunger—to be a real writer—but I didn't need to feed it anymore. It was already well-fed, decently paid, and couldn't complain about its commute.
Here's the thing though: It's never good when your thoughts linger too long in the place of uncertainty that exists between answers.
Ambition without a personally meaningful direction eventually hollows you out, turning into restlessness and depression.
Despite everything, I was still afraid of failure and the helplessness that follows, still afraid of success and the expectations it sets.
Bit-by-bit I shrugged off my desire to be a writer to settle for a safer path: a career in marketing.
Without realizing it, I ended up choosing 70 again.
My ambition has gathered dust. I'd outgrown it, as most writers eventually do. Or so I told myself as I lugged it around. every. single. day.
When you deny yourself something that is so central to your identity, it changes you. In choosing 70%, I also became 70% of who I really was.
I didn't realize this until recently when I forced myself to write this.
For two weeks, I sat down after work to at least stare at this page for an hour or two, no matter how exhausted I was from my job.
For two weeks, I wrote and edited for free—for me.
And for two weeks, I felt more productive, happier, and more like myself because caring about something—really giving a shit—is contagious and will infect other parts of your life.
So, here's what I've come to accept:
We don't choose ambition. It's a desire woven into the very fabric of a person's life. It will call often. Some can find it other outlets, or ignore it outright, and still live out happy lives. But the greater the Ambition burns, the louder it cries.
That's why I finally published this: the first piece I've really cared to write in a very long time.
It feels good.
Not because I think you'll like it or because it'll get even 1% of the views my other written work might.
But because it truly came from me.
So, going back to Mr. M (how the hell did we get here?), I think he had a point. Kind of.
I still don't give a shit about P.E.
But this? One hundred percent 💯