Achievement means something quite different to me than it did when I was a bit younger. As a 23 year old my recent achievements are few and far between: graduating university, getting a salaried job that leaves me responsible for 16 second graders, paying my own rent, bills, car repairs, the whole nine yards. That’s about as far back as I can remember having any sort of achievement since high school, because before these developments in the past few years, graduating high school was my crowning glory.
These landmarks seem to come less and less frequently as we “grow up” – and I think that’s a terrible thing. Of all times for us to know that we’re doing well and pushing through, this is perhaps the time we need it most – when we’re off on our own, beginning our own lives. I believe this is a result of setting bigger and less time proximate goals for ourselves now that we’re adults and must be mature.
When I was a kid my priorities were loads different, and I think this is why those little achievements came along more often. (I say ‘little’ achievements, but at the time they were ground breaking. It’s only in hindsight that we’re taught to think ‘aw, wasn’t that cute, that’s precious’ and dismiss the earth shattering yet wonderful nature of our youthful achievements.)
I distinctly remember the first time I tied my shoe laces all by myself. It was dusk, and my family was about to go for a night time walk through the woods (because that’s just what we did in those days) and I’d asked my dad to tie my shoe but he hadn’t heard me. So I leaned over and, squinting to see in the dark, I slowly and deliberately tied my shoe for the first time. I remember that my cries of excitement were lost on my parents and also on my older brother (who thought it was pathetic that I’d only just figured it out). I ran after them in the dusk shouting for joy over my achievement, but my mom’s shouts of don’t run in the dark, you’ll fall and hurt yourself and it’ll only be your own fault drowned it out. Two weeks later my parents quizzically asked each other if I’d stopped asking to have my shoes tied, and I rolled my eyes in the other room and didn’t say a word.
I remember the first time I successfully rode a bike without training wheels as well. I’d been quite upset because my sister, a year and a bit younger than me, had learned to ride a bike before I did because I’d been away in an international boarding school. So whenever I was home I’d studiously practice my pedaling and my balancing, usually to no avail. My dad had set up a stack of sandbags near the house in the yard where we could get onto the bike and steady ourselves, and finally push off with some momentum. Usually this meant you teetered on the bike for the 4 seconds it was going down a slight hill, and then after that you’d get a lovely mouthful of grass and some dirt on the side. But one overcast day, while praying that the rain would hold off long enough for me to try a few more times before being called inside, I finally got it. The pedals kept going, the bike stayed up – at first I didn’t even believe it was happening. I kept pumping the pedals as hard as I could and holding onto the handlebars for dear life. And I didn’t fall! At that point in my life I doubt if I’d ever been so proud of myself. Yet when I walked inside and declared my new skill to my family, they all looked at my in disbelief, as if it say oh, you couldn’t do that before now? well, that’s nice isn’t it. Congrats.
(On a side note, perhaps this is where I learned the utter insignificance of personal accomplishments, which I would carry with me into adulthood.)
I remember the first time I was able to braid hair. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, I know, but it took me eons. Whenever I’d try it would come out looking like some rope one might find in the abandoned barn down the road. Fortunately my sisters had long luscious hair that was in constant need of care, and I got more than my fair share of trial and error. But I remember when I finally got it and my sister’s hair looked (barely short of) divine. Of course, since it was the back of her head, she couldn’t see it, and so my great success was only apparent to me. I had quite a similar experience with french braiding, which took me an additional 10 years to master. Now I can even do it on the back of my own head. Who’d have thought?
Over the years my achievements and accomplishments have changed greatly. From my first time brushing my own teeth, to the first time I shaved my legs without cutting myself. From the first time I was able to zip something up my back without help to the first time I wore heals without twisting my ankle. From the first time I spent a dollar in the general store to the first time I wrote a cheque with my own name on it. From the first time I put my glasses safely away in their case to the first time I put my contact lenses in without poking my eye out. From the first time I said hello to a kid on the playground without being shy to the first time I gave a presentation to a university lecture hall. From the first time I went to camp and was gone for a week to the first time I flew alone and stayed away at college. From the first time I was gone at boarding school to the first time I crossed the Atlantic and went on a European adventure. From the first time my dad let me steer the car to the time I was handed my first driving license. The list never ends, really.
All these small things we see as grand achievements at the time. We celebrate them together or alone, but we celebrate them nonetheless. Yet as we grow older we tend to forget to celebrate our small accomplishments, and often even our great ones. My friends, I think this takes away from our quality of life. It takes the joy out of these things. If we have to grow up we might as well enjoy the little things that make up this adventure – otherwise it’s all just a shitty waste of time and energy. So the next time you do something for the first time, the next time you learn a new skill or master something you’ve never been able to do before, please celebrate it. Even if that just means smiling to yourself and having a glass of wine or a beer before you hit the hay at night. But especially if it means calling up your friends or family to tell them this little thing that they’re sure not to understand, but maybe we can take joy in the puzzled expressions and the pause before the um…. congratulations? that we get over the phone.