Title stolen from the Hamilton musical, which I have been listening to nonstop like the musical-theater nerd I am. You can listen to the cast recording here.
I could talk about Hamilton, purposeful anachronism, hip-hop on Broadway, and race-bending the founding fathers for eons, but this post isn’t actually about that. Instead, I want to talk about the concept of having “one shot” to do what you need to do — whether that’s overthrow a monarchy or achieve financial success. And I want to start that conversation with a quote from social media.
“this is the story of a very smart person, who kept waiting for the perfect momemt, until they died. okay theres ur bedtime story good night”
A recent tweet by Twitter comedian Jomny Sun reminded us that if you wait for the perfect moment – or momemt – it will never arrive.
There is an intense, destructive pressure to be exceptionally successful at a young age, and I am loathe to give it any time to here on my blog. This particular brand of perfectionism has been a persistent destructive force in my life; like many people my age, I have been paralyzed with fear of failure more than once. The last thing I want to do is give any more time to this myth of perfection and exceptionalism.
To the contrary, I want to talk about breaking through that paralysis. To do this, allow me one more reference to Hamilton, then I promise I’ll stop referencing anything currently running on Broadway.* The foil to Aaron Burr’s motto “wait for it,” Alexander Hamilton works “nonstop” like he’s “running out of time.”** Despite dying the youngest of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton was one of the most prolific, due in part to his frankly insane work ethic.
“Alexander joins forces with James Madison and John Jay to write a series of essays defending the new United States Constitution, entitled The Federalist Papers. The plan was to write a total of twenty-five essays, the work divided evenly among the three men. In the end, they wrote eighty-five essays, in the span of six months. John Jay got sick after writing five. James Madison wrote twenty-nine. Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one!”
Of course, this very passion which I admire in Hamilton is fueled by a destructive obsession with legacy that ultimately proves his downfall. Perhaps that’s why I chose this character as a jumping-off point to discuss failure and success: we share a similar, (potentially) (self-)destructive ambition. Sure, Alexander Hamilton’s ambition was to rise out of poverty and obscurity to overthrow an oppressive monarchy, prove himself on the battlefield, and create a new nation with a fiscal system of his own design, while I rate my own ambitions a little lower (although someone did once tell me to dream big); the pertinent difference is that Hamilton is the story of a young man whose ambition fuels him in non-stop work to achieve success; for the past few months it seemed like my life’s a story of a young woman whose ambition paralyzes her instead.
After leaving my day job to travel, I found myself faced with a seemingly infinite number of choices: Did I want a new full-time job, or a part-time job, or maybe no new job at all? I could continue working as an administrative assistant, or go for the slightly-better-paying executive assistant, or shift into a more specific department — maybe communications? Events? Did I want to stay in the nonprofit world, or return to for-profit corporate America? Did the mission of the nonprofit matter? I could focus on domestic violence, or poverty, or immigration. I could work with children or women or the elderly. Just choosing what jobs to apply to was overwhelming, and that was only a fraction of the choices — what about Annushka Munch Photography? Did I want to try to balance it with a new day job? Was it strong enough to support me on its own? Should I focus on portraits, or fine art photography, or travel and landscapes? Did I want to pivot toward photojournalism and/or documentary photography? What about fashion photography? I must have imagined thousands of possible futures.
I fell into the 20-something’s existential crisis: who am I, what am I doing, and does it even matter anyway. Worse, I had fallen victim to all-or-nothing thinking; it felt like whatever I did next had to succeed, or I would be a doomed failure for the rest of my days. This so-called “catastrophic thinking” is common for people with anxiety disorders; I don’t know how common it is among neurotypical people but I suspect it’s not uncommon.
In addition to just not being true, catastrophic thinking is stressful and draining. I am trying to remember that life’s not all-or-nothing, sink-or-swim; our success or failure is not reduced to a single decision — indeed, terms like “success” and “failure” are too simplistic to capture the variety of experiences of a human life. No-one is either entirely a success or entirely a failure. I am trying to let go of perfection and other unattainable, unrealistic goals.
One night as I was trying to sleep, I found myself staring at the ceiling with “Non-stop” playing in my head.
“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?
Write day and night like you’re running out of time?
Ev’ry day you fight, like you’re running out of time
What if I could keep the urgency to seize every moment without the stakes of all-or-nothing success-versus-failure? Could I take the “not throwing away my shot” mantra and turn it into something positive? Was I crazy to base a personal philosophy on Hamilton’s tragic hero?
I got out of bed. I put on my boyfriend’s sweatshirt and stumbled downstairs as quietly as I could. I curled up on the couch with my laptop and a fuzzy blanket, and I began to write this blog post. The more I wrote the later it got, and the later it got the more sure I became that this was it. Not only was “not throwing away my shot” the personal philosophy that would lead me from ruinous inaction, it would be the final push into making that decision that’s been tormenting me since I left my day job: what do I do next?
And that, ladies, gentlemen, and variations thereupon, is how the hip-hop Broadway musical about the inventor of Wall Street solved my existential crisis, at least for an evening. When I woke up, I realized that I had fallen prey to black-and-white thinking once again. “Not throwing away my shot” couldn’t be a personal philosophy to put my life back on the right track because there is no such thing as “the right track.” And even if it did motivate me to make a decision, there is no single decision that will determine the outcome of the rest of my life. The world is far too complicated for that.
Still, it was a nice idea while it lasted.
*Spoiler alert: I break this promise
**Unfortunately for Alexander Hamilton, he really was running out of time – he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr at the age of 49. For comparison Thomas Jefferson died at 83; Benjamin Franklin at 84; Burr himself lived to the age of 80.