Last month, my wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. I had planned a few special activities throughout the day – a massage for her, dinner at our favorite restaurant – when nature decided we should celebrate a bit differently. The day before our anniversary, a raging storm knocked out our power and kept us off the grid for nearly 48 hours. Our reservations were all canceled. What was supposed to be a day of rest and relaxation for my hard working wife instead turned into an involuntary two-day shut in with her husband, father-in-law and teenage son.
It was a stark reminder of just how much we rely on electricity for our daily lives. School was shut down. Cooking was impossible. Even our gas heat turned off, because the thermostat that controls it is electric! The four of us bundled together in our 52-degree living room, contemplating the merits of our local hotels.
But rather than lament the loss of a traditional celebration, we took the opportunity to hit the road with our son, who is in the midst of his own major milestone – selecting a college. We drove up to UC Davis for the day, explored the campus and shared a family meal. We enjoyed the type of simple moments that one often takes for granted, but that will soon be so much less frequent when he goes off to school. Ultimately, time spent together carries infinitely more meaning than fancy dinners or expensive gifts.
Our experience led me to ponder the paradoxical relationship we humans have with the concepts of contentment and ambition. I was reminded of one of the first dates my wife and I ever went on. We were 18 and 19, with barely any money between us. We had enough for two movie tickets and one banana, which we had to share. Not exactly a banana split, at least not in the traditional sense. But we were happy then and we are happy now, content simply to be together regardless of any outside forces at work.
That bare bones upbringing for both of us, however, sometimes puts us at a disadvantage when trying to help our son navigate the rigors of college acceptance. Neither of us attended college in the US, so before he started applying to schools we hired a college counselor for guidance. Instead, the experience only seemed to add stress to an already stressful situation. I could see my son beginning to worry, beginning to doubt that he should or even could apply to schools that his counselor considered a stretch goal. We changed course again, and simply encouraged him to apply to as many colleges as he wanted to. He ended up applying to 22 in all, and got into nearly all of them. Suddenly, he had a new problem – the problem of plenty.
Choice paralysis is a common phenomenon. I remember my first experience walking into an American supermarket and wandering down the bread aisle. Where I grew up, we had two types of bread – sweet, and savory. In front of me at the store were now literally dozens of different brands, types, shapes and variants of bread. There were so many to choose from, that it actually created a sense of worry and inability to make a decision. And that was just bread. Picking a college and a city to live in for four years carries considerably higher stakes.
But whether my son goes to public school, private school or community college will not determine the final trajectory of who or what he becomes. What determines whether we succeed or not is our ability to maintain an internal hunger, an unquenchable ambition for excellence, to never feel as though we’ve arrived or that we’re entitled to anything. On the surface, that may seem at odds with the idea of being content with life’s simple joys. But ambition and contentment are not opposing forces, they are two sides of the same coin. One is short term, the ability to make each day the best possible day, irrespective of the circumstances dealt. The other is long term, the desire to make tomorrow even better, to impact those circumstances before they even unfold.
As we drove back from Davis, I thought about the opportunity a cold, dark house had provided my family that day. I thought about my son, and the future ahead of him. I thought about my wife, and how fitting it was that we would celebrate 25 years of marriage by making the best out of an unexpected situation. It was simultaneously low key and eventful, content and spontaneous. Just the way I like it.