When I was about six or seven years old, my dad asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. A harmless question for sure, but one nobody had ever asked me before. No one had ever taken an interest in finding out what I wanted out of life.
I mulled the thought over as I cut my pancakes, and the first thing I could think of was, “A judge.” The reason in my mind for such a goal was that I wanted to be in charge of everyone and everything. I wanted things my way.
From this early age, I had a heavy-handed sense of ambition, which was really more of an unchecked ambition, run amok. Without much in the way of parental guidance for the rest of my childhood, my ambition continued to grow without boundaries or limitations, so I found myself always wanting more.
I would set goals for myself, and once those goals were attained, I was done with them, moving on to the next goal. Nobody, and I do mean nobody got in the way of my goals, and nobody told me where I should stop or worse, what I could not do.
Because of this ambition, I will freely admit, for the sake of context, that I achieved a lot. I won’t go into detail on those achievements, since that would defeat the purpose of this post, but suffice it to say that, because of my experiences, I have a lot of cool stories to tell.
The problem with this lifestyle is that it has always plagued me with hubris. I have struggled with harmful pride and arrogance my whole life, partly because of the environment I was raised within (my parents’ entire basement is a shrine to my father’s numerous athletic endeavors and achievements), but partly because, as Walter White famously admitted in Felina, the final episode of Breaking Bad: “I liked it. I was really good at it. And I was really—I was alive.”
When I felt that welling up of pride fill my insides with warmth, it was like I was experiencing the effects from Walter’s blue crystalline perfection: pleasure-producing, yet terribly, horribly addictive.
To achieve meant I was truly alive, and as a result, I spent the greater part of my life striving to achieve more and more. Even as I write this, I suppose I am still trying to achieve something, though only time will tell what that something might be.
My most recent achievement was finally graduating with my terminal degree. For my non-academic readers, that means my doctorate. The PhD was my golden apple for the better part of a decade, and it was the prize I desired more than anything.
It was the prize that proved wrong all the naysayers who suggested I couldn’t do achieve it while juggling work, marriage, and children.
It was the prize that put me on even ground with my father, who frequently lorded his PhD over me and everyone else he knew, making others around him feel inferior.
It amounted to three little letters that would finally sate a seemingly insatiable craving for greater & greater achievement, and ultimately, it would tell everyone who saw my name that it was worth knowing.
So, what’s the problem? I did it! I should be proud. I deserve to be proud.
The problem is in a looming question that remains, scratching the back of my skull like a cat stuck on a screen door:
I tried ignoring the question by relishing in the accomplishment. I changed my name on all references to my name to either include those three letters or to address me as “Dr. Misner.” Eventually, that sounded so pretentious to even suggest to people, even for my swollen, inflated sense of pride, so I changed that to a slightly less formal “Dr. J.” Many of my students still refer to me by this moniker, and one would think that hearing it several times a day might make someone like me even more satisfied.
But, it doesn’t. The question remains: what’s next? Outside of that question, everything else is vapid and formless, ultimately empty. And I have my pride to thank for this emptiness.
Any other person might reflect back on how far he has come and be satisfied, which is a healthy form of pride, but to chase that self-satisfying feeling down, long after it should have dissipated, is making me into just another achievement junkie, looking for an ego fix.
As a result, I am posing a new question for my strangely empty, pride-stricken mind. How do I want to see myself and how do I want my children to see their father?
In the end, the only achievements that matter are the ones I leave behind, and the ones that will last the longest are the investments I choose to make in my children’s character.
So, today, I vow a change, or at least an honest and mindful attempt at altering my own behavior.
Today, I will teach my children the value in humility, not by lecturing, but by example. Be not afraid to admit fault in a conflict, and strive to be the first one to do so. Accountability goes a long way toward opening doors to dialogue and rebuilding bridges charred by the actions we take in the heat of the moment.
Today, I will teach my children that leadership does not simply mean being in control or being right, but in knowing how to bring out the best in others and when to concede for the good of the group.
Today, I will teach my children that achievement means nothing without having people who love you to share it with. Accomplishments are worthless until credit has been given to the shoulders of those who lifted you up to get to where you are.
Today, I will teach my children perspective. The more important something seems, the more critical it probably is to step back and look at it from alternate angles, because in the long run, does it really matter as much as it first appeared?
Today, I will show my children what it looks like to set aside all the diversions that prevent me from being who I want to be—who I need to be. My phone can go in another room when we’re watching a movie together. My computer can wait until after they are in bed. All the conversation about what happened at work can wait until they’ve told me all about their days’ events.
Today, I will teach my children not to take themselves too seriously. All of the awards, titles, degrees, etc., that we earn are merely an empty representation of real-world experiences. I cannot hug a title, and kissing an award or degree is just plain weird. Give me authenticity. Give me the real you. Love is something real, something that can be felt, and cares not for achievements or accomplishments, but is ready to drop all pretense when necessary and right.
Today, I’m going to drop my pretenses. I don’t want my children, my colleagues, or my students knowing me as “Dr. Misner” — I want them to know me as “Daddy” or “Josh.” Daddy is the title I’ve earned through harder trials than any other, and Josh is the name I was given, the one I grew up with, and the one I associate with the real me.
I want my name synonymous with something more tangible than a title, because that is what’s next.
Learning to let go of the emptiness that pride provides isn’t going to be an easy . . . accomplishment.
However, it will be well worth the pursuit.