The way we talk about happiness, you’d think it was the most valuable currency in the galaxy. When parents tell their children of their aspirations for them, it usually boils down to something like, “as long as you’re happy honey, we’re behind you 100%”. Or, when you’re trying to act like an adult after a painful breakup, and tell your former love, “I just want you to be happy, really”.
You knew it was bullshit when your parents said it, and you knew it was even more of a load when you said it to your ex, but you gobbled it up and dished it out all the same. What the hell for? I can understand the rationale for not revealing the true identity of Santa Clause to a four year old (or however old kids are when they still believe in Old St. Nick), but after a certain age, why do we continue to profess our aspirations for something that may not actually exist?
A friend and I have been discussing this very topic for quite some time, and have yet to come to any sort of agreement on the matter. While I, who can sometimes come across as a bit surly, actually do believe such a thing as happiness does exist, I’ll concede that its definition remains a mystery. My friend, however, leans more toward the stuff of myths and mystery, than something that can truly be achieved.
At least, that’s what he tells me.
So, I started thinking about what exactly happiness is—to me at least—and recalled one particular moment, that still comes to mind when I think of pure happiness.
Passing the Series 7
Long long ago, in a galaxy far , far away, I worked at a bank—a broker-dealer if we’re getting specific. I’ve always hated math, and pretty much loathed anything relating to markets, money or exchanges, since I first noticed my father reading the Wall Street Journal as a child. I don’t even know if they do this anymore, but back in the day, stock prices and indexes were neatly printed in the daily papers, in the tiniest imaginable type, and lined up to form an image that to this day still pops into my head when I think of the stock market. Unless you had the paper close enough to smell the ink, it was nearly impossible to decipher the three and four letter codes, and corresponding prices, let alone understand what they all meant. For me anyway.
I could barely convince myself to balance my checkbook (and often didn’t—back when we still used checkbooks). I just didn’t like numbers. I didn’t like finance all that much, and I certainly never anticipated a career requiring me to be knowledgeable of such things.
So, although thrilled when the bank offered me a promotion, I was understandably horrified when they stipulated I had to pass the Series 7 and 63 to keep the job. I knew I wasn’t meant to do this, and I nearly turned it down.
I also didn’t think I could do it. There was no-way-in-hell I could ever pass that test. It was notoriously difficult—not CFA, the bar or MCAT difficult, but good chunk of test takers would fail on their first attempt—and my job was quite literally at stake if I didn’t pass. But, my desire to assimilate won the day, and I accepted the position, vowing to myself I’d study hard and pass.
Let me assure you, studying for this test was torture like I’d never know before or since. I knew I had to do it, and I knew I’d pull through—eventually. But truthfully, I didn’t think I’d pass. Studying for that test was easily one of the most painful ordeals I’ve endured from a professional or academic perspective. But, whether I liked it or not, test day came, just like my calendar said it would, and I resigned myself to the fact I would fail as I drove to the sterile test-taking center, somewhere in Pasadena, California.
After slogging through annoyingly cheerfully basic computer screens for four of the six hours I was allotted, I called the fight. Mercifully, the test was electronic, which meant after months, and the fresh hours of torture, I’d finally know peace. One way or another, I’d know my fate.
I finished earlier than everyone else, which certainly meant I’d done something wrong. By that time, my brain was fried, and my nerves were raw. I was just done. I clicked the button to submit my answers. Then clicked again, when asked if I was really sure I wanted to do that—as if the computer knew how unsure I was of myself. “Fuck you” I thought, and hit submit again, and yes, again once more. I was so pissed off with the “are you really sure you’re ready to seal your fate” questions with cute little dialog boxes, I almost didn’t care about the result.
And then, as if in response, with it’s own “fuck you” the screen went completely blank, then flashed a tiny line of black letters in the middle of the 15 inch monitor, telling me to “please wait” while my score was tabulated. By far the longest 23 seconds of my life, and suddenly, I wanted to take it all back.
In the span of seconds, I spun on my heels and immediately cared desperately about the result. Now, with my future quite literally at my fingertips, I silently begged for a second chance—”I’ll study more next time!” I promised in vain as I pleaded with the universe for a mildly destructive earthquake, power outage or freak EMP flash that would necessitate a re-do. That didn’t happen, but I would’ve been less surprised if it had, than what happened next.
The screen blinked again, briefly, and a new tiny line of black text appeared in the middle of the page. If I focused, I knew I could make out the message, but my eyes wouldn’t cooperate—I was better off not knowing.
But, nearly as quickly as the sickness of fear and failure washed over me, a surge of confidence overcame me. Before even knowing the results, I could feel my cheeks hurting with the smile that stretched across my face.
I don’t remember making a sound, but I certainly did something, because the instant I saw, “Congratulations…..your score was, blah, blah, blah….you PASSED” I could feel the entire room of bloodshot eyes shooting daggers into the back of my skull for disrupting their concentration.
I quickly gathered my two and a half pieces of scratch paper allowed, my calculator, my pencils, and my claim ticket for my bag, and rushed toward the exit. The proctor, at this point smiling nearly as stupidly as me, gently extended a hand and quietly reminded me to claim my bag and turn in my test materials. I looked at him with what I can only imagine looked like shock, and mouthed, “I passed!” He replied “I know” silently, with a smile as he handed my bag.
I stepped outside, greeted by one of the most beautiful California Tuesday afternoons in recorded history, and marveled at what had just happened. This test, this impossible feat that I was certain I could never beat, was suddenly a credential on my resume. Me, the financially-challenged, was now deemed by the NASD (now called FINRA) as suitable to trade securities. You know, all those tiny little codes on the back of my father’s Wall Street Journal?
In that moment, I accepted—what I had previously deemed after-school-special drivel—the idea that in fact, just about anything was possible. If I could pass that test, me, the one who loathes all numbers not on my paycheck, knew anything was possible, and promised to never underestimate myself again.
And in that brief, sunny Tuesday afternoon, I was complete. I can’t say for sure what exactly happiness “is” but in that moment, I understood with the certainty of a zealot, my path was purely of my own making, and it was beyond blissful.
Happiness—A Cruel Master
Yet, the cruelty of this is not lost on me, as some of the most painful and most definitely not happy moments (ahem, years) of my life were, as a result, dedicated to a field I loathed, because I passed that fucking test. One I didn’t even want to take, and until I admitted I didn’t like the idea of failure, one I wouldn’t have cared if I passed or failed if my paycheck hadn’t depended on it.
So, what did I learn? One of the happiest moments of my life, led to many of the most difficult, painful and disappointing. Was I wrong in thinking I was happy at that moment? Was I merely just satisfied I had achieved a standard set by someone else—someone I didn’t even know, not really a person at all, but a global corporation? Was it possible that, in part, my perceived joy on that day was attributed to the fact that, with this credential, I could fit in?
I could be like everyone else—even if I didn’t want to be.
And that’s what I did. I spent all of my twenties pursuing a career I hated, because a test told me I was “good enough” to fit into this little box that society had created. After all, I grew up in Montana, went to state school and didn’t really give a shit about designer handbags. I wasn’t an artist, I wasn’t a scientist and you’d have to break both my arms and legs before you’d convince me to go to business school (all that math, you know). How the hell could I ever expect this society to take me in? Where did I fit?
I didn’t, and I knew it—I was going to have to fake it, and this test was my golden ticket. And in that moment, after passing that terrible test, that childish part of me that still seeks the approval of my elders and friends, reveled in the proof that I was one of them.
That was the beginning of a very slippery slope. Rather than appreciating what was unique about me, I patted myself on the back for forcing myself to conform to a standard I knew didn’t apply to me, yet I strived for just the same.
On this happiest day, I celebrated the death of my creativity and curiosity, and welcomed what would turn into over a decade chasing an ideal that didn’t exist for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever catch up to this thing called happiness, but I do know that what satisfies me in life is not dependent upon it. I’ve considered this before, and after this exercise, I’m even more convinced. For me, what I get out of life isn’t about happiness, it’s about truth.
The instant I discarded what I knew to be true, and embraced what society seemed to value, I lost sight of what was true to me. Yes, that moment when I passed the test was a beautiful high—but like most highs, it didn’t last, and what I was left with was the hollow shell of an idea I didn’t truly believe.
I started out this post, expecting to tell you how we’re all capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for, and that if someone who cringes when calculating the tip after dinner can pass the Series 7, the world is your oyster.
But I’m ending it with the conclusion that happiness can be a dangerous distraction—it certainly was in my case. Where would I be if I had failed that test? My fear of rejection still tempts me to believe my life would’ve been ruined, and that despite all the years of misery I suffered as a result of my “success”, it was just one of the many bumps in the road we’re all told we have to endure to get us where we really want to go. Obviously, there’s some truth in that, since, I am here, writing this now, but….
What if I’d failed, and been forced to take a different path? What if I’d listened to what I knew was true for me then, and as it turns out, still is now? How long would it have taken me to discover my love for writing, literature, travel, the ocean? Would I be traveling the world, writing beautiful stories about far-off places and people? Would I have found love, would I be healthy, would I have ever stopped loving the person I saw in the mirror every morning?
What if, what if, what if.
That’s the lesson happiness has taught me, and I’ll never trust that feeling again.
I couldn’t be happier.