Soon, I found myself keeping score. About to graduate, aimless, preparing for joblessness and possessing a degree worth about as much as the paper it was printed on, I realized — belatedly — that I wasn’t exactly a modern guarantee of potential.
I started searching for something tangible, something worthwhile to get me through my remaining months at school. As a college basketball obsessant, it’s no surprise that the end of the NCAA Tournament had something to do with it. With the games over, I felt a sense of emptiness. During the Tournament, a one-too-many-beers promise to follow a favorite team had suddenly turned into a road trip. (Dude, we’re going to Phoenix!) I had goals and aspirations and dreams. Most importantly, I had more games to watch.
But the Tournament ended, my team lost, Phoenix turned out to be a hell of a drive — who knew? — and I was facing the unthinkable: graduation. So it came to be that out of a month of non-stop basketball watching, I started keeping score.
It was innocent enough at first. I decided that I’d make up goals to distract me from my life as a writer of failed cover letters. These daily goals were my way of staying sane, of finding blips of success hidden amongst routine.
I started with a small one: every day, make someone laugh really hard. I wasn’t going to make milk come out anyone’s nose — you’d be surprised how rarely one sees college students consuming milk in public — but I could try. Do it once a day, and I could enjoy the scoreboard at the end of the night: Dan 1, Failure 0.
I liked coming out on the winning end so much that I added more categories to my day. The points started trending upwards, the scoreboard spinning like an odometer on a cross-country trip (to, please God, anywhere other than Phoenix). Being thankful for little things wasn’t hard; I could rack up a dozen points a day doing that. Being punctual was even easier. Soon, I was running up the score. 5-0, 10-0, 20-0.
It only got worse from there. I had started out seeking moral victories and joy in day-to-day moments, but the high from those little wins faded faster with each day. I craved even bigger wins.
In one day, I decided to start being more spontaneous and to start speaking Spanish more often. But I abused the system. Getting a haircut at a barbershop run by Spanish-speakers and discussing mullets fit both requirements. Or: Look! I’m ordering a chalupa without sour cream!
I decided to stop skipping breakfast, and I was earning easy points there, until I decided that I wanted to start sleeping later, which meant that I wasn’t waking up early to eat breakfast anymore. But the scoreboard took no notice. I’d only ever created one rule: complete the category and earn the point. There was no penalty for breaking the rules, because there really weren’t any rules.
The points piled on. I had created my own metrics for success, and by my own best standards, I’d become wildly successful.
With so many paths to success, I’d guaranteed myself blowout victories with each new day. I’d been giving myself points for reading books, for creating esoteric theories, for watching new movies, for blogging, for napping — all at odds! — but the scores kept going up, and it didn’t matter how hollow my victories had become. I found myself saying odd things in the morning, like, “Right here, in this moment, this is where the day will be won.” When had I started talking like a member of the Roundtable? When had I become obsessed with winning?
Then graduation came closer — first weeks away, then days, then looking back as I crossed the dais — and I wasn’t any closer to getting a job. But I’d still been finishing my day completely convinced that I’d spent it well. I was a success, but only in a world in which I controlled the definition of success.
A few weeks after graduation, I was lucky enough to take a job that I actually wanted. Everyone wanted to know: how much money would I be making? In a world where success can’t be easily measured, salary seems like the simplest way to understand value. But I’m not sure that’s what really constitutes success.
I’d like to think my daily scorekeeping — at least my initial efforts — came close to defining two key measures of success: chasing ambition and building a better community (one in which, I’d hope, success can be further nurtured). But I’ve started to realize that we can’t attach a number to success, and we probably shouldn’t try to.
So I’ve stopped keeping score. When I make a friend laugh, I’m not declaring it a personal victory. Happiness isn’t tied to some internalized competition. I’m not winning, but I feel sane.
Though part of me still thinks that I’d need a scoreboard to know for sure.