The Reward Isn’t What You Think It Is

Adulthood sucks. Growing up, I got a gold star for a good job, an A– there were incentives to positively reward desired outcomes. And then, you grow up. Your gold star is your salary. More often than not, good deeds go unnoticed. It’s tough and draining, and I know I’m not alone in that feeling. I think its more than we still view rewards the way we did as children– that if I do this thing, I will receive the outcome I want. Things don’t really work that way. We buy ourselves the cookie for a good job. The rewards life doles are are more covert, ones we participate in the observation of.

Youtube introduced me to Dr. Brene Brown in 2012, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Most people who’ve listened to her talks, read her research on vulnerability and tried The Daring Way are just as enamored with her work. Brown’s point is that vulnerability is necessary to human connection and thriving. To be fair, I was a vulnerability junkie before I found Brene. Her work intensified my rapid-fire admissions. My concern with how co-opted the vulnerability narrative has grown since then is that there are all these social media stars spouting “authenticity rhetoric”. Instagram influencers have always kinda rubbed me the wrong way– there’s something paradoxical and untrustworthy for folks who very much present an image to then preach about how their followers should relinquish posturing and performing.

The greater issue I have with the gospel of self-love, self-acceptance, and vulnerability is that it’s frequent presentation now is that if we surrender perfectionism, all these wonderful things will swarm toward us. In inadvertently, the concept is presented as an equation: you minus perfectionism equals a perfect life. That sets everybody up for failure. Life might not change upon embracing vulnerability, but the way we think about things does change. So, it’s messy. Embracing vulnerability may not result in finding love or relishing your body or a job promotion, it just makes us all a little more sane. But that story doesn’t sell. You can’t hawk products and coaching and memberships with a change that seems minimal. The reward to vulnerability isn’t a better life, it’s experiencing the life you have better.

We exist in a fitspo culture where we’re promised a slender body in exchange for strict obedience to diet and exercise. Fatness is often profiled as a character flaw. But the truth is that all bodies are different. Metabolisms change, hormones throw things off all the time, and not every season of life allows for such diligence. These aren’t failures. Moreover, for a lot of people, life in a smaller body means sacrificing their mental health and quality of life. The rewards of physical wellness aren’t always a socially accepted body. Sometimes, it’s better sleep, more energy, the stress relief associated with movement, and that after all these years, you feel appreciation for the skin you’re in.

A lot of thankless things we have are not rewarded, but done to avoid punishment. Pay AT&T to keep the wifi on. Pay the electric bill and gas so there’s light and hot water. It feels like a pain, but all of these things make it easier to live. They facilitate a life of convenience.

You don’t get a cookie for being a good person. Frankly, we should treat each other well. Life is brutal, and everyone bears things they remain silent about. There’s significant disappointment when I go out of my way to be kind to another person and it isn’t reciprocated. I get pissed, indignant that I bothered to be good rather than just looking out for myself. The reality is that I’m defined by that reaction. A gift is given freely, and if I expected a reward, I need to check my motives. Ignoring the act reflects the other person. It isn’t evidence that I should stop going out of my way for people (but not at the expense of my own wellness). We can all be the reason someone has a better day. Hold the door open. Talk to a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. Let someone cut in front of you in traffic. Positivity matters. Kindness is always useful. The reward isn’t a cookie, but with everything going on in the world, it feels good to make it a little less shitty.

There is a sunny flip-side to adulthood disenchantment: the consequences aren’t always what we thought they’d me. Most people aren’t going to flee from you when you’re vulnerable. They aren’t going to hold it over your head because they’re probably pretty busy carrying the weight of their own struggles. I’m convinced that every time I gain weight, the world will end. I will be unlovable and undatable and a moving eyesore. In reality, none of that ever happens. I just wear stretchier pants. On a rough day when I’m Queen of Hearts around everyone, I’m forgiven right after I apologize.

A mentor once told me, “most things are fixable”. I think about that a lot. The ancestor of the social influencers are advisers: Suzie Orman, Dr. Oz, Dan Ramsay, etc. Each of them preached about how our financial habits and health habits and everything else we do is killing us– but we can fix it if we purchase their book or watch their show. There’s merit to prudence, frugality, healthy habits– I’m not saying there’s not. Obviously, you cannot mend with the same habits that broke. I’m just saying that it’s not a failure to fumble. I’m saying that most of it is fixable.

Adult rewards are like the quest of Where’s Waldo. We hungrily seek a cookie, a gold star, a pat on the back– scouring through scarcity for some acknowledgement. But, like Waldo, the rewards aren’t in plain sight. They don’t look the way we thought they would. Then, we find him! We realize the rewards are there: unassuming, glamorous, but fulfilling. We are proud. The prizes are still there, we just have to look a little harder and differently.

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