The Traps Of Success

By: Caroline Conrad

As the final hours of October faded into November, I kicked my leg out against the floor and rolled my chair closer to the dual monitors where bright pastel lettering flashed across a famous face. The logo of a magazine I’d treated like a theological doctrine all of my adolescence popped up in white letters; the shot lingered for a moment before the screen cut to black.

“We got it, right?”

From the next chair over, the editor looked at me with raised eyebrows and pushed a well-worn baseball hat back up his forehead. I closed my eye and nodded, rolling my head back and cracking my neck.

“Yep. Now we just to fix need the sound.”

He sighed deeply and stood up, heading downstairs for a cigarette. I rolled my chair back a few feet and looked unseeingly at my notes, wondering whether I’d be able to go home for a couple hours before the sun rose, or if I’d be sneaking whatever sleep I got in that chair.

In 2015, I went from working as a part-time production assistant to a full time producer, producing projects from prep to post.

The first week of November, I was working on five projects at once.

The third week of November I had a nervous breakdown.

I couldn’t pretend I didn’t see it coming. At that point, I couldn’t even be bothered to make it look like I was taking care of myself. My roommate bought me granola bars because she knew I wasn’t eating anything else.  I was completely devoted to building my career and proving myself to the people I worked with— I felt personally defined by how many hours I spent in the office or on set, how little I slept or took for myself.

I made a lot of plans and I made no plans.

I wrote out 2-year plans, 5-year plans, 10-years plans for my career— I imagined how the production company I had co-founded would develop, and how I would develop with it. I missed dinners, drinks, birthday parties, vacations. My sister and my roommate independently sat me down to tell me how neglectful I had been over the past few months. As the waves of their disappointment and hurt washed over me, I was forced to admit to myself how disappointed I was as well— in myself, in people I had trusted, in the life I thought I had wanted.

The feelings of empowerment and excitement I got from my work were eventually replaced by the exhaustion and the emotional toll of spending so much time taking care of everything and everyone but myself. As the few boundaries that remained between my personal and professional life fell away, tensions and resentment began to grow in their absence. I was entangling myself too deeply in my work and the lives of my coworkers, but to be so on-call, so in-demand was a high I couldn’t walk away from.

I had spent so many years dreaming of a life like this— it would have been a betrayal to all of my hard work, the sacrifices my parents made and money they spent sending me to an expensive college— but none of those dreams had included panic attacks that kept me up night after sleepless night, sweat-soaked sheets twisted and tangled around my legs, a crushing weight pressing on my chest and choking my breath.

No one ever talks about that side of success.

We watched the progress of the upload bar creep along at a glacial pace, the silence broken only by the gurgling of old pipes overhead and the anxious tap-tap-tap of my heel on the floor.

“Okay, it’s set now. We can leave it and as long as there isn’t a power outage, it’ll be fine on it’s own.”  

The editor and I lived on the same street so we walked home together. The first blush of dawn was just beginning to spread across the Eastern sky as we headed out; the office was lit from behind as we walked out the door and down the sidewalk, still dim with shadow.

“When I was a teenager, I would have died to see my name under hers, you know? I remember her first cover of Teen Vogue. I was obsessed with her; we were the same age. I wanted to be like her— be her.”

The editor snorted and lit a cigarette.

“And now?”

I looked back at the beginnings of sunlight edging the building and groaned as I swung my head down and cracked my neck again.

“Now, I am glad I’m not, but mostly I just want to be in my bed.”

The heat had been steadily rising under the tensions that started simmering in the winter, and after a professional robbery in the spring, everything boiled over into a frothing, burning mess.

By the fall, my company had been dissolved, and my relationship with my former partner nearly went with it.

In the weeks that followed, I wandered through life blinded by feelings of abandonment and listlessness. I felt as though I had poured all of myself into something that had slipped away as easily as if it’d never been there at all, a naive dream I’d awoken from, cold and alone. I was humiliated, disgraced; I couldn’t bear to open my website for weeks because I felt like a failure every time I saw the name of a company that no longer existed. I withdrew from my friends.

I had placed so much importance on who I was professionally, I had all but forgotten I was anyone else. It’s taken me awhile to remember.

I wrote a lot during that time, and I read a lot as well. I remembered how I love to read, how freeing it is to lose yourself in another world, far outside of offices and glossy-paged magazine profiles. I made time for friends I hadn’t seen in far too long. I turned down a job with a designer whose logo used to hang on my closet door so I could spend a weekend in the woods upstate.

I realized I had fallen into a dangerous trend entrapping my generation in a lifelong goose chase for fulfillment— chasing professional success and acclaim at the cost of my own well-being.

I ran into the editor by chance in another production company’s kitchen just a few weeks ago. Neither of us had been back in that office since our last overnight together, and neither of us missed it.

We took our time catching up and we both left before the sun had set that evening.

I’ve learned in the last year that there is a difference between making sacrifices and sacrificing yourself— the first is necessary, the second is martyrdom.


Caroline is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. She was a co-founder of SRSLY, a production company focused on producing for and promoting female filmmakers.