Asymptotes of success
Dane Sherman | Wednesday, April 12, 2023
He sat in a full suit on the number 4 train lost in the tiny world of emails. His hair was perfectly quaffed. His energy radiated confidence.
As soon as I sat next to him, I realized a similarity we had: WE HAD THE SAME COSTCO GLASSES! I cracked a joke about our glasses matching and he seemed to retreat into his turtle shell, probably wondering why on earth this rando was talking to him about his glasses.
Pushing the envelope, I cracked a joke about how he must be much cooler because mine were transition lenses, a purchase I had been conned into by the Costco sales lady, a purchase which, unbeknownst to me, relegated me to a class of nerdiness beyond comprehension, a purchase that has caused a full-court press of mockery by my friends.
He seemed a little more sure of himself after the joke but didn’t seem to take the bait for a conversation. Assuming my invisibility in the sea of people, I jumped into my newspaper app and read about the random controversies of the day.
He looked over my shoulder, commenting at random intervals things like “That’s a biased piece” or “It’s not a bailout,” which led to a giant argument about the Silicon Valley Bank collapse and what we thought was the best way to address it.
Eventually, the contention led to our own stories. I came to find out that he worked and lived in the financial district, and thus makes boatloads of money. Originally from the South, he had come to New York in search of jobs in finance. Eventually, I learned his name (Adam) and his story.
Adam seemed to have his life together in a million more ways than I ever will. Power, money, prestige and influence seemed to ooze out of every single one of his pores. However, throughout our conversation, his initial air of confidence revealed a deep yearning. Just below the surface (see “perfectly quaffed hair”), he felt like he was just missing the mark.
Stacey Abrams, after losing the governor’s race in 2018, described her life and work as “asymptotic success,” where she continually gets closer to her desired outcome yet its achievement remains just barely out of reach.
An asymptote is a concept that most of us encounter in a high school precalculus class. It’s a curve that comes oh-so-close to the line. It’s infinitesimally close, but never actually crosses the line. Always a slight bit closer, yet still so far away.
Abrams described “that’s sometimes how [she] feel[s her] life has gone — that [she] come[s] incredibly close to these things, but that barrier has yet to be crossed. I have understood for a long time that my trajectory was always going to be asymptotic, but my mission is to break the plane.”
“Asymptotic success” can broadly apply because, to a certain extent, we all have points in our life where we feel we can’t quite hit that line. Our journeys are dogged by asymptotes — academic goals, career goals, friendships, potential relationships, faith, health/fitness or any litany of other things — where we keep getting ever so close to “success” yet keep falling infinitesimally short.
One of my professors told me of their journey in attempting to get tenure-track positions, but they just barely miss them. My cousin describes her anxieties about not being married by the time she turns 30 as a goal that continually brushed her fingertips. One of my best friends describes how whenever they get close to people, she feels like they leave her. In this case, long-term deep relationships are an asymptote. My asymptotic anxiety often revolves around a feeling like I get to the finalist stages of competitive processes and just fall a couple of inches, hairs or feathers short.
This is a chronically privileged point of anxiety to a certain extent. To many on the outside, I seemed to have blazed past asymptotes or points of success. I earned a scholarship to one of the most intense academic universities in the world, participate in relationships that I care about so dearly and am working towards a life full of joy, purpose and meaning (even if I’m not exactly sure what that journey will look like).
That’s how I felt talking to Adam. He seemed to feel on the edge but always a little distant. He was almost valedictorian of his university but fell an A- short. He proposed to his long-term girlfriend but they broke up before the wedding. He was almost the youngest partner at his firm but COVID delayed the process by three years.
I felt a kinship to Adam, a kinship marked by just missing the mark. This year I have been embroiled in applying for the Truman Scholarship, a “prestigious” award for those interested in public service. I went through an intense internal process, where dozens applied for the four nominations. I then made it through the more than 700 institutionally endorsed applicants to be one of the 200 finalists. I flew all the way to Seattle for an interview, falling just barely short.
I have often felt my own journey is asymptotic. Senior year of high school, I made it to the finalist stages of similar scholarships to the Truman. Coca-Cola gets 300,000 applicants, and I became one of 250 finalists, just to not be chosen. Bryan Cameron gets 3,000 applicants, and I was one of 80 finalists.
These sorts of things aren’t ends in themselves. They are tools that people can use to make the world a little bit better. They aren’t determinative but can help open doors and get into spaces that I wasn’t born into.
Some might argue that these asymptotes are a matter of perspective. Rather than having a scarcity mindset of being distant from our goals we need to contextualize our “asymptotes” in comparison to others.
I find these explanations unhelpful. Because while in an ecology of the larger world, where our problem may be tiny, our own individual asymptotes feel big to us. Comparing ourselves to others is what gets us in these messes of mindset. It’s not about lowering our dream or aspirations for the world.
Others argue that it’s not the asymptote, but our view of success. David Brooks wrote “The Second Mountain: The Quest for the Moral Life,” which instead defines asymptotes as traps we set for ourselves in believing that there are certain markers of success that we find through external validation. He argues, that once we ascend the first mountain of personal success, we realize there is a second much more meaningful mountain built on community and relationality with one another.
I was talking with a priest, spiritual advisor, friend and mentor the other day. We were discussing my anxieties about waiting on the decision on this process.
He told me, “If we hold ourselves in our deepest identity as beloved children of God the outcome of these things means less.”
My radical queer activist friend, Ranen, who won the Truman Scholarship last year said a similar sentiment, “What matters so much more is who you are and the impact you have on the people around you.”
Asymptotes are individually-focused and significant but incomplete because there is a wider impact. They are potentially life-transforming tools that you can use to make the world and the communities around you better.
In Abrams’ case, while not a complete breaking of the plane, her organizing in many ways flipped the United States Senate for the past two years. And, even with her most recent loss, I doubt she’s done. Are the asymptotes some redemptive force?
I feel like every time I get close to any of my biggest desires, goals or relationships, I seem to get just about as close as I can to not achieving it, and I fall just ever so short. Maybe that’s the fault line of having big dreams, high expectations and overachieving personality: Is reaching eudaimonia a fairy tale best left to my imagination or will I someday cross the line?
I don’t believe it’s about lowering our expectations. I believe, someday, I will cross the plane that someday we can. I brought up this anxiety to one of my professors and they said, “The fact that you get so close means that you’re onto something, just need a little shove, push or luck.”
My professor is cultivating groundbreaking research and changing students’ lives, and yet the marker of security still circumvents them. Adam makes more money in a year than I will probably make in my entire lifetime, and yet the asymptote still evades him. My cousin goes on a bunch of dates, and yet a long-term partner evades her. I’m waiting this month to hear back from a program to see if another asymptote is barely out of reach.
We don’t always break the plane. Sometimes, that’s a gift. Sometimes, it’s not. It’s about how we curve and respond to continually getting so close is something within our destiny in hopes that someday we might cross the plane.
I don’t have a panacea or some seed of hope that I can guarantee will grow into breaking the plane next time. I wish I did. If we’re getting close enough to feel as if there is an asymptote, it means we’re challenging ourselves and it also means our goals are infinitesimally close.
Fortunes can change very quickly. Even Obama’s goals for the presidency were once evasive. In 2000, he was not allowed in the Democratic Convention and spent it in his hotel room. Four years later, he spoke in the keynote address. Four years after the keynote address, he accepted the nomination for president.
To a certain extent, breaking the plane is a matter of luck. If you’re that close to the line, it means you possess the capability to cross it and maybe you just have drawn a bad hand. (Maybe many times!) My dad always tells me that “Luck is where opportunity meets preparation.”
Adam might hit a break next year. My professor might be tenure track in the next few years. My cousin might meet the love of her life next week. I might break the plane next month.
If we don’t, how will we best prepare to try and break the plane next time so that when the opportunity comes and we can get lucky, we do?
Dane Sherman is a junior at Notre Dame studying American Studies, peace studies, philosophy and gender studies. Dane enjoys good company, good books, good food and talking about faith in public life. Outside of The Observer, Dane can be found exploring Erasmus books with friends, researching philosophy, with folks from Prism, reading NYTs op-eds from David Brooks/Ezra Klein/Michelle Goldberg or at the Purple Porch getting some food. Dane ALWAYS wants to chat and can be reached at @danesherm on twitter or [email protected].
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.