In a society as competitive as ours, there’s a tendency to define ourselves through our accomplishments. Further, for many people, their sense of self-worth comes from the sum of their accomplishments. So far, so good. We should feel our self-esteem rise and become solidified by dint of our achievements. But for some people, the need to achieve becomes warped. Their sense of achievement becomes more about racking up a score rather than building our potentials or exercising our gifts. These people become ensnared in a pattern of pursuing credentials or achievements for their own sakes, or as a way of assuring themselves and others that they are superior people, more important than others. In their minds, their accomplishments become proof of their ultimate worth. They make a mistake that Einstein referenced when he admonished that we should, “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” In this article we’ll consider what happens when the need to achieve becomes pursued as an end to itself. Trying to do your best is different than having to be the best. The compulsive drive to achieve can have a dark side. We’ll also consider the price of that compulsion and describe the steps for developing a healthy balance between satisfaction and achievement.
Human Motives Are Complex:
The drive for achievement can cause us to lose sight of the fact that people normally operate in a state of multiple motives, often simultaneously. To feel satisfied, to live fully, a person has to satisfy those multiple drives. When we focus on high achievement in one area only, we do so at the cost of other needs. Over time this focus can lead to feelings of unhappiness, depression, and a sense of emptiness. You feel incomplete because you are. You’ve only take care of a small part of your self. Striving to be the best at something is like running a race without a finish line.
Even Olympic champions are only the “best” among those who have competed, not everyone in the world; only the “best” at this time and for a moment which is fleeting. When the sacrifices for that momentary achievement are too high, I refer to that condition as Pyrrhic achievement. Pyrrhic achievement is an extrapolation of the term Pyrrhic victory. Briefly, Pyrrhus was a Carthaginian general who attacked Rome with a powerful force. The Roman strategy was to wear him down through a war of attrition. In the end, the Romans let him win many battles while expending his troops and supplies. The end result was that while Pyrrhus won many battles he ultimately lost the war. The individual victories ultimately cost him his ability to win the war. Pyrrhic achievements would be those for which people expended or misdirect their personal resources far beyond the worth of those achievements to the well-being of the achiever.
Think of those Olympic athletes who have spent their childhoods chasing that medal and missing so many other experiences that are necessary to become a well rounded human being. Closer to home, watch some parents or coaches batter the egos of young competitors while “driving them” to be the best at a neighborhood contest or a scholastic competition. The overall value of any achievement has to be measured against the price extracted for that achievement.
Achievement versus Contentment:
Have you ever wondered, “Where’s the balance between achieving and satisfaction?” How does it work for you? What do you do when you have achieved a long pursued goal? For many people, the achievement of one goal leads to a quick substitution of another, different goal. We live in a society that values competition and achievement. We don’t live in a society that places a premium of stepping back and savoring what you have achieved. We seldom take time to stop and appreciate what we do accomplish.
Our culture celebrates celebrity. Fame and adulation are given to a never ending stream of people and they are paraded before us in print and on the screen. Nobody gives more than lip-service to anyone who comes in second. People are praised for a skill in one area, but we seldom take the time to consider them as whole people. We focus on their triumphs but much less so on the years of effort and sacrifice that lead to their moment in the sun. On the other side of the coin, people fade from the spotlight with little mention. Have you ever thought about the effect on you from being bombarded with such hype?
There are messages to the rest of us that are both blatant and subtle. You’re nobody if you aren’t number one. The media has become our societal storytellers. In ways both obvious and subtle, they define and disseminate our shared values. They tell you what’s important. You have to be the best or your efforts just aren’t worth a mention. With so much media attention paid to the exceptional there is little light shed upon everyday people leading lives of value and quiet sacrifice. Perhaps most damaging is the feeling that everyone is exceptional expect for you. Media tells you that they focus on winners and by definition, you must be a loser. In the search for ratings the media focuses on the dramatic, often on those who win in high risk, high reward gambles. It seldom focuses on the often heroic, though non-dramatic, efforts of everyday people struggling to overcome obstacles or sacrificing to take care of others in need.
The Dysfunctional Drive to Achieve:
There is a danger inherent in pursuing achievement for its own sake. For many, achievement is a never-ending journey rather than a destination. If this is the case for you, it is a recipe for unhappiness and dissatisfaction. What happens to the satisfaction of goals achieved when we fall short of the next goal? When achievement is the goal in and of itself, you have set up a no win situation. The antidote for the feelings of emptiness and depression that follows the never-ending pursuit of the next goal lies in purpose driven achievement. I’ve known people who have the habit of diminishing any goal that they have achieved and focusing only on the next goal. The question is, “when is enough, enough?” I’ve worked with people for whom attaining a Ph.D. is seen as not good enough. I’ve worked with CEOs, who are unhappy that the company isn’t big enough, not growing enough, or not performing up to someone else’s expectations. It isn’t that you should be complacent, but rather you should put current frustrations into perspective. There is an old saying that, “Happiness isn’t getting what you want, it’s wanting what you have.” How does that wisdom resonate in your view of yourself?
Some Warning Signs of Dysfunctional Achievement:
Some of these thought patterns may be familiar to you. Whether any particular drive for achievement may or may not be constructive usually depends upon the thought context in which it occurs. How you interpret your efforts and feel about the outcomes will let you know when it’s time to step back and reconsider what you are doing. The following list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but will give you a framework for identifying unhealthy thinking.
Once you’ve accomplished a goal, do you tend to minimize or devalue it? In your mind, over time, do you tend to treat it as no big deal? Are past achievements treated as just something that was expected, while the next goal is seen as much more valuable? While setting new goals is natural, and while we tend to look ahead, never appreciating yourself for what you have achieved is not healthy.
Life is not a race. It is an evolving journey. Do you tend to compete against some internal clock and diminish what you accomplish if you feel that it may have taken too long for you to reach the goal? Without appreciating your circumstances or where you were when you began the pursuit of your goal, do you compare yourself to others and compare their progress with yours. I recently worked with a young man who had completed his advanced professional degree, finished his qualifying work quite successfully, started a profitable professional practice where he was seen as quite adept, but he gave himself grief because all of this took him until he was 30. He felt that he should have gotten there faster. “The man who started FaceBook was in middle school 10 years ago,” he told me, as if that proved that he was somehow lacking.
Is your criterion for success based on internal or external criteria? Obama is a young man to be president of the United States. Mozart published his first works as a child. Mick Jagger was an adolescent when the Rolling Stones formed their band. What does any of that have to do with the worth of your achievements to you? For some people other peoples’ achievements are a constant pebble in their mental shoe. You don’t have their circumstances. You don’t know their abilities or their sacrifices. You only have your own circumstances within which you have had to work to reach your goals. Judging your progress by looking superficially at others is a set up for lingering disappointment.
Have you pursued an avenue of achievement at the cost of inadequate performance in other areas of life? Sooner or later people who do that experience the price they’ve paid as very dear. It’s easy then to look at the success of other people in those other areas and feel that your work has been inadequate. Contentment lies in balance. It doesn’t have to be a perfect balance, but to forsake all else to single mindedly pursue achievement in one sphere of activity eventually becomes a source of major dissatisfaction for people trying to live the rest of their lives.
Have you eschewed celebration and the happy recognition of an achievement because you were on to other things? Psychologically those celebrations serve to mark a passage. They serve to help us redefine ourselves as more than what we had been when we started the pursuit of our goal. The struggle and the journey toward achievement have changed us in the process. The knowledge we’ve gained, the experiences we have accumulated affect who we are now and how we are differently equipped to move forward. Moments of celebration and reflection provide opportunities to pause and recalibrate or self image. Leaving those experiences and the lessons learned unarticulated and unrecognized can result in reduced benefits from the work we’ve already done. This does not serve you well as a person trying to be your best self.
A mindset for happiness:
There are things that you can do to avoid the trap of Pyrrhic achievement. Listed below are several steps that you can take to get the full psychological benefits that you have earned through your achievements.
First and foremost, take stock of where you are today and identify the goals you feel will make you content. Repeating the old adage, “Happiness isn’t getting what you want; it lies in wanting what you have.” List the areas of life that are important to you. Financial goals, relationship goals, competency or knowledge goals, intimacy goals and the like are all possible items on the list. Safety, security, freedom from undue anxiety, companionship and actualization are key areas of human need. However, you are the only true arbiter of what will make you content in your life. Too often people pursue what they think they should pursue rather than leveling with themselves regarding what dreams and aspirations lay within their hearts.
A fundamental plank in that assessment is to identify and embrace a purpose for their lives. I know that people have puzzled forever as to the meaning of life. I’m not suggesting that you wrestle with that conundrum. Rather, I’m suggesting that you pick a purpose for your life that suits your soul and creates the context for which you can feel that your life has been well lived. Such a purpose tends to be something outside of yourself, something greater than you. But in dedicating yourself to such a purpose you will feel good about how you have spent your life force.
Find a strong, perceptive mentor. Someone who you feel sees your potential. Use that mentor as a sounding board, someone to help you gain perspective when evaluating your choices as well as your aspirations. It can be a friend, a lover, or a seasoned professional whom you admire. It may be all of those people at different times. You will find it helpful to share the perspectives and insights of people who care for you and about you.
Encourage yourself by measuring yourself today against yourself of yesterday. If you are dissatisfied with your progress use that dissatisfaction not to berate yourself, but to learn what else you need to know. Be a mentor to yourself as opposed to adopting the voice of a harsh critic.
Always choose your next goal wisely. Weigh it against your purpose. Survey it against the full range of your needs. Goals need to be adjusted as time passes and other needs arise. Sometimes, yesterday’s goal is no longer attractive, worth the cost, or able to give you what you thought it would when you started. Give yourself permission to alter your goals without labeling yourself a failure. Sometimes changing a goal is a sign of wisdom. Letting go of a dysfunctional goal can be a great success.
Celebrate your achievements. Be humble, but recognize that what we take from all of our experiences shapes who we are, and the tools we have for moving forward in life. Make it a point to enjoy and value what you have accomplished. Savor hard won progress. Respect what is good about you.
The drive to achieve can be either healthy or destructive based upon the life circumstances within which it is embedded. A Pyrrhic achievement is one that costs you more than it is worth. Pursuing one goal at the cost of all else is more often a recipe for long-term discontent than it is for happiness. Strive for balance and work to achieve competence in all of the areas of life that are important to you and your purpose. Strive, above all else for contentment. If you will achieve that goal you will find that it is enough.
© 2010 – 2015, Daniel D. Elash, PhD. All rights reserved.