I have a problem that I’ve struggle with for years: I often feel that I’m only as good as what I accomplish.
Essentially, my “worth” as a person is tied up with what I do. What I produce. How many times I win.
“You’re only as good as your last gig, and your last gig sucked.” – Guitar Hero III loading screen message
I don’t know of an existing term for this issue, so I’ve coined my own: achievement addiction. I know I’m not alone in battling achievement addiction; lots of other people deal with it, and I suspect you might be one of them.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being motivated and driven. It’s completely ok to want to do lots of awesome things – normally, it’s an advantage. However, this ambition becomes a problem when we can’t separate ourselves from what we do. When we tie up our personal worth with external accomplishments, we’ll always end up dissatisfied.
In today’s post, I’m going to explore the root of this problem, as well as what you can do to break free of the cycle of achievement addiction.
If you’re a recovering achievement addict (or feel like you’re in danger of becoming one), then this post is for you. And don’t worry: the road to recovery has far fewer than twelve steps. 🙂
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Why We Equate Accomplishments with Personal Worth
Before we can get over achievement addiction, we first need to understand what causes it. The specific causes depend on the person, but I’ve identified a few that I think apply to most people, including:
- School (grades, tests, prizes, etc.)
- The “visible accomplishment” culture of the Internet
- Using the wrong metrics to evaluate success
How much each area contributes the the problem varies, but I suspect that all play a part. In my life, I’ve observed all three factors.
Let’s address each in turn.
School: A Culture of Assessment
Disclaimer: I can’t speak for all schools everywhere. Most of what I’m about to say applies to most modern, conventional schools; it’s certainly true of most in America.
Achievement addiction begins in childhood. From the first year of school, we encounter a focus on achievement, on production of “results.” In theory, this is positive. Children in particular need specific, pressing motivation, as they’re unlikely to have intrinsic motivation at first.
Consequently, most schools place a lot of emphasis on grades, on numerical rankings of children by intellectual ability. This also arises from an attempt by schools to quantify teacher and student performance, since objective metrics look great on paper and are much easier to show as a justification for increasing or cutting funding to a particular school.
Again, numerical measures aren’t inherently bad. It’s difficult to improve what you can’t measure. The problem is that numerical measures of children’s ability aren’t absolute. Early on, we learn that our grades are in fact relative, that we can use them to compare our performance to our fellow classmates’. As such, it’s easy to develop the mindset that the higher our grades are, the more we matter as people.
Many schools attempt to counter this mindset by teaching about the importance of self-esteem and self-love, but the overall message is confusing when most schools simultaneously put so much emphasis on grades and test scores.
Crucially, these scores are usually tied to a very narrow measure of intelligence (mathematical and verbal reasoning primarily), often neglecting other areas such as artistic or emotional intelligence.
Incentives that some parents and teachers use also exacerbate the problem. If your parents reward high grades with a new bike and punish poor grades with no TV, the message they’re sending is that you’re only as good as what you accomplish…and only what you accomplish as judged according to a narrow form of assessment.
This only worsens when you enter high school. You encounter yet more standardized assessment in the form of the ACT, SAT, and AP exams (A-levels and GCSEs for our friends across the pond). Your scores on these exams (plus the grades in your classes) affect where (or in some cases if) you can get into college. All through this process, your school continues to rank students according to these measures.
The goal of such systems, of course, is not to say that students with a higher rank are somehow “better” than their peers of a lower one. But it’s easy to feel that way when rankings are celebrated in the form of commendations such as valedictorian/salutatorian, honor roll, and the like.
By the time you enter college, it’s easy to carry this mindset with you. College tends to value grades a bit less, but honor societies and GPAs still exist. The claims about the effect of your grades on your future also continue, with warnings that you’ll never get a great job without a perfect GPA (check out this post for some thoughts on why that isn’t true).
In sum, with the way the school system is structured, it’s easy to see why we end up feeling that we’re only as good as what we achieve.
The Internet: An Achievement Addiction Machine
If school is the first source of achievement addiction, the Internet is the place that reinforces it. The language of social networking sites revolves around approval or disapproval. Likes, shares, upvotes, and favorites all combine to form a collective evaluation of everything we put on the Internet.
Because everything is rated, the impulse is then to filter and curate everything that you put online, to craft an image of yourself as someone who goes cool places, does cool things, and eats beautiful food. Collectively, this is known as “image crafting.”
Inherently, there’s nothing wrong with being able to like or upvote things. It’s an easy shorthand for expressing empathy or conveying the joy that something brings us. The problem comes when we associate those online achievement markers with our real-life worth. We become, in sum, only as good as the number of friends, followers, and likes we have online.
And if you’re creating things and putting them on the Internet, it can be even worse. Instead of evaluating your writing, artwork, song, or video by the amount of effort you put into it and your own artistic taste, you can easily fall into the trap of judging it only by its online approval.
Worse still, you fixate on the one trolling commenter and ignore the dozens of positive comments. You gloss over the one thousand likes and fixate on the one dislike.
The Internet provides a powerful, addictive feedback loop of novelty and approval. At no other time in history could you see (in real time, no less) the approval and disapproval of hundreds of thousands of strangers. We weren’t built to handle this, yet we can’t look away.
From a biological perspective, an organism’s “success” comes down to just one thing: passing on its genes. To accomplish this, a few other factors such as adequate nutrients, safety, and overall healthy are usually necessary. At the most basic level, these are the only indicators of success that matter.
In prehistoric times (as far as we know), these were much the same needs that humans had. Satisfy all of them, and you were by any reasonable standard living a “successful” life.
For many people in the modern world, however, “success” is much murkier. Most of us have enough resources to survive and pass on our genes, so how are we supposed to measure success? With this confusion, it’s easy to turn to things such as money earned, possessions acquired, and “impressive things accomplished.”
The specific accomplishments vary from person to person, but they tend to be extrinsic, visible, public, and easily quantifiable. This makes sense. After all, it’s easy to evaluate your success by winning a prestigious award or receiving a raise in pay. These are things that you can point to and say, “Look, I did something.”
In contrast, it’s much harder to point to things such as personal growth, improved relationships with friends and family, or increased life satisfaction. These are intangible and hard to quantify.
No wonder, then, that we get so wrapped up in outward accomplishments, for they are the things that we can easily check off a list and chart on a graph.
The Achievement Tracking Trap
“You could always make more money, win more awards, publish more books, or get a marginally higher score on an exam.”
I’m not opposed to quantifying goals or tracking numbers. In areas where you need to clearly measure progress, they are invaluable. For any goals related to skills or business growth, for instance, I always use objective metrics.
Outside of those areas, however, quantitative measures are a recipe for dissatisfaction. You could always make more money, win more awards, publish more books, or get a marginally higher score on an exam. If these are the way you measure the worth of your life, then nothing will ever be enough.
Furthermore, chasing extrinsic success becomes particularly foolish when you take a longer view of history. Odds are, most people won’t remember you one hundred years from now. In general, the further back you go in history, the fewer people from a given era are remembered today.
Arguably, this is due in part to the increasing scarcity of written records as you go back, but even accounting for that, consider how many people from one hundred years ago are household names today.
Now go back two hundred, three hundred, five hundred, one thousand, two thousand, five. How many names have made it to the present? Compared to the estimated 107,602,707,791 (that’s approximately 108 billion) people who have ever lived, the number still remembered today is infinitesimal.
Could you be one of those people? It’s possible, but it shouldn’t be the goal of your life. Fame is fickle and arbitrary anyway. So stop worrying so much about trying to “make your mark on history” and take some comfort in the knowledge that you’ll likely be forgotten.
What to Do Instead
Up to this point, this article has been kind of depressing, pointing out all the problems with the way we evaluate our lives. The knowledge that we’ll be forgotten isn’t much of a comfort either, I know.
Luckily, there are other, healthier ways to evaluate our lives. They may be harder to quantify, but if you consider these things, you won’t just feel more satisfied; you’ll also have a clear idea of where to focus your self-improvement efforts.
Here are a few useful ways to evaluate your life:
- How happy you are. Happiness is notoriously difficult to quantify (although some researchers are trying). To make things easier, I prefer to ask not “How happy am I?” but rather, “How unhappy am I?” It’s often much easier to tell when you’re unhappy, since it tends to feel painful and urgent. Obviously, not every moment of your life is going to be happy – focus on how happy you are in general and aim to maximize this.
- The quality of your relationships. I don’t just mean romantic relationships (although those can have a big effect on your happiness). I also mean the relationships with your family, friends, classmates, and coworkers. “Humans are social creatures” is an overused line, but it’s true. A surefire way to be happy is to build meaningful, positive relationships with other people.
- How you give back to the world. When you give, you get a lot more back than you’d imagine. Along with being grateful, being generous is an important ingredient in living a satisfied, happy life. There are many ways to give back. Obvious ways include things like donating money or volunteering, but you can also give back by using the skills and knowledge you have to create things that help others (Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits is a prime example).
- How often you have “whoa” moments. This is a concept borrowed from Tim Urban of Wait But Why. A “whoa” moment is one of those times where you pause to realize just how amazing it is to be alive at all, to marvel at what a privilege it is. “Whoa” moments help you maintain a sense of wonder, which is essential to keeping life from becoming dull or monotonous.
To make it easier to notice the above aspects of your life, I recommend meditation or some similar mindfulness practice. It helps you get out of auto-pilot and evaluate how you feel about your life from moment to moment.
As with any article I write about challenges that we face, I have to be careful not to give the wrong impression. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be ambitious or driven, that you shouldn’t aspire to do amazing things, that you shouldn’t aim to get awesome grades.
Quite the opposite. This site is all about helping you do all of the above. Rather, I’m saying that you should maintain a distinction between success in your work and success as a person. Your work is important, but it’s not your whole life. Failing a test or even a class doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a person. You don’t become more valuable as you gain status symbols such as awards or social media followers.
This stuff is hard. But it’s essential to being satisfied and reducing unnecessary stress. I hope that reading this post has made you realize the importance of separating “who you are” from “what you accomplish,” as well as point you to some alternative ways to evaluate your life.
Have you struggled with achievement addiction? Do you have trouble separating your personal worth from your extrinsic accomplishments? Have any tips for dealing with this issue? I’d love for you to share them in the comments section below or start a discussion in the College Info Geek community.