Achievement Addiction: How to Separate Yourself from Your Accomplishments

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. 🙂

Want to listen to an audio narration of this article? Just click play below:

Additionally, you’ll find this narration included in the College Info Geek Podcast feed. If you haven’t already, you may want to subscribe!

Why We Equate Accomplishments with Personal Worth

arm-wrestle-achievement-addiction

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:

  1. School (grades, tests, prizes, etc.)
  2. The “visible accomplishment” culture of the Internet
  3. 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.

ruler-achievement-addictions

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

apple-watch-achievement-addiction

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.

Mistaken Metrics

graph-achievement-addiction-post

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

stars-image-achievement-addiction

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.

Conclusion

Achievement Addiction: How to Separate Yourself from Your Accomplishments

Here’s a Pinterest-worthy image for sharing this article 🙂

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.

Images: rulerapple watchgraph, stars, stairs, controller

Ransom Patterson is a bibliophile, saxophonist, and senior English major. When he's not enjoying long hikes through the Appalachian wilderness, he's stroking his lush beard and pondering what book to read next. Connect: Twitter | Facebook

Hey there! Please note that some links in the article may be referral links, meaning that if you buy something through them, I'll earn a commission (at no extra cost to you). This helps to support CIG, but please don't buy anything unless you truly believe it'll benefit you! You can learn more here. Thank you :)

Want to Earn Better Grades?

Did you find this article useful?

Over 100,000 awesome students are learning how to dominate their classes, get more done, and land the jobs they want - and you should too.

Join in, and I'll also send you a free copy of my book on earning better grades!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

14 Comments:
  1. This article is very meaningful to me because it describes a huge problem I grew up with but couldn’t tell it was a great source of unhappyness untill a few years ago. I’ve carried it through high school and at university I continue struggling with it. Most of my problems have come from comparing myself to others, including ideal people. When grades or accomplishments said I was “the best” I felt fine and happy about it, but when I don’t reach my perfectionist standards the feeling I still get from time to time is that I’ll never be able to achieve these things that other people did (seemingly) so easily, that I am less valuable than them and thus not worth it. Depressing low self-esteem.

    What I can add now from what I’ve learnt so far is that there’s a big problem with the definition of success. We are wrong in seeing a good grade as success because it doesn’t reflect how much effort you’ve put into something, what obstacles you’ve had to surpass or what random events out of your control affected your performance. We are wrong in seeing an award as success, because the value of your work is the same regardless of how much valuable work other people have done. In general our society appreciates RESULTS (by arbitrary measurements) instead of EFFORT. How in the world does it make sense to judge someone by things that were out of their control? All anyone can do is put their time and energy towards a goal. Not everyone will get the same results from the same effort because of the infinitely many uncontrollable and unknown variables that affect our lives, but, as I see it, their work should be equally appreciated.

    I could digress for hours, but that’s one thought I’d like to share.

  2. Your “whoa moment” point resonated with me — I try to have one of those every day where I look up at the beautiful mountains I live close to, and think about how wondrously large the Earth is, and space is, and how amazing it is that I’m even alive.

  3. This is just excellent. My ever evolving understanding of this is both the reason I dropped out of high school but was still able to become a top academic later on in life (at 31 just completed a Bachelors Degree Cum Laude and have begun an MSc) It is the reason I dedicated years of my life to charity and the reason I have followed a somewhat unconventional path overall. I’m still learning how to achieve total separation, and probably will be until the day I die. A belief I have had for years and although I always tried, I have never been able to express it in a way which does it justice. Thank you for putting it into words and giving it a name.

  4. So what about when this is combined with something like the fear of passing time, and you want to get cracking in order to make the most of what time you have, not knowing whether you could become blind in a few years and end up missing awesome painting ideas or seeing something? At the same time, there has to be the right management with doing family things, and then not burning out from being overwhelmed. Organisation is part of this, but that can feel futile when there is only so much energy you have to continue doing certain activities one after the other.

    (Prioritisation is part of this, but I’m looking to find more tips about keeping oneself psychologically above it all and in a position to prioritise with confidence.)

  5. Great post! It is fitting for my life right now! I often find myself evaluating the current quality and future quality of my life by comparing myself to others and quantifying my accomplishments rather then just being content and grateful for the product of my abilities, which will only be as good as my humanly capacity. Lately, I have not been completing tasks to meet some golden standard and acquire a status, but rather to fulfill my life purposes. This post hits on that as a method of confronting and combating achievement addiction. It was mentioned that evaluating the value of relationships as a method, and having reciprocity in my relationships is one of my life purposes. Will share this post with friends in similar situations!

  6. Thank you for this article, I was able to identify that I suffer mostly from achievement addiction after listening to and reading this article. The sentence “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” definitely got my attention because as a college student I feel like i have to leave my mark on history and do amazing things to have a satisfying life. But your article made me realize that my mindset isn’t the best way to live my life. I can still feel like a worthy person by separating my achievements from me as a person.

    Awesome website, your doing an awesome job, please keep up the good work!

  7. This was a very interesting post, but I have the impression that the problem with achievement addiction often runs deeper. In many high achievers that I know (and I count myself in this group) this addiction is driven by the belief that they are not enough as they are. People with healthy ego and self esteem believe that they are deserving of love and respect by the virtue of simply existing – because everyone deserves love and respect. They are less likely to attach their self worth to achievement because the feeling of self worth is something deeply ingrained in them.

    Many A-type high achievers think that they do not deserve love and respect as they are, and that they need to earn it by achieving something. But since they often also have ridiculously high standards, they never get the sense that they have achieved enough to deserve the love and respect they need. If this is the root of the problem, then there is no easy fix to that. I’ve been struggling with this issue for years, because in my heart of hearts I simply don’t believe that I deserve love and respect by virtue of simply existing. When I heard about this in therapy I felt that the whole idea was frankly ridiculous. So did my high achieving boyfriend when I told him about this concept. So did many of my high achieving friends. Therein lies the problem – if one has no ingrained feeling of one’s fundamental self worth, then one will desperately try to get it through external achievement. And nothing apart from years of therapy can change that.

  8. You have summarized the better part of at least 100 self help books into a few pages with easily understandable key points. I got disgusted with how the corporations I worked for ranked my work by productivity rather than quality of client outcome, and thankfully I was able to retire. Ah, at least you know the truth, I’m sure I’m not the only one who reads and values this blog and wishes their college kids would!

  9. I like it when you read the articles. It let’s me multi-task. I can listen to the podcast while I sanitize my re-cycled paperclips or label my dead batteries “Dead Battery” – before throwing them in the trash. You’re good company. Thanks Thomas.

  10. Thanks for this helpful perspective check.
    After I failed to complete my degree two years ago I’ve always had a sense of failure surrounding my life. Now I’m trying really hard at living a better life & I found the fear of achievement addiction and measuring worth by one’s successes very relatable.

// Read This Next

Goal Inspiration: 10 Epic Bucket Lists You Might Want To Steal From

Want more? Join over 100,000 students and grab my free book on earning better grades  →