The Achievement Fallacy
Note to my college self: What I wish I knew then that I know now
College is back in full swing — a fact not lost on the city of Boston. The energy from the new inhabitants is palpable here (and the congestion, too).
“Back to school” still holds a very special place in my heart. Like many, the changing of the seasons — especially fall — carries with it significant sentimental value. Maybe that’s why #fall is a thing: it’s a season jam-packed with emotional triggers and stuffed with reminders of life-defining rituals. A fresh start (for those still living on the “school year” calendar, like me). Football season. A time to plan, get organized, and get involved — after a summer of self indulgence, weekend trips, and a “zero obligations” policy.
When fall is in the air, it’s impossible not to reflect on college days. After the memories of fun, challenges, and the limitless zeal (and naïveté) of 18-year-old me flood past, I circle back to goals I set for myself at that time: What did I want for my life then? My career? What inspired me — and does it still move me now?
Most importantly, my mind takes me to that inevitable place: What have I accomplished? Does it meet or exceed my expectations? Did I live up to my potential?
Ever since I can remember — and distinctly tied to academics — self worth has been inextricably tied to achievement. From grade school onward, I was programmed to believe that if I did well in school and minded my Ps and Qs (what does that even MEAN?), I’d be amply rewarded in “the real world.” Sound familiar to anyone? Perhaps it was a symptom of our Baby Boomer parents wanting us to make a life for ourselves: to give us more than they had, in some cases— or, to continue the stability they had come to enjoy in that era.
Whatever the cause, school became synonymous with identity. Doing well meant all was right with the universe … and doing poorly meant the world was coming to an end. Part of that may have been attributable to maturity, but more than anything it was driven by the inherent desire to achieve.
After graduation, those “achievers” (as we’ll call the cohort of folks who can relate to this sentiment) tied their goals from academia onto corporate success: setting our sights on world domination. If achievement = identity, where else could we turn? A singular mission was on the horizon — with all eyes on the prize.
After some years of “drinking the Kool-aid” (aka many, many glasses of wine with friends), I’ve got to say it: it’s a hoax.
Yes, it’s a tough pill to swallow. But admitting it is the first step to recovery. And I feel compelled to share this tidbit of knowledge (wisdom of “growing up,” so to speak) with those heading to college in full force. Repeat after me: achievement is not the only way to find value in life’s pursuits.
What does achievement even mean?
In our society, what starts as good grades, the right school, and a chocked-full extra-curricular calendar turns into a “race to the finish” in a corporate setting. Except the “finish line” evades us as we sacrifice a well-balanced life for an often-thankless, regularly-overworked contest for promotions, praise, and validation in the workforce.
Add to this the phenomenon of non-stop social comparison, and we’ve spelled out a recipe for disaster before we’ve even begun to really fight the good fight.
Arguably, the biggest struggle of my twenties has been carving out a space for self discovery separate from my job title. Don’t get me wrong, a meaningful career is important, but increasingly becomes only part of the equation as the fervor to “prove myself” wears off and I settle into things on the other side. Because, Millennials, we work too hard — just to show others that we aren’t, in fact, lazy. #hustle is glorified, until we hit the verge of breakdown. We go to extremes, and we allow ourselves no slack. Demanding more, more, more, while running on less and less. But if we allow achievement to no longer be “the thing” that defines us, what can fill in the extra space?
More time for friendships. Family. Community cultivation. Civic engagement. Things to excel at that do more for your soul than just look good on a resume.
Some days, it can simply mean finding space to escape the chains of emotional and mental fatigue.
Because burnout is real — for Millennial women, in particular. And I want you to avoid it by all means necessary: in college and in the “real world” thereafter. Run like hell from that cliff looking out on burnout — it’s a nasty fall.
Equip yourselves with new ways of processing identity and worth. Set up boundaries and outline thresholds that hold meaning for you personally to assign them value. Grab a notebook. Write them down. Commit them to memory.
The very act of “dethroning” achievement as the number one-ranked spot of #goals stirs self awareness and redirects attention to other interests and activities: ones that prioritize discovery, allow for non-linear career paths, and invite risk taking. It’s a step toward living in the present — and saying “no” to anxiety-inducing self doubt that creeps in if the pursuit of achievement continues to be “the thing” that marks a life well lived.
“Success” is not a zero-sum game.
Success is what you define it to be. And when milestones achieved become secondary to the process of trying and exerting effort and learning as you go, your goals — and mindset — can shift, too. Less pressure, greater gain. More room for error.
Find opportunities that excite you. Ask yourself — routinely — why you’re pursuing what you are going after. Recognize talents and strengths; cultivate them wholeheartedly, inside the workplace and outside of its confines.
Don’t fall into the trap that careers must continue to move on a steep, upward trajectory to be meaningful; find the right people and projects that motivate you — and when you don’t immediately find them, count your small wins along the way.
When we change the narrative at the onset of college, we can alter the ways that young adults shape their reality. Hopefully that looks like a healthier relationship with achievement than what I’ve grappled with to-date.
This note is as much a call to my peers as it is a cautionary tale for collegians. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got (lots of) debt, bills to pay, and a have a slightly revised — if not altogether cynical — view of the world and its potential for you now than what you thought to be true in your college days. That’s good: it means you’re evolving, as messy as things may seem. But it’s never too late to re-evaluate the here-now: redefine your goals, hang your “identity” hat on new criteria, and pursue new channels for meaning and satisfaction.
Maybe I’m preaching to the choir, but at least I’m in good company. For healthier, happier, and more self-aware “adulting” — I suggest you heed my advice. I know I learned it the hard way.