Alleviating the Pangs of Chasing Achievement By Embracing The Process of Learning

Achievement And Validation: The Lonely Road To Jealousy, Rumination, and Depression

If you spend your life chasing achievement and validation, your success will be limited and your suffering will be maximized.  This is a pretty simple concept.  The stress involved in searching for achievement and validation blocks creativity.  It is a process that punishes us rather than rewards us for our hard work. 

Achievement and validation are mostly dependent on others, so we see the world as withholding, when we fail to secure them.  We see others as betrayers, when they earn what we seek.  This jealousy and competition prevents us from forming the alliances that actually play a stronger role in our success than our individual efforts.  We are left feeing empty, and start an endless cycle of rumination, questioning how we might achieve that which eludes us. 

Likewise, achievement and validation are poor substitutes for love, which we experience in the suffering that comes from our never-ending quest to attain them.  The longer the quest continues, the more we isolate.  The more we isolate, the more we ruminate, become jealous of others, experience loneliness, and eventually become depressed.  We would probably think differently about chasing achievement and validation, if we knew it was a well-known road to depression.

Replacing the Achievement Path With A Learning Path

Do not despair.  There is a simple solution, and you are going to freak out when you realize that it is going to get you achievement, validation, and love.  The self-compassionate response to our striving is to see life as a process of never-ending learning.  Commit to growing and evolving.  Follow your passions because they inspire and energize you.  Share your passion and your knowledge with others.

Learning and sharing is a way to naturally create alliances, and get recognition for all you have learned without the downside of depending on these achievements to define you.  Your achievements do not define you.  You are already great. 

Why is learning self-compassionate?  Because it has to do with evolving, caring for, and inspiring the self.  It does not depend on others for vindication.  It is a self-supporting practice.  The gift of a practice that does not require the permission or involvement of others is that it frees you up to enjoy the experience at your own pace, and strangely enough inspires others to join you by the lack of pressure that it puts on them.  Also, passion inspires passion.  The love that you risked losing through seeking achievement is now present in the way you engage the process, and liberate others to join you.

Dr. Ross

Dr. Ross was a philosophy professor that I had in college.  His office was lined with awards, and his ashtray was filled with cigarette butts.  The air was stale in this room, the light a blinding fluorescent, and it looked out on to a building that stood parallel to it.  I imagined that this is what a prison cell looked like, but with less coffee and fewer week old protein bars.

Dr. Ross spoke exclusively about his awards, while you were in his office.  He talked about the awards that graced his walls, and those for which he was currently applying.  He did this strange thing, where he would recall where he was when he won each of the awards.  Like you would do if you were alive when Kennedy was shot or in referring to 9/11, except in all of his stories he was in the office.  The only thing that differentiated the stories was whether he was standing, sitting, or lying down.  Yes, I said lying down.  He had a make shift bed under his desk: an old sweatshirt for a pillow, a fleece blanket from the school store, and an old pair of sweatpants that he balled up and kept between his knees because his doctor said it would help with his lower back pain.  Not sleeping on the floor and working long hours might have been better for his lumbar situation, but I digress.

The source of Dr. Ross’s greatest successes also felt like the source of his greatest failures.  In remembering where he was when he received a specific award, he would add a side note of being in the same place when one of his children passed an important milestone or were active in a school activity.  He was there, when he should have been at anniversary celebrations with his wife, and would often have to reschedule.  She was kind, gentle, and magnanimous, and the thought of her suffering hurt his heart.  Meeting her on a couple occasions, my guess is that she knew he cared enough to hurt over his mistakes, and that is what kept them together.

The world came crashing down on Dr. Ross one very cold February morning.  His wife’s mother passed away, and stressed by a deadline for an award, he asked if they would not move the day of her burial.  It was not what you would call intentional narcissism.  He was genuinely anxious about losing his job, which he secretly believed was based on these awards.  He did have a way of presenting in class that left his students feeling depressed and anxious (given his constant pursuit of awards and recognition), so this might not have been far off.  However, his wife was hurt all the same, and asked that Dr. Ross not come home that night.

It is pretty weird to have a professor ask if he can stay at your apartment, but who was I to turn away someone, who had come by suffering naturally.  In those days, I rarely slept, choosing instead to spend as many hours as possible making my case for graduate schools by studying, and applying for scholarship programs.  Unlike Dr. Ross, I spent all of the rest of my time hanging out with or helping friends.

The first night he crashed on my couch he could not sleep either.  He found me on a study break reading a short story my friend Jesse had written.  Albeit being down, he still had the energy to reproach me for being distracted.  He was surprised when I countered with the following: “I am actually not distracted.  I am spending some well needed down time getting to know the work and interests of my friend, Jesse.  His life is as important to me as my own, and so long as I am learning I feel that my life will be fine.”  To say he was shocked would be an understatement.  He wrinkled his brow at me in confusion, as if I had just made a powerful argument about how the world was actually flat.

In an effort to clear things up, he asked me what Jesse thought of all of this.  I reported that he seemed to like it, and in some way it motivated him to read my writing, and help me when he could.  “Ah, so it is transactional!” he said.  “No, I replied.  I don’t read Jesse’s writing to convince him to help me.  I read it because I love him.  I think he loves me too, and that is why he helps.  Don’t get me wrong, the help is a nice byproduct of our friendship, but it is definitely not a requirement.”

He kept repeating those last three words softly, as if just to himself, “Not a requirement.”  Then, he went to bed.  The next day, he was gone.  When I went to visit him in his office, the secretary told me that he had taken a week of sick leave.  Later that week, I went to a department party, and saw Dr. Ross with his wife looking pretty happy given their recent separation and the loss of his wife’s mother.  A few drinks later, I found myself at the bar discussing French literature with his wife, who was a Francophile.  When she got her drink, she thanked me.  I inquired as to what I had done.  She said that I had influenced her husband in some way.  She remarked that in their ten years at the school, he had never taken an entire week off just for her.  And, she noted with a hint of subtle satisfaction, “He loves me with no requirements.”

Tying It All Together

We are all taught to work hard in the world, and seek validation and recognition for our hard work.  The media and our colleagues often reward this with positive attention.  Without the aforementioned wisdom and a degree in psychology, we cannot possibly know that it would lead to anxiety, jealousy, and depression.

If you notice this process in your own life, acknowledge that you have come by it naturally and without bad intentions.  Bring kindness to your experience, and choose to seek out a life of learning and affiliation instead.  When we practice not requiring ourselves to achieve to receive love, we secretly give others the same permission, thereby truly enriching all of our lives.  Pursue learning.  Pass it on to others.  Be kind to yourself.  Love and grow in wisdom and happiness.

365 Days of Kindness.  Self-Compassion.  Day 90.  In the Books.