Why Achieving is Overrated: An Inside Story.
I write this post with some trepidation. I am an ‘achiever’. I work in a ‘high achieving’ environment. I’ve been born and raised to ‘achieve’. Quite frankly, ‘to achieve’ is in my genes. For most people, achievement can mean many things. It may be personal, professional or financial. It often involves the setting and pursuit of goals.
To be an ‘achiever’ certainly sets you apart in life. You are talked about amongst your family and social circles. You may go down in history. You may leave a legacy (good or bad). According to the ‘enneagram’ many famous people in life are ‘achievers’ such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Carl Lewis, Oprah Winfrey & Deepak Chopra, amongst a host of others. They define their life by it. Achievement becomes the ‘be all end all’ of their life.
I am one of them. I topped my school (and state) in many subjects, captained the cricket team, studied at the best law school in Sydney, worked at ‘prestigious’ international financial institutions and law firms, undertook yoga teacher training, dedicated many winters to become an expert level skier and am always looking for ways to innovate. Achievement is in my ‘DNA’.
Is Achieving Really Worth It?
It was a moment in the French Alps this winter that made me question all this. Here I was at 2,500 metres traversing though incredible terrain off-piste in Chamonix when I caught a glimpse of some remarkable scenery. I was completely present.
The backdrop of wonderful scenery and being in nature can provoke interesting questions. For me, it really questioned what ‘it’ was all about.
In the West, we are brought up to be goal-setters, high-achievers and generally striving to be the best we can be in whatever we do.
As Alex Honnold stated in the brilliant documentary film ‘Free Solo‘ about climbing ‘El Capitan’, the 2,308 metre near vertical granite rock formation in the Yosemite National Park, to climb a mountain free of any ropes is perfection, in that moment.
Is achieving though all your goals though really worth it in the end? Do they have meaning? Once you ‘achieve’ what you set out to do, the question inevitably becomes ‘what next‘?
Sometimes it can feel like you are chasing little golden carrots at the end of the stick with the illusion that you will ‘make’ it once you get ‘there’. Life becomes an endless loop of goal setting and moving on to the next ‘thing’.
Moreover, we live our lives as if there were a finishing line. We feel as if we are going to live forever, whilst at all times cognisant of our own mortality.
We live in a world where we are judged on how ‘successful’ we are. The media, our families and our social networks constantly comment on how ‘successful’ someone is, as if that is a marker for happiness. Yet people state that they have ‘everything’ – their partner, their house, their career, their family, but by their own admission their lives are ‘meaningless’. Alas, ‘achievement’ becomes vacuous.
The paradox of being a high achiever is that at times we seem focused and motivated, especially after exercising, yet at other times we struggle to maintain the intensity required, or can’t even be bothered anymore. We fly by the wind with our feelings and emotions, which is why it is a struggle to keep ‘focused’ all the time and achieve our goals. Where is the permanence in that?
If you don’t achieve your goals, we are taught that ‘failure’ is feedback, but what happens if you never ‘make it’. Is your life any less worthy?
What about the Rest of ‘Us’?
Even if you are lucky enough to ‘make it’ and you believe that really this is ‘it’, what about the rest of the people who helped you get there? Your family, your friends, the chef at your local cafe who makes you breakfast on a bank holiday and the waitress who serves you coffee, the pilot who flies you around the world on your luxurious holidays, the doctors and nurses who look after you when you get sick, the Deliveroo driver, the cleaner, the garbage man….I could go on. Are their lives meaningless whilst helping you to achieve your goals?
In the context of how the West defines what it means to be successful, their lives ‘appear’ to be without meaning. Merely slaving away to help you serve your dreams means that there is only one winner in this game of life. So it seems.
Buddhists say that we are all connected and interdependent. We truly exist as a society, not an individualistic, highly competitive bunch that the capitalist system has developed. Rather, we try to live our lives ruled by our delusional notion of ‘I’, when there is no self. In fact, all that ‘we are’ is:
as was stressed to me by my teacher on yoga teacher training. It’s a way of saying that any label that you associate with yourself is merely a matter of your self-constructed identity, not who you really are.
Mental Health Crisis
It gets worse. With ‘achievement’ comes ‘entitlement’, making your life seem more valuable than others. This is well demonstrated in our political systems and in the inherent contradiction of those toxic politicians of the far right, amongst other global ‘elitists’, who prioritise ‘wealth over the poor’. Their aristocratic nature collapses under the weight of its own contradictions when, in the face of their own mortality, they rely upon others ‘less worthy’ to help save their ‘precious’ lives.
It is little wonder that the Western world seems to be in a ‘mental health’ crisis. Anxiety and depression are prevalent, but have we actually asked ourselves why? We use apps & mysterious oils such as ‘CBD’ as if they are the ‘cure’, but is the very basis of the individualistic, competitive, capitalist system contributing to the mental health crisis?
The explosion of social media and its emphasis on ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ is just one example. Get more ‘followers’, get more ‘likes’, the system cries, pitching people against each other in the race to the top of the ‘popularity’ ranks.
True Meaning of Life
What then about the rest of ‘us’? Are those lives any less worthy for perhaps leading a more simple life?
Perhaps meaning comes from doing things that help others. In some Buddhist traditions, the only meaning in life comes from self-sacrifice (for the sake of others). This could extend to teaching and sharing knowledge. Perhaps it’s about helping others to alleviate their suffering if they are ‘less enlightened’. It’s about helping to transform the world, no matter how big or small that ‘world’ is.
Ultimately, meaning and enjoyment in life can come from the simple things, such as being in nature – in the mountains, amongst gardens & parks, or at the beach. It’s when you connect with the feeling of being alive and the pure joy of living, that true bliss can happen.
I experienced this recently on a bright, crisp Sunday morning. After a wonderful stroll around Kensington Gardens, I came back to my flat, and lay on a yoga mat listening to some blissful spa music. It was pure heaven. It was a feeling of being free from my own ego and self-satisfaction from the inside.
You see people doing this all the time just walking about, connecting to the inner feeling of pure living. They just don’t express it in such a way. It’s rather:
“I’m just going for a walk…”
That’s where the magic happens. Practising yoga and other movement-based meditation practices are the same. It’s about turning inwards, rather than out.
Achieving v ‘Being’
Funnily enough, the vast majority of sentient animals appear to do this day in, day out. Without question, doing ‘down time’ or very little is part of their DNA, free of ‘achievement’.
If we are all ‘species’, as Yuval Noah Harari so effortlessly reminds us in Sapiens, what are we to make of ‘lesser’ species doing less with their lives (in most cases, nothing at all), but who are just as happy?
Life would not be created or ‘designed’ in such a way where ‘doing’ or ‘having’ is a path to happiness, since the vast majority of creatures on this planet are doing absolutely nothing at all with their lives.
If the distinguishing fact between humans and other animals is the size and capacity of our brains, then what’s the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ when our grey matter (ie thinking part) is switched off, in times of peacefulness such as during a yoga and meditation practice? The irony is that the multi-trillion dollar wellness industry is encouraging us to do exactly that. Find inner peace.
Put simply, if we look at the evolution of life as a product of the development of the brain, and the firing of neutrons, what are we to make of our lives when it’s reduced to its basic common denominator – just being?
Which leads me back to the original question – what’s the point of achieving in the end?
Perhaps at the end of the day, some people are born with a drive to succeed, more than others. It’s what they ‘do’. Some just want to be happy, others want to be warriors. As Alex Honnold said after he completed his goal of climbing ‘El Capitan’ free solo, it ‘feels good‘. An incredible feat no doubt, but equally just as fleeting.
In all, when we look back on our lives, it’s more about reflecting upon the memories and moments that made it special – when we connect again to the feeling, rather than pure achieving.
“Life does not have a destination. Experience the fullness of every moment.” ~ Yogrishi Vishvketu PhD.
What does achieving mean to you?