The perpetual drive to succeed has a dark side as the relentless pursuit for success can become a liability when it results in an identity that is encapsulated by achievement to the detriment of all other values.
Motivation to achieve is typically fueled by the goal to finally feel like one is "enough," to be fulfilled, and content. But high achievers rarely stop to take inventory on how this strategy leaves them running on a hamster wheel, constantly fleeing from feelings of inadequacy and toward fulfillment that is always just out of reach. They believe if they run faster, they will finally reach the goal post. The irony is: They’re sprinting towards a moving target, making it feel like they’re always running in place.
Is Achievement a Solution for Discontentment?
Factors in the environment usually initiate early momentum of the hamster wheel. Outside influences get internalized in early life, including the fusion of accomplishments with personal worth. From being praised or acknowledged by caregivers for achievement in childhood to the social norm of introducing oneself along with your profession — a lifetime of reinforcement lays the foundation for how worth, accomplishments, and identity are melded. Although a certain level of internalization of the values of our goal-oriented society is adaptive, they often become rigidly held and counterproductive.
Another important factor people overlook is hedonistic adaptation — which is the tendency to adapt to the positive emotions that result from an accomplishment. Once the thrill of achieving a goal dissipates, there is usually a return to baseline levels of discontentedness.
Many high achievers use social comparison to appraise their level of success. They use the yardstick of how others are performing to determine their own relative worth. This often leads to the pursuit of salaries, positions, titles, and other symbols of status to attain external recognition or validation.
However, they often overlook the process of attaining these goals when their sight is singularly fixed on the finish line. They miss out on important dimensions of the experience itself, including: ancillary learning, personal growth, and building connections and relationships inherent in the journey towards the goal, which are important sources of more stable fulfillment.
Many high achievers believe that through external markers of success, they will find contentment. They believe their current sacrifice will yield dividends of happiness in the future. Following this calculation, they hit pause on relationships with family, friends, partners, and other passions with the assumption that they can equilibrize after their goals are attained.
This reflects a fundamental priority of achievement above all else. And while the content of external markers of success they seek changes, this prioritization process remains stable.
Chicken or the Egg: Happiness and Achievement
The other misconception of this contingency is the prediction that the future, in which the goal is attained, is valued higher than present happiness. If happiness is the ultimate driver, then perhaps the strategy towards achievement should be reconsidered.
When people experience positive emotions, they become more present, receptive, creative, and connected to the people around them. When they utilize the full extent of their intellectual, emotional, and social resources they unlock a higher level of resilience and functioning which can lead to greater outcomes. From this perspective, there is utility in being more present in the moment and then working towards external goals, as respective primary and secondary objectives.
Steps Toward Change
Learn to reprogram your thoughts to deviate from the belief that you must white-knuckle your way towards goals, to instead find value and enjoyment in the process towards achieving them.
Stop comparing yourself to the people you perceive as happier or more accomplished than you. Instead, utilize and redeploy the energy that was previously drained by social comparison into activities you naturally enjoy to develop a sense of flow and mastery on your own. This requires a reversal from chasing end goals to instead fully engaging in the process to being your best in each moment.
Connect the projects you take on to your overarching values. Make sure they are aligned with your work so you can genuinely connect and find enjoyment from them.
Remind yourself often to savor the moment. This can be done through affirmations, post-it notes, reminders on your phone, to simple mental cues to tune in, be fully engaged, and appreciate the present. Happiness shouldn’t be put off until the weekend, your next vacation or holiday — it can only be guaranteed in this moment. So, lean into the moment and find ways to appreciate where you are now.
Stop pursuing the notion of becoming an idealized accolade-encrusted version of yourself. That person might be draped in awards and honors but will have a hollow center if they were pursued to the detriment of all other values. Instead, embrace the person you are, and invest your time and energy into that which is most important to you.
Always take the time to revel in your accomplishments — no matter how big or small. You hold the key to make meaning of your success. Never overlook your achievements and take the time to celebrate.