Ambivalence to Achievement

Most books and articles on self-development follow a common theme. The theme is something along the lines of: “17 steps to happiness, wealth, and good looks.” There are some variations on the 17 steps and there are some variations on the ultimate rewards. But the theme of steps and rewards are pretty consistent.

“Do A, B, and C, and you’ll get X, Y, and Z.”

My approach these days is a little different. My approach is, “Stop thinking you need X, Y, and Z, and you’ll be ok.” Maybe you won’t be handsomer or richer, but maybe you’ll realize that kind of stuff doesn’t matter. If you’re reading this blog, then you probably already have way too much stuff. And you don’t need more stuff to be happy. You just need to realize – and keep top of mind – that more stuff is not where happiness lies.

So, too, with accomplishments and achievement. Accomplishments and achievements are like trophies for the ego. They are our internal way of telling ourselves that we are creatures of worth that matter in the universe. If we accomplish more than our neighbors, then maybe our lives are more important. We want to matter – and by focusing our energy and attention on achievements, we work to establish ourselves as objects of primary importance in the universe. But perhaps the need to think we are better than others is the very source of our unhappiness. Dump the need to feel like we’re better than others, and the anxiety of feeling unimportant will go away.

I used to think that my intellectual achievements were what mattered most. And that I should outsource everything else I could afford to outsource. That I should focus my time and energy on writing and AI and law and not waste my time washing dishes or cleaning my house. But now I’m not so sure. I think that a full day spent cleaning can be as meaningful as a full day spent writing, if it’s done with full attention and purpose. That cleaning my house is as important as winning an award. Or perhaps there’s no difference.

I’m trying to move from a philosophy of aspiring to achieve more to one of aspiring to achieve less. Or – better yet, a philosophy of ambivalence to achievement.