The modern human is obsessed with achievement. Yet, how clear are we about what that is? The desire to ‘achieve’ — unlike the desire for food when hungry — often lacks specificity. Defaulting to some vague idea of more, ‘achieving’ is usually a confused, backdoor way of chasing a certain kind of validation. Relentless achieving can easily become a way of life — often tense and discontented — based on the implicit mantra “I achieve, therefore I am.”
I achieve therefore I am
The trouble with achievement is that unlike hunger, it may never be satiated. To see how, we must enquire into the very nature of such desire. What is the equivalent of a full belly when it comes to achieving? Contemplate this for a moment and you will find it difficult to settle on something as clear and obvious as a full stomach. For, what qualifies as ‘achievement’ is very much in the mind —rather than the gut — of the seeker.
At the same time, what the seeker’s mind latches on to hugely depends on societal norms that are often fickle. One person may be satisfied with a modest career promotion, another may want to become CEO of a multinational! All sorts of factors, from past parental expectations to one’s present peer group, may influence these goals.
This leads us to ask what any sort of achievement then fulfils? What is the core desire — like hunger —being satisfied? We are faced with the inescapable realisation that it’s validation, sought through the approval of our fellow humans. Of course, it’s quite natural to seek validation in the eyes of others, for we are the most social species on the planet after all! Our reputation within the tribe might once have been the difference between life and death in harsh ancestral environments. So, it’s not surprising that evolution has made us care about it. But, that’s not the whole story.
The void within
Chasing achievement speaks to more than a need for social approval. Just consider that all the success in the world does not automatically bring contentment. If it did, we would be overwhelmed by the presence of contented people.
Relentlessly chasing achievement has a deeper origin — feeling inadequate within. This applies whether the object you chase is conventional success or something more niche like spiritual ‘attainment’. The object of desire differs, but the game is the same. And, the game has no end because it’s one that cannot be won.
When we doubt the adequacy of our being, we can create all manner of hoops to jump through to confirm that which needs no confirming. Because the adequacy of your being is confirmed by its very existence! It would be like photographing a tree to find out if it’s real. What’s required then is negation, rather than confirmation — letting go of any need to confirm what is inherent. What’s required is seeing that “I achieve, therefore I am” is a false belief that distracts us from the deeper and simpler truth — “I am, therefore I am”.
The game is thus won by abandoning it. This does not mean that we must live without goals or without pursuing any sort of project in life. What we abandon is not the activity itself, but the psychological hijacking of it as a way of proving our worth. This creates the space for a more creative intelligence to emerge within us. One that allows us to engage in things for their own sake.
The first step in all this is simply becoming aware of what is at play within your mind. How aware are you of any desire to achieve? What lies behind it? What might it mean to let it go?
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.