In gauging our achievements, we tend to use two different criteria. (1) Accomplishments that make others aware of our abilities and result in their recognizing us. This is what most people think about when they discuss achievement. (2) Accomplishments only we are aware of, related to our own abilities, that make us feel good about ourselves.
In the best of all worlds, what we do that impresses others also makes us feel great about ourselves. But it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes we perform magnificently at work, to great acclaim, but that doesn't elevate how we feel about ourselves. Sometimes we do something wonderful for the world, and no one else is impressed.
It's easy to cite examples of achievements that make others aware of our ability. It happens every time we do something that's measured or rated by someone else. For instance, if you're a baseball player, your career is based on metrics that range from your batting average to your fielding percentage, and so on. Chief executives are scored on their companies' recent gain or loss in stock price, earnings per share, return on investment, etc.
The metrics to determine "What have you done lately?" are all around us. For salespeople, it's how much did you sell last quarter? For a real estate broker, it's how many homes sales have you closed—or not closed?
Valuing Purpose and Meaning
But what if someone else's yardstick isn't how you measure what you've done lately? What if making others aware of your ability isn't your driving force? That's when the second criterion kicks in: You value your achievements based on how good you feel about yourself and what you're doing.
Humanitarians are the most extreme example of this. If they're fighting hunger or disease in Africa, chances are pretty good they're not doing it to impress others with their humanitarian skill set. Teachers, police officers, firefighters, and social workers are not much different. They don't go into these jobs for the money. They do these jobs to serve others in their community. That invests the job with purpose and meaning. That's why they feel good about it.
A crisis of identity can sometimes arise when we feel a disconnect between what others feel about our accomplishments and what we feel about them ourselves.
I see this all the time in my work. Consider Richard, a corporate communications executive. He has an interesting and challenging job he is very good at, but he doesn't consider himself a real achiever. In his mind, he's a creative wordsmith. What he really wants to be is a full-time writer. "So quit," I told him. "Go home and write your novels."
Trapped in the World
He was experiencing the classic dilemma of the disconnect between how the world defined achievement for him and how he defined achievement for himself. And, he chose the world. Unfortunately, Richard is hardly an unusual case. Every day I encounter people who feel trapped. They are high achievers as defined by the world, but not by themselves. Their very achievement leads to recognition that is almost impossible to abandon.
Richard's opposite is Mary. She went into social work to make a positive difference. She knew that she would never make the same kind of money as her friends, and when she first entered the field, it didn't bother her. As the years wore on she started to become bitter, even though she believed she was indeed helping others and making a positive difference.
What frosted her was illustrated by what happened at her high school reunion. She was incredibly annoyed that many of her classmates were living in bigger homes and wearing nicer clothes than she was. What made it even worse was that she considered most of these people to be down the food chain from her in intelligence and work ethic. There they were, with less brain power and making no real contribution to the world, yet they were condescending to her. As Mary grew older, she succeeded in making herself more and more miserable.
Mary and Richard are two sides of the same coin. He is trapped because he discounts his own achievement—and does not believe that what he is doing is meaningful. She is trapped because the world sees her as a low achiever and does not give her the recognition she thinks she deserves, and she can't discount the world's opinion, even though she believes what she is doing is truly meaningful.
Think of your own definition of achievement. Is it what matters to you? What matters to the world? Be honest with yourself. Look in the mirror. Make peace with your true motivations—whatever they are.