The endless pursuit of achievement and productivity

I know that feeling. That ego fueled sprint on the treadmill towards the pursuit of achievement (and recognition). When I started my first job after graduating with a computer engineering degree, I felt like I was going to take over the world. Now that I had a job, my next goal was to get promoted and become a manager. At some point, I was going to go pursue my MBA, and enter the world of executive management.

This fire to make something of myself and be productive has driven me most of my life. I thought if I idled, I was wasting my time. Family party? Weekend cottage trip? Watching a movie? Out shopping with the wife? All precious time slipping away that could have been more productively devoted to generating new ideas, starting a business, working out, learning a skill or coming up with an innovative solution to a problem at work. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun, and idled plenty! But when I did, it came with an enormous serving of guilt.

This isn’t an indictment against achievement or productivity. If you’re doing well in your career and in life, then I tip my hat to you. This stuff isn’t easy, and you should be plenty proud. And if you have further goals, and achievements you’re seeking, by all means continue to pursue them with gusto.

But in your pursuit, take out a second to dig a little deeper into what’s driving you. You might be a little surprised like I was. From a very young age, I had it instilled in me that I had to get good grades, get into a good school, get a good job, and on and on. Subconsciously, I felt I had to pass through each of these “hurdles” (milestones) to prove my worth to others (and eventually myself). The corollary was that I didn’t think I was good enough just the way I was. I didn’t accept myself the way I was. That only outward recognition from others would allow me to prove my self worth.

Needless to say, this was a very fragile mental state to be in. There were plenty of ups and downs, and a chronic feeling of disappointment and guilt, because nothing was ever good enough.

I am now in the middle of a transformation where I’m trying to flip the script and turn things inside out. Without sounding too sappy, I have come to understand that I am worthy, complete and whole as I am. No manner of outside recognition will help fulfill this. This inner peace has made me a more wholesome person on the outside. Instead of fretting or being guilty about idling or being out with friends, I am now completely in the moment and really enjoy it. I don’t have to prove myself to anyone.

The Tao Te Ching has a beautiful passage that sums this up:

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

So stay grounded, and really meditate on your motivations. Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself to kick things off (and it only works if you are brutally honest with yourself):

What goals do I have?
What will I think of myself if I don’t achieve these goals? Why?
Do I truly love and accept myself as I am? If not, why not?

Pursue your goals. But not because you’re trying to use your goals as a proxy for your self worth, or to elevate it in some way. You’re likely going to be miserable and it’ll be no fun.

Pursue your goals because you love and enjoy the journey, regardless of the outcome, because no outcome will erode or elevate your self worth. It’ll make life so much more enjoyable, and may actually make it easier to achieve said goals or set new ones that may align better with your true self.

Wish you all the best in your pursuit, whatever it may be!

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