A Couple More Thoughts on Achievement

by Lane Wallace on November 8, 2011

Over the past week, I found myself discussing my last post (”Of Achievement and Happiness“) with a couple of friends. And both of them had additional thoughts on the subject that seemed worth adding to the mix.

The first friend is an entrepreneur who graduated from an Ivy League college but gave up a lucrative career as a tax attorney to pursue a more meaningful and independent path manufacturing gourmet chocolate for export within Ghana. His company is successful enough, but it’s a lot of work. And he’s also had to balance that work with raising three children and a family life. His home, which I visit whenever I’m in the area, is a warm and casual environment full of children’s art projects, sports gear, and all the chaos that comes with that. But it speaks of a happy family unit, and they always somehow make time for guests, as long as the guests don’t mind fitting in with the chaos.

I asked him, on this last visit, what he thought about achievement and happiness, these days. He laughed. “Yeah, you know, what they don’t tell you, in college, is that in deciding what you’re going to excel at, you’re also deciding what you’re going to really suck at. Because you can’t excel at everything. If you’re going to push hard on your career, other things are going to suffer.”

I liked that idea –and the way he phrased it. Because it’s true. Everything in life is a trade-off, and the important thing is figuring out what elements matter the most to you. For they will, guaranteed, come at the price of compromising on something else. In deciding what you want to excel at, you are most certainly also deciding “what you’re going to suck at.”

My second friend is getting ready to retire from a high-level administrative position at a well-known university. But she, too, is less sold on the dazzle of achievement than many of the students who go there. She told me that she was reading the Pulitzer-winning novel Middlesex and had been particularly intrigued with the author’s comments on the growing industrial age, in the early 20th century.

“He talks about how people struggled, as they began to work in factories, because they hadn’t really learned how to be machines yet,” she told me. “And his point about how those things that remove us from the basic human experience–of time to think, of a walk to the beach, of connecting with others and nature–are all really damaging to us … that really struck me.”

How does that relate to achievement? Well, it’s the counterpoint to the fact that we are all happier if we feel as if we have meaningful pursuits in our lives. I think we are, in fact, happier if we have meaningful work and pursuits in our lives. But we also need time to do those things that keep us connected to the human experience: time to think, time for meaningful connections with other people, and time to connect with nature and absorb all the soul food and richness of those experiences.

If achievement comes organically out of meaningful and purposeful pursuits, and it doesn’t pull us away from those other important pieces of the human experience, then there’s nothing wrong with it. The world is often improved by great achievements. But achievement for the sake of status or perks or even money gives us neither meaning nor the soul food of those essential, grounded pieces of the human experience. And that can leave us poorer in ways that matter.

Even with pursuits or achievements that have important meaning, balance is still a challenge, of course. I’m reminded of a quote from Elizabeth Dodson Gray, a college friend of my mother’s, that ended up on our family refrigerator for a long time. It said, “I awake each morning torn between wanting to change the world, and wanting to enjoy it. It makes it tough to plan the day.”

Indeed it does. But in trying to strike that balance, carving out time to preserve, and relish, the basic elements of human experience, is every bit as important as being productive. Even if it isn’t so widely recognized or rewarded in the public sphere of our lives.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Terry Paasch 12.07.11 at 6:41 pm

I read the story of your cross-country flight in “Sport Aviation” and really enjoyed it. I am a retired Air Force pilot and a member of the Wild Weasel society like you. I flew a cross-country from Utah to North Carolina with my pilot daughter-in-law a few years ago, in a Katana no less, and like your flight with Connor, it was a really great experience. My wife, a pilot, and I owned an American Trainer (predecessor of the Traveler) for some years and flew it everywhere, even across the Rockies. I noticed that you write for “The Atlantic” magazine. My oldest son JT is a developer on their staff. I thought all these similarities quite strange. My youngest son is also a pilot and is into rugged back country skiing, rock and ice climbing, biking, kayaking, and insanely difficult long distance mountain running. I enjoy your writing and will surely become a regular reader. Sincerely, Terry Paasch in Eden, Utah.

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