Motivated by Achievement: a Blessing and a Curse

I have been motivated by achievement for 25 years. It is all I have ever known. It has worked very well for me - I got straight As throughout high school and college, finished UCLA in three years with a double-major, college honors and Phi Beta Kappa. I moved quickly up the ladder at Google, completed training to be a life coach, ran a marathon and bought a house - all while building and growing side projects like this blog and my book-in-progress. I am not sharing this with you to brag - I am sharing it because I am exhausted. I don't know how I can maintain this pace for the rest of my life, or if I even want to. But when I think about stepping off the fast-track, I panic. It absolutely terrifies me because achievement is all I have ever known. Being motivated by achievement has been an incredible blessing - I've set big goals and reached them. And with each accomplishment I felt great...until I moved onto the next one, always wanting more. Which is why it has also been a curse. In many ways I feel defined by what I do, not who I am. I often feel defined by my job and the work that I do (either at Google or here on this blog).

To an extent, I think many of us are motivated by achievement, just to varying degrees. I would guess that you are more motivated by achievement than the average person because you are here learning, reading, and looking to get more out of your life. I know that many of you have blogs and side projects and big dreams that you are reaching toward.

When I took the Strengthsfinder personality test, Achiever was in my top five strengths. Below is some background information, adapted from the book, that you may relate to and/or find interesting.

Strengthsfinder "Achiever" Theme Description: Description of the Achiever: "People who are especially talented in the Achiever theme have a great deal of stamina and work hard. They take great satisfaction from being busy and productive.  Chances are good that you approach your work-related or academic assignments with a great deal of intensity. You are known for putting in long hours and working hard. Instinctively, you naturally concentrate your physical and mental energies on doing whatever needs to be done right now. You have a natural gift for living in the moment. This explains why you need to produce meaningful results each day.

Because of your strengths, you sometimes dive into challenging situations because you trust yourself to survive or excel. Maybe you know that you have the talent to deal with obstacles or hazards as you encounter them. Launching new ventures might thrill you. Tackling impossible goals might energize you. Stepping out of your comfort zone into unfamiliar territory might stimulate you. You try to make the best use of your mental or physical capabilities. Driven by your talents, you routinely contrive innovative ideas. The art of invention stimulates your mind. You likely spring from one original thought to an entirely different one. You usually find unique ways to link two or more concepts." The Blessing (my words):

  • You do not require much motivation from others.
  • You set challenging goals for yourself.
  • A full workload excites you.
  • The prospect of what lies ahead is infinitely more motivating than what has been completed.
  • You enjoy launching initiatives and new projects.
  • Your seemingly endless reserve of energy creates enthusiasm and momentum.

The Curse (my words):

  • Achievers tend to move on to the next challenge without acknowledging their successes.
  • You may have intense feelings of restlessness, never satisfied with the status quo.
  • You have a hard time "enjoying the present moment" because you are so focused on the future.
  • You probably have to work harder than most at building a life outside of your job, because accomplishment and task-driven achievement is so satisfying.

Quotes from the Book:

  • Ted S., salesperson: "Last year I was salesperson of the year out of my company's three hundred salespeople. It felt good for a day, but sure enough, later that week, it was as if it never happened. I was back at zero again. Sometimes I wish I wasn't an achiever because it can lead me away from a balanced life and toward obsession. I used to think I could change myself, but now I know I am just wired this way. This theme is truly a double-edged sword. It helps me achieve my goals, but on the other hand, I wish I could just turn it off and on at will. But, hey, I can't. I can manage it and avoid work obsession by focusing on achieving in all parts of my life, not just work."
  • Sara L., writer: "This theme is a weird one. First, it's good because you live in pursuit of the perpetual challenge. But in the second place, you never feel as though you've reached your goal. It can keep you running uphill at seventy miles an hour for your whole life. You never rest because there's always more to do. But, on balance, I think I would rather have it than not. I call it my ‘divine restlessness,' and if it makes me feel as if I owe the present everything I have, then so be it. I can live with that."

So what does this mean? I make a conscious effort to be thankful for my abilities and to recognize myself for my achievements. I try to enjoy the present moment rather than always focus on the future. But what does all this really mean? Call it a quarterlife crisis, but for me it means I need to think long and hard about the kind of life I want to live. Is constantly planning, working and obsessing over my next bigger and better achievement really going to create meaning and add value to my life? Maybe yes, maybe no. I am still figuring it out.