Thursday, August 6, 2009

Single-axis achievement

After a deep and thoughtful conversation with Ben (which lasted a few hours and made us forget about lunch plans), I came up with a few realizations about myself and the life path I'm currently following. For one, I was relieved to hear that Ben also feels a strong pressure to achieve, and that he often feels that when he is not actively contributing his energy towards either furthering his goals or building his ability to achieve them, he feels anxious -- as though he is not performing to the maximum of his abilities. I feel exactly the same way. When he described the anxiety as possibly the greatest barrier to his individual happiness, I was so happy to realize that someone thinks the same way I do.

We discussed the topic for some time, and a few points came up that really helped me dispel some of my anxiety. I pointed out that I'm not very good at understanding the exact actions that will lead me to optimizing my ability to achieve my goals, yet I act and work as though I do. For example, I force myself to read things about my "industry," study intensely, work hard on reducing my interest in "distractions" and entertainment, etc. In reality, I have no idea whether my current mix of effort is actually the maximal way to achieve -- maybe by engaging myself in a broader set of social activities, my ability to achieve will be enhanced in ways I can't even imagine (like making connections, etc.). Still, because the timescale for feedback on a "life method" is so large, I'm unable to make any rapid adjustments, so I cling to the arbitrarily defined mix of activities I just described. Worse, -- and this relates to Ben's concern -- when I take time away from that mix, I feel an anxiety that I'm not doing the most I can to achieve, which is definitely not conducive to my feeling of equanimity.

But perhaps I'm making a more fundamental mistake. All of my achievement-based efforts are directed towards accomplishing a single measurable goal. Because "helping people be happy" is so broad, I am forced to narrow my goals to something more easily measured, like "helping create a company that delivers badly needed services to those in need" (just an example). This is much more measurable (and thus conducive to competition/achievement), since I can say "we delivered X units to Y people." As Ben and I discussed, we're well aware that the way to achieve such goals is the 'traditional' method of diligence, study, and hard work. In that sense, the anxiety I described previously is a valuable asset, because it urges me to build myself into a high-achiever. However, my fatal flaw is that I'm only measuring and maximizing my success on a single axis (# of units delivered to the poor), when in reality, I affect the world in countless ways, particularly through my daily actions and my apparent happiness.

Through our discussion, I was reassured that we have an even more valuable contribution to make by showing others that we can accomplish our goals (perhaps to a slightly lesser degree) and be happy. We agreed that we could much more effectively maximize our contributions by showing others, through our personal philosophies and everyday lives, that working hard doesn't have to mean unhappy/tiring/empty. Otherwise, if we focus too narrowly on our arbitrarily defined single axis of achievement, we might act in a way that would hurt people and spread unhappiness. I'm sure you can think of at least a few people who are extreme achievers yet are unpleasant to be around: power-grabbers, ambitious "jerks," sycophants, etc. Even if it didn't go that far, people would not want to learn from our working/living philosophies because it would seem as though we weren't enjoying life because we didn't develop ourselves in other ways.

I'm very happy to think that I can work on improving myself in several dimensions at once without worrying too much about the loss in accomplishment towards the primary goal. In fact, I feel a lot more confident now that I can make an even greater overall contribution by developing my happiness and sharing my methods and ideas with others. All things are interconnected, after all.

1 comment:

  1. I too have gone through many of these thoughts, or at least through similar paths of thought! Many times even I have polarized things to the extreme of worrying that I can either devote my life to personal happiness (eg., becoming a hippie farmer-artist, or maybe an orchid scientist) or world improvement, but most choose between them.
    I have never quite been able to let go, though, of the fundamental feeling that I only have one life and should enjoy it as much as I can, especially as I don't know what if anything will come next, and there are so many things to enjoy. And I still don't think this is wrong.
    And now I find myself thinking also much where you and Ben ended up as well - that happiness and improvement of your surroundings/helping those around you are interconnected objectives. For one, when I'm happier I am more able to work, acheive, consider other people's problems instead of dwelling on my own unhappiness. Two, happy people make other people happy who make yet other people happy. Three, there are many helpful and good things to do in the world, and so why not do those that you are best at/most enjoy? Because then you will probably contribute the most energy and spirit and achieve the most. And I'm sure there are more reasons!
    In the end, I am most inspired by people who combine a drive to achieve something with joie de vivre - who pursue great dreams but also enjoy each day and make other people enjoy each day as well. And I think it's kind of the same as appreciating art, or theoretical science - it may not seem to do anything really useful directly. But if it changes someone's outlook, or just creates a bit of joy, isn't it valuable also? I think so.