Definitions of Achievement

Talent Management

December 18, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith

Sometimes there is a disconnect between the criteria we use to measure our achievements and what others feel about our accomplishments.

I see this all the time in my work. Consider Richard, a corporate communications executive. On the surface, Richard has an interesting and challenging job managing delicate investor relations. He appears on television and radio to spin his company’s message. He gets to parry with journalists who write about his company and his CEO.

The job is rich and varied, calling for creativity and adaptability — there’s even a hint of glamour. It’s never dull. Plus, he’s so good at what he does that his CEO regards him as indispensable and pays him accordingly. If Richard defined achievement by how well he impressed others, he would think of himself as a raging success.

But Richard doesn’t consider himself a real achiever. Yes, he has the trappings of success: the corporate power and prestige and all the accoutrements a big paycheck can provide. But in his mind, he’s a creative wordsmith. He wrote plays and short stories in college. And now, more than 20 years into his career, he regards much of what he does — especially the press releases and speechwriting — as a form of intellectual slumming. What he really wants is to shuck the job and stay home writing novels.

“So quit,” I told him. “Go home and write your novels.”

I knew he wouldn’t. If Richard had the courage to act on the fact that writing fiction was his calling, he would have done it long ago. His day job wasn’t stopping him. It paid the bills, put a roof over his family’s head and gave him the satisfaction of being a good provider. What was stopping him from spending his evenings or weekends writing his novel? What was preventing him from getting up early each morning and spending an hour or two of quiet time on his writing?

I don’t know, although I would guess that a lack of discipline plays a big part. I do know that Richard experienced a classic dilemma — the mismatch between what he was giving to his job and what his job was giving to him, along with the disconnect between how the world defined achievement for him and how he defined achievement for himself.

Unfortunately, Richard is hardly unusual. Every day I encounter people who feel trapped. They are high achievers as defined by the world, but not by themselves. Their achievement leads to recognition that is almost impossible to abandon.

Richard’s opposite, Mary, has a mirror image dilemma. She went into social work to make a positive difference. She knew she would never make the same kind of money as her friends, and when she first entered the field, that didn’t bother her. As the years wore on, however, she started to become bitter. She believed that she was indeed helping others and making a positive difference. What frosted her was illustrated by her interactions 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 brainpower and making no real contribution to the world, yet looking down on her as if she were inferior to them.

Mary and Richard illustrate two sides of the same coin. Richard is challenged because the world sees him as a high achiever and recognizes him for it. He is trapped because he discounts his own achievement and does not believe that what he is doing is meaningful.

Mary is challenged because the world sees her as a low achiever and does not give her the recognition she thinks she deserves. She is trapped because she cannot discount the world’s opinion in spite of the fact that she believes what she is doing is truly meaningful.

Think of your own definition of achievement. What matters to you? What matters to the world? Be honest with yourself. Look in the mirror. Make peace with your true motivations. Try not to go through life deluding yourself by pretending that when the world cares, you do — or pretending that when the world does not care, you don’t.