If you belong to a bubble of people who went through the elite university meat grinder, work in a competitive field like the arts or tech, and live in a city where like-minded folks with comparable pedigrees congregate, you might take your achievement particularly personally. You might be itchy because you haven’t reached your “potential”. You might be kicking yourself on the daily because you haven’t collected your gold star.
In subtle and not so subtle ways, you believe in your greatness.
Why do we think this way? I have no clue.
At best, we’re stuck in some achievement-arms race fed by groupthink and the desire to be better than everyone else. In a world where a comfortable, middle-class life became more widely available, we had to find other dimensions to outdo each other. It’s not enough just to live a nice little life. Now we have to be great.
At worst, it’s a capitalist conspiracy designed to make us work more than we need to because we do so much more when our ego is on the line. Our drive for greatness creates profits that we do not share in commensurately. Studios, labels, publishers, the C-suite, shareholders, and investors always eat sooner, better, and more than you, the creator. But it’s fine, because you get paid in greatness.
As a coach, I see our obsession with personal achievement show up in nasty ways, like how so many of my clients don’t believe in their self-worth because they haven’t achieved the level of success that they dream of.
I tell people all the time that their self-worth is inherent, and not tied at all to their external achievements. Clients sometimes sigh in relief when they hear this. This might be the kindest belief they’ve ever been offered.
Others who spend time on self-help Instagram already know this but just can’t internalize this belief, and understandably so when we’ve been taught the opposite our whole lives.
If you’re in this second category, I’ll offer one solution that’s off-brand from my usual chill, Zen-ish style: go chase your greatness. Go “prove” yourself so that you can feel good about yourself. Sometimes there is a part of our souls that just needs to know what it feels like to get that gold star. And this might be one of those lessons better learned than taught. Admittedly, I personally want you accomplish your thing because on average I’d rather live in a world where you’re creating the art, doing the business, and making the decisions over what we have now.
But all along the way, I’m going to ask you to be nice to yourself. You might achieve a lot by being mean to yourself, but wouldn’t it be funner if you weren’t so hard on yourself? What’s the point of life if you’re quietly hating yourself the whole time?
Or maybe look at yourself and see that you haven’t really achieved very much while being mean to yourself. Meanness doesn’t work. More often than not, it traps you in perfectionism and fear of judgment, which keeps you exactly where you started.
And when you’ve achieved your thing, I’m going to celebrate you and also ask what the view is like from the top. I’m going to ask which regions are rich and meaningful, and which are empty. For instance, finally making six-figures might bring you to tears of joy if you come from a family that has been systemically disenfranchised. But it might be vapid in other ways if your new money has fueled a life of consumption over heartfelt connection.
And if you don’t achieve your thing, that’s fine too. Greatness might be a good thing to want and to have, but we use it as a cudgel. I’m less interested in what you achieve and more interested in if you are a good neighbor, a good friend—to yourself and others—if you can love and laugh, if you can sleep easily, if you can die contentedly, if you can live a good day and know that it was a good day. There’s a million ways to be great.
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