I am what you could call a “reformed achiever”.
Let me tell you how I used to be. You are probably familiar with people like this – driven, ambitious, sensitive. Deep down rarely ever fully satisfied, and also deep down quite insecure. Always needing external reinforcement, acknowledgment, significance to feel complete. At an early age I started to equate love with achievement and significance. I don’t blame anyone for this association, it is what it is. However it did crystallize into a major subconscious belief system when I was very young.
In elementary school, I skipped grade five. This was not my choice, although at the time I did not resist. I can recall feeling both a sense of anxiety, but also accomplishment, when I was pulled into my elementary school principal’s office, at the end of my grade four school year, and told of the administration’s decision. I was scared of how my peers would treat me. I was scared that my grade four classmates would think that I believed I was “too good for them” and that the grade six kids would ostracize me as a “know it all”.
In many respects both fears materialized. My proclivity towards acknowledgment based achievement was not diminished by my fears or the circumstances of the time. If anything my insecurity, and my need for significance, grew stronger because of my feelings of solitude, as a result my ambition and my need to receive other’s positive acknowledgment grew stronger also. I used fear and pain to drive me. I excelled at pretty much everything I did – constantly seeking acknowledgment from leaders, teachers, coaches, my parents. Each time I received praise, won an award, achieved a goal, the acknowledgment I received, both internally and externally, numbed the pain of insecurity.
My proclivity towards acknowledgement based achievement continued throughout high school, where I was an athlete and honours student, and into college where I excelled in my studies, and further into law school where I graduated with honours. Frankly I had no interest in going to law school or becoming a lawyer. At the time, I pursued law because I thought it was prestigious, it would provide a good income stream for my family (I already had children at the time) and because I thought my father wanted me to pursue this field of study. My heart was in the intersect of psychology to leadership and business. I wanted to be a business coach or a consultant. I wanted to help people find success and build successful lives and businesses. I didn’t follow my heart. I followed my insecurities.
My first job out of law school was with one of the most prestigious, demanding, and highly paid firms in the country. I was doing securities law and mergers and acquisitions (which as a junior meant reading stacks of documents in solitary each day, or editing for grammar and non-substantive content, long contracts or other legal documents). It was at this job that I started to notice cracks in my behaviour paradigm. In this environment, my habit (or addiction as it was) of seeking positive acknowledgment and trying to please others was difficult to maintain, and it was also creating emotional deficits in my life.
My enthusiasm was generally met with indifference. The more I tried to please certain people I think the less they actually liked me. Moreover, I started to realize that effort alone would not always yield the emotional results I sought. It was very hard not to take it personally when my work was critiqued. Especially when that critique was a matter of subjective interpretation. My life at the time was solely focused on trying to get people to positively acknowledge me and my work. It was also a major contributor to a period of dark emotions. I felt like my world was entirely out of my control. My blackberry owned me. I had little to no respite. If I took time to refresh, made myself unavailable for the weekend to be with my family and small kids, I had to worry about other lawyers who would establish their dependability over mine. It was the ultimate form of a zero sum game. There were winners and losers with the other young lawyers. Not all of us would continue with the firm, very few of us would progress to partner. There were winners and losers.
I would ride the train from Oakville to downtown Toronto each day and in the one-hour, one-way, commute I would devour personal development and relationship building books. My thought was that if I could absolutely crack the code of success, if I could win over all the important people at the firm, then I would be able to find the happiness and fulfillment I was seeking. However, what I later discovered was that this was not the case. For family reasons we had to move from Toronto, so I changed jobs to another tier one international firm in Calgary and found the exact same pattern: 1) I was disinterested completely in law. I found no satisfaction in the actual practice or study of it; and 2) I rarely, if ever, received the emotional feedback I was seeking from other lawyers at the firm, no matter how hard I tried, or despite whatever personal development or relationship building tactic I employed.
Nevertheless I continued to devour the books, all the time looking for a new title or idea that may hold the secret to my missing fulfillment. I literally read hundreds of books in the areas of personal development, success, leadership, and communication. I read the old gurus and the new. Everything I could get my hands on. I eventually left the big firm and started my own firm, and the tendency to try to please to gain acknowledgment continued.
At my own firm I enjoyed the autonomy of being self-employed, but continued to struggle with the tendency to please, a real and increasingly growing dissatisfaction with the profession of law, and a continuing fear of messing up and receiving public disgrace. Here I was never truly happy or fulfilled, no matter how much money I was making. I was also plagued by the lingering thought that I was a father to three little ones (4, 6 and 9) who were monitoring my every step. I would often come home discontent, cranky, and full of negative emotions. I started to suffer from anxiety and depression. I would be temporarily placated by my financial success each month, but I knew that I was not being the example of emotional stability and happiness that I dearly wanted to provide to my children. I knew I had to figure this out, and find a way to find contentment and personal harmony.
Then I made a significant discovery. Shortly after Christmas of 2011 I began to search again. I didn’t however search in the personal development field but rather in the classics. I started to read Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, Mill, Emerson, Ayn Rand, and then I discovered Thoreau and his book Walden. This was at once one of the most unusual books I had ever read.
Walden is Thoreau’s personal account of the 26 months he spent in self-prescribed solitary in a cabin he built with his own hands on Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Thoreau’s rejection of conventional societal norms was predicated on what I considered an absolutely fascinating foundation. Having discovered that success in entrepreneurial ventures required a study of how to make it worth men’s while to buy he at once decided that he would rather study how to avoid the necessity of selling. So he entered the woods in an attempt to be truly self-sufficient – to transact a form of private business if you will. He described it as literally an experiment in “living”. He wanted to see what it would be like to live on his own, away from society for an extended period of time. His philosophical underpinnings were based on the following statements:
Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me (p. 10); and
We might try our lives by a thousand simple tests (p. 10).
His subsequent account was truly unique, engaging, inspiring, refreshing, and altogether different from just about any other book that I had previously read, particular in the personal development or philosophy genres. It detailed his experiences over those 26 months including his shelter, clothing, daily habits, sounds, and encounters with both animal and human visitors. He eventually left his residence on Walden Pond and stated as follows “I left the woods for as good as a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one” (p. 259).
Many personal development books have parsed the following quotes from Walden to advance the notion of following your dreams or achieving worldly success (ie. money, fame, achievement):
If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours (p. 260); and
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation (p. 9).
However, to attribute Thoreau’s Walden with conventional success literature is to materially misrepresent the essence of what the book it about. Walden is anti-success (as success is defined in worldly terms). In fact consider the following passages:
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. (p.261)
The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others? (p.18)
Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labours of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them (p. 7);
The book was an awakening to me, it was like a true epiphany, which although seemingly simple, I had not considered up until this point in my 32 years.
What if there was a different way?
What if the path to fulfillment was not the same as the path to success (conventionally defined)?
What if the “path to success” was what was actually leading to my unhappiness?
I realized that the “path to success” for me was really just the “path to positive acknowledgment from others” and that my continual desire to achieve, to be recognized, to feel significant was really because a craved that feeling. I needed to feel that way.
But then I realized that I could get the feelings that I was wanting with a different strategy.
That strategy was to serve and to add value to others.
I realized that the primary driving motivator for almost all the actions in my life up until that point was selfish based. I was wanting prestige, money, praise, acknowledgment and significant because I thought they would fill an internal void. But they didn’t. No matter how much I achieved, no matter what I did. It never felt like it was enough. I was caught in a vortex of insecure driven achievement, and my hunger was never satisfied. Each time I would climb a mountain I would see someone at a higher peak and this would make my mountain seem insignificant. Each time I had a critique I felt my world crumble, like all that I had was dependant on the continue reinforcement of others. I was on such a shaky foundation.
I found however, that when I truly sought other’s interest that my interests were actually met. When I did something for someone else, not because of what it would do for me, not because of how that person could help me or endorse me in the future, then I became significant in the person’s eyes that I was serving. This significance made me feel great. I actually achieved the feeling that I was seeking.
The more that I did this the more general level of significance I felt. I also made the fantastic discover that I had the ability to genuinely help and serve others, every single day, in the direct sales side business that I was doing with my wife. I have found so much enjoyment in serving in this manner that I am now pursuing this business full time.
I found what I was seeking by not actually directly seeking it. I found that when I stopped trying to get significance in others eyes, but actually just tried to focus on adding value to others, real value, that I became significant in their eyes. When I became significant in their eyes I felt significant myself.
So, for my own personal life, I am now living by a new model of success. A different model of achievement. One that isn’t based on my title, my profession, or who I know. It is based on the real value that I am able to add to others.
I find it both humorous and disturbing to see the many form of networking, social media platforms and other “connectivity methods” in our world where people’s true motivation isn’t really to add value to others but rather to gain value from them.
I have been in so many “networking” events where the depth of our conversation was so shallow that discussion almost inevitably devolves into nothing but a simple discussion of current events, sports or the weather.
True connections are made when you add value to another.
True relationships are built when you add value to another.
Significance is most readily gained when you add value to others.
I feel that the emotional state of many people could be significant improved by incorporating this simple new model of achievement, a value based model:
1. Each day ask yourself this - how can I add value to others, independent of what I may receive in return.
2. Each day equate your self worth, and sense of accomplishment, by tallying the real value that you added to others.
As simple as this sounds, this is a very hard model to actually incorporate in our present day life. Have you ever noticed what the number one question is (in my experience) that we ask each other when strangers first meet?
What do you do?
Instead, I wish that we asked each other – how do you add value?