It seems ironic that a sense of accomplishment is dependent on success or extrinsic validation. Should it not be more of an intrinsic validation, that you have done the best that you can within the environment available to you? This is something that I have been increasingly reflecting upon.
Eleven years ago on this day, I met with a road traffic accident which led to a lengthy recovery process, including a six month period in which I was hardly able to move. During that recovery period, nudged by my mother, I started typing random thoughts on my laptop from the moment I was able to move my right hand fingers even when I could not move the rest of my hand or body for that matter. It eventually resulted in my first book – The first step, something that I should feel a sense of accomplishment about. For having been both a cathartic process and something positive that I was able to focus on other than the frustrations and pains of recovery, the completion of that book should in itself have elicited a sense of accomplishment. Yet, I began feeling that only when my family and then my friends and acquaintances started reading it and giving me positive feedback. While during the writing of my book, I had simply focused on the pleasure of writing and not on who would be reading it or how it would be received, it seems surprising that once the book was completed and published, I seemed to expect external validation for my sense of accomplishment. The book is available on Amazon and given the limited sales of the book, I seem to feel the sense of accomplishment even less. I hesitate to call myself a writer, even though writing has always been a passion of mine since I was eight, simply because the two books that are out there have not received either sales success or critical acclaim. The question I ask myself is why should it matter whether people read the book or if they like it or not, all it should matter for my sense of accomplishment is that I transformed a traumatic experience into a positive one through my writing.
What baffles me further is that even when I have received recognition or external validation in my professional work or academic efforts and I did feel a sense of hubristic pride at those times, it was fleeting and not a real sense of accomplishment. Is it because I felt luck had a far greater role than my efforts in the recognition that I received?
Ever since I read J.D.Salinger‘s novella, Seymour – an introduction, this excerpt from the novella has been floating around at the back of my head.
“Could you try not aiming so much?” he asked me, still standing there. “If you hit him when you aim, it’ll just be luck.” He was speaking, communicating, and yet not breaking the spell. I then broke it. Quite deliberately, “How can it be luck if I aim?” I said back to him, not loud (despite the italics) but with rather more irritation in my voice that I was actually feeling. He didn’t say anything for a moment but simply stood balanced on the curb, looking at me, I knew imperfectly, with love. “Because it will be,” he said. “You’ll be glad if you hit his marble – Ira’s marble – won’t you? Won’t you be glad? And if you’re glad when you hit somebody’s marble, then you sort of secretly didn’t expect too much to do it. So there’d have to be some luck in it, there’d have to be slightly quite a lot of accident in it.”
While luck has a hand in the external validation of efforts as it involves others and their own goals/ motivations and you are aiming for success or validation by them when you expect them to provide it, it does not have much of a role in your own part of the work. It is not luck that I wrote during my recovery nor is it luck that I put in a great deal of effort when working on causes I believe in and it is certainly not luck that I have travelled extensively in the past decade. It was more a prioritization of which of my passions I wished to invest my time and energy and then putting in a lot of hard work to achieving them. I certainly should be feeling a sense of accomplishment for having achieved several of my goals I set out for myself. I don’t though. Perhaps because my goals are constantly evolving.
Why is authentic pride or the sense of accomplishment so much more difficult to feel than hubristic pride that relies on external validation such as success and recognition? Dr. Raj Raghunathan, or Dr. HappySmarts of the Coursera course A life of Happiness and Fulfillment, would say that our happiness depended on nurturing authentic pride and reducing/ eliminating hubristic pride and that by changing our thoughts consciously, we can achieve it. It is a difficult process as we live in a global society that values success, power and money, all of which are extrinsic and have no bearing on our happiness or sense of accomplishment. Except for the few lucky ones, most of us have been raised from our childhood at home, at school and subsequently at work and among peers, to expect external validation as an indicator of our accomplishment.
I have finally reached a point in my life where I have realized that success is not mandatory for a sense of accomplishment. My current goal is to nurture authentic pride rather than hubristic pride.
Thanks for this wonderful short article. I guess because people always link accomplishment to happiness, but I guess the feeling of happiness is not at all stemming from accomplishment because the definition of success is too norm – dependent and the whole society as already put a tap on what could be success or not. But when we really look into our heart, I would like to use happiness instead of success, pure happiness only links back to life, death, and of course love (which is also related to life and death I suppose). It’s a shame people never stop to think about it, as they are clouded by the social accomplishment.
Anyway, let’s choose a life which we can really taste the meaning of life, a life partner who can bring us happiness instead of success, a life – long career which can make us think what we do can enrich our life instead of gaining money and reputation.
Hi Yuan! Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. While you consider success as norm dependent and happiness not, I feel one’s definition of happiness can also be norm dependent as long as it is pegged to something extrinsic such as a career or relationship. I wish you the best in defining and experiencing your path to happiness!