If your school was anything like mine, you sat through countless lectures on the importance of achievement. I heard the same speeches again and again from parents, teachers, chaplains and headteachers.
Whether it’s grades, playing a musical instrument, or competing on the sports field, young people are told over and over that they must focus on goals and success for the sake of their future careers. After all, what could be more important than achievement?
Would it surprise you to learn that I think this obsession with achievement is a toxic attitude that does more harm than good?
What’s Wrong with the Achievement Mindset?
I was raised by two teachers in a goal-oriented family in which academic achievement was everything. My parents stressed not only that I had to do well at school, but I had to do better than other people as well.
When I studied something, it wasn’t because I was curious about the world. If I’m really honest with myself, I studied hard because I wanted to shore up my ego. To put it another way, I just wanted to feel worthy. I remember being ashamed around age 12 when I got 90% on a Geography exam. I felt I should be doing better than that. My peers noticed that I took failure personally and, in the way only children can, bullied me mercilessly as a result.
It wasn’t only me who felt this way. In fact, the school system encourages us to equate our worth as people with our academic results.
Think about it for a moment. Someone who gets good grades is called a “good student,” implying that they are hardworking, morally upright, and a good person. Someone who struggles or does poorly in any subject is called a “bad student,” implying that they are lazy or stupid, and even that they are a bad person.
Even for us “good students,” equating self-worth with achievement is a terribly dysfunctional way of thinking. I actually know a number of people from my time at Cambridge University who are still traumatised by their school experience years later. For me, it took a lot of self-reflection and a memorable talk with an ex-girlfriend to learn that I am more than just my work.
The Achievement Mindset Infects Everything
It’s bad enough that this mindset sucks the joy out of learning and puts pressure on students academically. But that wasn’t enough masochism for me! I also applied the same toxic mindset to my hobbies.
People who know me know that I played the French horn for years, most recently as principal horn in my local orchestra in Berlin. It might surprise you to learn that I have always hated practising my instrument. I only wanted to get the notes right so as to feel like I had played well after a concert, not struggle and fail as I worked out how to play.
If my aim had been to achieve proficiency at the French horn, then practising wouldn’t have been an issue. I would probably have enjoyed it. Instead, I was focused on the results of playing well rather than the process of getting to that point. It wasn’t about getting good at the instrument; it was about executing a perfect performance and earning praise from others. As my horn teacher put it:
“You’re only as good as your last concert.”
I am sad to say that this attitude led me to miss out on much of the joy of practising my craft for its own sake. Even today, I am so easily sucked into the achievement mindset that I no longer wish to play my horn in orchestras.
Real Motivation Comes from Within
Having shared my struggles with the achievement mindset leads to the following question: why do so many people think that focusing on achievement is a good thing?
One reason is that getting good results is motivating. If you want to get good grades, you’ll push yourself to work harder, right? That’s somewhat true, but it’s only half the story.
Psychologists distinguish between two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. The achievement mindset is an example of extrinsic motivation. You want to do well so that you can get validation from outside of yourself, such as winning a prize, getting a good grade, or receiving praise from other people.
Extrinsic motivation isn’t good for you in the long term. It leaves you dependent on others to shore up your ego. If you ever stop getting this validation from others, your motivation crumbles.
If you want to be happy, cultivate intrinsic motivation. Here, your motivation comes from within your own life, not from someone else. You work at something because it interests you and you want to learn more. You want to master a new skill and are eager to pursue it no matter how much work you have to put into learning it.
Intrinsic motivation is motivation no-one can take away from you. And it’s the complete opposite of the achievement mindset.
How I Broke Free
So we’ve learned that an achievement mindset pushes you to seek your reward from the end goal, not the process itself. It also sets that reward outside of yourself, making you dependent on external sources to feel good about the things you have done.
How can you break the pattern and focus on utilising intrinsic motivation instead?
There’s no perfect answer to this question, but I can speak to my own experience. The key for me has been to focus on systems and habits instead of results. Let me explain.
Through life experience, I’ve learned what I value. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list:
- Eating healthily
- Sleeping deeply
- Having time at the end of the day to rest
- Avoiding toxic relationships
- Being my own boss
Let’s take the first item on that list: eating healthily. Ok, so I’ve identified that this is a value of mine, and that it’s important to me. The next step is to create a series of habits and systems that makes eating well easy and predictable.
Note: my attention is not on eating perfectly every day (= achievement mindset), but rather on creating the dietary habits that align with my values (= intrinsic motivation).
Stage 1 of this journey for me was to cut out processed foods as far as possible. I started reading labels and taking pride in avoiding buying foods with added sugar. I learned that if I don’t buy them, I don’t eat them. This was easy to do and felt good. But I still missed meals some of the time and even still ate junk food occasionally.
Stage 2 was copying a system I learned from an ex-girlfriend. She had a habit of cooking food the night before and taking leftovers to school or work the next day. I noticed that I lacked the willpower to cook every day, and started copying her system. It was easier to take those leftovers and eat them instead of junk or snacks. But I was still sometimes too tired after work to cook every day.
Stage 3 was to learn about meal prep. These days, I go shopping on Saturday mornings and prepare a huge batch of food on Sunday evenings. I then eat this food over the next 7 days. I find that I save time, money and energy this way — all while eating better more of the time.
I am sure that I will continue to refine my dietary system over time. But if I were to try to abstract some general principles of breaking free from achievement mindset out of my personal experience, they would look something like this:
- Know yourself well enough to know what you value.
- Establish a regular system or habit that helps you get what you value. It doesn’t have to be perfect; just start somewhere.
- Test your system against reality. Inevitably, you’ll fail a few times and learn from those experiences.
- Make a better system on the basis of your learning. Take pride in making your habits as functional and aligned with the real world as possible.
- Repeat and improve your system over time. This will help you acquire a feeling of competence, or self-efficacy as psychologists would say.
Rid Yourself of the Achievement Mindset
It is my contention that everybody learns the achievement mindset in school, and those who deny this are probably the ones who suffer from it the most. The achievement mindset is so ingrained into our culture that it’s hard to even become aware of it, let alone rid yourself of it.
Learning to motivate yourself with systems which reflect your values will help you infinitely more than trying to impress other people with your performance. But before you establish habits or systems, the key to starting this journey is to become aware of how the achievement mindset manifests itself in your life:
- Are there areas in your life where you focus too much on the goal, ignoring the steps you’ll take to get there?
- Do you beat yourself up for being a “bad student” in any area of your life?
- Are you addicted to the high of “achievement” in any area of your life?
Consider if there are areas in which your focus on achievement is holding you back. If you do that, you’ll be one step closer to ridding yourself of this toxic mindset.
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