The accomplishments treadmill

November 08, 2021 09:05
Photo: Reuters

It is tempting to measure ourselves against others, on the basis of our accomplishments. After all, unlike wealth and income, accomplishments have that veneer of desert attached to them – we tend to see how much money we have, beyond a certain point, a somewhat arbitrary measure of self-worth; whereas accomplishments and achievements – now those seem to be what truly attests to individual competence and character.

And indeed, accomplishments supersede mere status or prestige – on the grounds that they are internal. No one can take away what you’ve done – whilst status, reputation, and external recognition, are all fundamentally transient entities that render one subject to the arbitrary whims of others. Reputation-chasing is not particularly helpful and plausibly futile, if one is trying to make it big in a scene where one is not known to others.

Above all, as social animals, we tend to compare with one another – we engage each other through the discourses of envy and anger; the former, for we constantly feel dissatisfied at what we have; the latter, for we always feel we deserve better. Hence enters what Jean-Jacques Rousseau terms amour propre – esteem derived through the approval and endorsement of others.

Yet this accomplishments treadmill is equally dangerous as all of the other forms of superficial metrics of value generated and manufactured by our society. This covenant, that our source of value must come from external sources – especially those endowed with intellectual and social capital to shape how we think – is a dangerous one, for it leads us down the slippery slope of inadvertently selling ourselves out, and selling ourselves to those who wield the powers of constructing and maintaining the value hierarchy.

More mundanely, the treadmill is never-ending. Eponymously, the hamster wheel, quite literally, features the hamster running to no end. As with the treadmill, too. In our constant search and thirst for more accomplishments, we are inculcated with the view that what we have already achieved is less-than-important – at the very least, it is less important as compared with the potential gains we could acquire. We are trained to prioritise seeking and wanting more, over celebrating what we’ve got. The end upshot, of course, is a world where we accomplish much, yet feel as if do not accomplish anything at all.

This is dangerous. To be structurally brainwashed into downplaying our own achievements, is not only deeply demoralising and devastating for our own self-worth, but also deeply distortionary. We come to view our own achievements and successes as merely flukes, incidental one-offs (that precipitate, in turn, the view that we are one-hit wonders), as ammunition for others to attack us with, as promises we must live up to in the future. In doing so, such perceptions only tie our hands and constrict our horizons further, pushing us down the dangerous path-dependent trails of seeking to constantly out-do, and hence over-do, ourselves.

This is also the precise mentality from which contemporary burnout – so ubiquitous and regularly observed in advanced industrial democracies – results. We drive ourselves to work 9 to 9 a day, six days a week, only to realise halfway through our lives that much of this hasn’t, after all, been worth it. Yet by then we’d be left with little more than silhouettes, shadows of our former selves, damning reminders of what the modern fetish over accomplishments could indeed do to our bodies and souls.

So let’s quit the treadmill, I say. And I think we can escape the treadmill through a variety of methods. The first constitutes staring it and confronting it nakedly – others’ expectations and judgments, the extrinsic metrics that we often resort to as a means of legitimating whom we are, these do not matter. What matters is that we feel content and good about ourselves. If working non-stop is what that compels us to do, think harder – and we’d find that chances are, we were wrong about what we genuinely wanted. Where achievements had once guided us, we need to actively and consciously engage in a detoxing exercise – one that would lead us to find and be guided by alternative metrics of value, preferably less dependent upon the kindness of arbitrary strangers.

An alternative way of quitting – of course – requires one to call out and renounce the treadmill more proactively. Sometimes it takes an active effort on our part to repudiate something, in order for us to see what it truly is: a sham, a façade, and a manufactured game designed to keep us compliant and complicit in the injustices that pervade our societies. The accomplishment treadmill goes hand in hand with the neoliberal logic that has tacitly endorsed and lent active support to the destructive tendencies of (late) Anthropocene. It also goes hand in hand with those who seek to transform public service into a self-serving vocation – one where self-interest is prized above public interests.

Escaping the treadmill is an undertaking. But it is an undertaking that is well worth taking. And it’s high time that we did, just that.

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Assistant Professor, HKU