The Cul-de-Sac of “High Achieving”

This time of the year, around the anniversary of my immigrating to the States, I tend to do a little more navel gazing. This year, I find myself reflecting on a term with which I have some issues, “high achiever.” The expression usually implies that someone has achieved more than…but what? It also connotes a high degree of competitiveness.

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I hate competition. Competition makes sense in sports and in related environments where repetition or efficiency is the goal.  In the Chinese/Taiwanese education system, we are expected to be competitive; we need to make our parents look good. Such a burden. My mother, bless her soul, of course wanted all her children to do well (what parents wouldn’t?), but she would never brag about her children’s “accomplishments.” The high school I went to was the best (girls’) high school, and the atmosphere felt like the premed frenzy in this country, although I understood the comparison only after I came to the States. In my high school, we all learned not to let on how hard we had to study for quizzes and tests, and some would actually beam or strut around, albeit subtly, after besting fellow students. Those three years of high school were the worst time in my life.

I don’t accumulate degrees or awards as badges of honor; I simply enjoy learning and exploration. If that means getting degrees and awards, so be it. I don’t regard them as having achieved anything special because for me, it’s all about finding something to be excited about…and the weirder it is, the more fascinating it is.

And I know plenty of people who are like that, regardless of their educational background. Some of the people I most admire have “only” high school diplomas, and some of the PhDs I have known are downright obnoxious. Such superficial accolades are just that, superficial. Years ago, one of the entrepreneurs I met had a PhD in biology but eventually acknowledged and accepted that his true passion was – and still is — woodworking. When he and I compared notes, we discovered what “competition” meant to us both: It’s about competing against ourselves, against some amorphous standards we keep updating, based on everything around us.

The conventional “high achieving” environment is actually quite toxic because it’s based on zero-sum competition mode where my win would have to be at the expense of someone else’s loss. It’s a scarcity mode of being. In such an environment, most people lose by definition. This attitude partly contributes to the ever-increasing stress levels on students, particularly during their high school years, and on employees who see the managerial ladder as the only success measurement. (See the “suggested readings”.) After you achieve a 4.0 GPA – sorry, I mean, 4.75 – then what? After you become a VP, make tons of money, or build five casinos, then what? What will you have accomplished?

I don’t readily know how to make a distinction between “high achievers” and those who forever follow their curiosity and passion. I’d love to hear your take-on and suggestions.

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4 thoughts on “The Cul-de-Sac of “High Achieving”

  1. I agree that competition, degree chasing, and living in the corporate environment are toxic for many people. Not everyone is made to thrive in that world. Still, lots of people, if not most, don’t have the luxury of time and resources to devote to following their curiosity and passion when they must earn a living and, often, support a family. There are multitudes out there who would love to reflect on life, “navel gaze,” and turn their backs on the spirit-depleting, energy-robbing, high-octane workplace where they must trudge everyday. But they live paycheck to paycheck, with no additional sources of income, and struggle to put food on the table, shoes on their children’s feet, and tuition payments in college coffers. For them, the “rat race” is less a choice than a necessity. I wonder how many people out there could become another Tchaikovsky, Einstein, or Degas if they had the time and means to develop their innate gifts rather than work in a job that exhausts them, and makes no sense to them beyond the pay. This is life for a huge number of post-recession Americans. But, then again, life is unfair. I admire those who survive in this trying arena, and still manage to maintain a sense of humor, a generous nature, and a connection with the spiritual. Mundane at they may be, they also are true heroes.

    • Very eloquently stated. Yes, my argument is for those who can “afford” such contemplation. I’d also argue that people in your descriptions don’t even have the “luxury” of competing against others; they are in the survival mode. Yet, Einstein, Van Gogh, or Schubert…all chose their passion, and some of them lived in poverty as well. Ultimately, I guess my point is that we have choices, may not be to our liking and may not be our first choice, but we do have them.

      • I don’t consider the need to take care of a family, and to keep them out of poverty, a choice–unless you argue that they shouldn’t have had the children in the first place. But that’s not always a choice either. As the French encyclopedistes of the 18th century stated, L’homme est plus determine que libre.” Man’s fate is more determined than chosen.”

  2. Oh, no, of course, I didn’t imply that, in the case of mother with children, women without means shouldn’t have children. But at every turn when a person makes a decision, there are several other choices. One may not always see other alternatives, and I do not imply it’s easy to see other alternatives, but there are. All I was trying to say is that when one chooses to follow one’s passion, it’s not always easy, and there is price (such as poverty), but it’s doable.

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