The Accomplishment Trap

I have been holding the question “how do i want to spend my time?” I look at it before going to sleep in the hopes that an amazing answer will emerge in the morning when i write three pages long-hand. This morning, i did a frequent routine: I meant to get up with sunrise and then decided to stay in bed until 7 AM, rather enjoying the luxury of being able to do that. Then the question popped into my head – with the suggestion that i was wasting my time. So, i got out of bed and started musing: when i am on my deathbed (another one of those questions that’s supposed to help us figure out what we want to do), would it be horrible if i said i lounged in bed most of the time? I realized that maybe it wouldn’t be – if i could say that i actually enjoyed it. That i was in bed because that’s where i wanted to be, not because i was trying to hide from something.

I realized then that i was still entangled in the cultural trauma of accomplishment: Unless we accomplish something, we are failures and unworthy of love and belonging (the ideas that trigger shame). The measure of accomplishment seems to be shifting for me – it’s no longer the amount of money i make (it never really was my measure), it’s no longer the number of readers i attract or how many people attend my workshops (the measure that seems to be more the standard in the non-corporate world). Now, the measure was a more illusive number of “admirers.” I wanted to do something big – like live without money! And then i would beat myself up for not doing it because there’s something in me stopping me. I admire people who live without money. And maybe that’s the way to go (though maybe figuring out how we can change our relationship to money is more realistic). Yet, i actually rather like some of the luxuries that money can buy me – like going to a folk dance class (well, okay, so my standard for luxury is already lowered). I would prefer living on as little money as possible without doing things i am not yet ready for. Living in a closet is one of those things.

As i was mulling all this over, i noticed more acceptance toward myself. And i noticed something else, something i’ve been reading a lot about as i am rediscovering Buddhism: Presence. As i was letting go of “i have to do something,” i could fully be here right now in the moment. Then it dawned on me: I was doing something! I am studying the impact of cultural trauma on my life. I am learning just how insidious it is: Even when we think we’re living in a counter-culture, we are being influenced by the messages from mainstream culture. I am only worthy if i am counter-culture enough – or things like that.

Now, i do think that things are pretty dire for us humans. We are facing several major challenges (catastrophes?) – global climate disruption, overconsumption, and overpopulation to name some of the major ones. We cannot continue living the way we are here in the United States. So, change is necessary – lounging in bed all day might not seem like it would contribute to that change. However, questioning that we have to accomplish something might. A lot of what we do or buy is supposed to show how accomplished we are: Look what car i can afford! If i give up wanting to accomplish, maybe i don’t buy a car or run that marathon. I could just walk out the door to the beach and watch a sunset. Maybe a new question for me is: Who would i be if i didn’t have to accomplish anything?

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The Accomplishment Trap — 3 Comments

  1. I like your blog.

    I wonder if there is a flip-side to your discussion. You speak of “giv[ing] up wanting to accomplish.” Suppose that one does that. One will have, then, accomplished “giv[ing] up wanting to accomplish.” One would now be, supposedly, better off than one was before. Given this picture, I wonder if you would say that one is no longer burdened by the accomplishment trap.

    One reason to think that one IS burdened is because one still (I assume) wants to accomplish things. The only difference between one’s previous accomplishments and one’s current ones is in kind. I wonder on what grounds one would (or better, could) justify pursuing one kind of accomplishment over another, or how one would (or better, could) convince oneself that one pursuit was better than the other, or something like that.

    I have had similar worries myself.

    • I am not sure i understand what your concern is, Bill. Are you saying that giving up wanting to accomplish is in itself an accomplishment? If so, why would that be problematic? Or are you saying that we cannot live without trying to accomplish things?

      According to a dictionary “accomplish” means “achieve or complete successfully.” I suppose, you could complete planting something successfully when, say, the plant grows fruit that you can actually harvest. The accomplishment trap i am talking about is different, though: It’s a trap because we entangle accomplishment with our self-worth.

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