Why Success Won’t Save You


I read an article today that said that only 8% of people who set resolutions actually make their goals. The article went on to say that “the very nature of resolutions set us up for failure.” The answer, according to the article, was to plan better. Set specific, achievable goals.

This begs a question. Is this blog totally against setting goals for anyone? Or just for me? The answer is that this blog is about motivation in general, and how to be motivated without being achievement oriented. Setting a goal to eat more salad isn’t going to make your neighbors think you are successful and most likely won’t make you feel as though you winning the never ending war on weight. So no, this blog isn’t about not setting goals; I’m not anti-goal. It’s me, the recovery achievement junkie that needs to not set goals for a good long time. However, constantly striving for achievement, swinging from one accomplishment to another like monkey bars to keep you out of some sandpit of “failure” or despair, now that I recommend against.

I would argue that this general aversion to achievement that I am putting forth, maybe even campaigning for, has its roots in our fear of failure.  If we try to beat back that fear of failure by setting goals so that we can be what we think others will think of as successful, then we are in a place of anxiety and are never fulfilled. No goal will get you to a place where you feel safe and restored, if that goal is to be “successful” as some kind of talisman against failure.

Let’s stop and think about failure first.  There are heaps and heaps of wildly accomplished people who have lovely things to say about failure.  “Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another steppingstone to greatness,” says Oprah Winfrey.  A personal favorite from Winston Churchill is that “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” So failure is not death, yes?

Another attack at this fear of failure is through the idea of abundance. Yes, I know, you are tired of hearing about abundance. The whole Secret thing back in the early 2000s kind of killed that right? The word makes me think of the yoga teachers who drive shiny new SUVs telling us to just leap into the forest of abundance and we’ll be safe. Sweetheart, have you seen my student loans? There is no leaping.

But honestly, the issue with success and constantly striving for it, can be based on the idea that there isn’t enough to go around.  This can provoke anxiety and competition, and all sorts of fun and games. I think money guru Marie Forleo says it well when talking about the need to see money as a measure of success and constantly striving after it. “I also don’t prescribe to a zero sum world-view based in scarcity. Meaning, if you get more money (or love, attention, fill in the blank) — that I get less. Both science and spirituality show us that through collaboration, innovation, generosity and partnership — our collective resources can truly be infinite.”

So with the idea that failure ain’t so bad, and won’t have us living in the park fighting the squirrels for food, I recommend against focusing on achievement as a life preserver.
Whatever is haunting you, if it is, isn’t going to go away with another title, or a better car, or running a marathon.  If it’s really haunting you, it’s going to pop back up with all sorts of new ideas, and at the same time make you worry about losing whatever title, car or marathon race medal you just managed to get your hands on.
This goes back to the idea of process addiction.  The idea that the process of getting the thing, of striving for the achievement at whatever costs, that blocks out the haunting until the striving is done.  As the Twelve Step group Workaholics Anonymous says “All these are ways we cope with the pain of having lost our sense of being and of not feeling good enough. Over-scheduling our lives with activities is how we run from ourselves. We keep busy to blot out our feelings.”
I think that some of our need for constant achievement has become hidden in the world of self-improvement. If you look to the life coaches and mentors who are having a positive effect, say Molly Mahar of Stratejoy or Andrea Owen of Your Kick Ass Life, the methods they suggest aren’t about hitting the next step, the next brass ring. They start with a premise that you, yourself, are fabulous as you are right now and that what you need is not improvement, but removal of the blocks that keep you from expressing your fabulous awesome.  In other words, removing the idea that failure might suck the life out of you as a block to being and contributing as you are. Right now. Right here.
I’ll hit this in a further blog post, but I think just in the way that we bond through Fat Talk, through disparaging our bodies to one another, I think we now bond over self-improvement. As in replacing, “I’m so chubby, I can’t believe I bought this ice cream” “Oh no, you clearly haven’t seen my thighs today” interchange, with “I need to focus on being mindful and of making the most out of every moment because I’m just not spiritual enough” “Oh, yes, and I never savor the moment as I should so that I can be aligned with the present.”
I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to be more mindful, obviously I just discussed workaholism as an escape mechanism, but what I mean is, do you really need improvement? Do you really need to be better? Maybe you just need to ditch the fear and be ok with yourself. Yourself that is imperfect and lives in the middle and I bet, is loved by many people just as you are right now.
I know with my need to achieve, so much came out of feeling like a failure in junior high. Picked on by other kids, traumatized by some events. I set a goal one day of wanting to walk down the main street in my little town as a “success.” (We had moved away from the town when I was 15).  This goal propelled me into corporate law (even though I was happiest writing and drawing and being outside and am not attuned to the “looking out for number one” mindset you need to succeed in that environment). Once I did manage to get back to that little town, years and years later, after I’d stumbled out of corporate law and barely felt successful and was in a financial morass of debt, I did walk down that street. And I thought for a moment about the fact that I had started a couple of organizations, and had helped a few people out, and had managed to get through law school reasonably well, and I decided maybe that could be success for the day. It took the wind out of that desperate goal to show everyone I was as good as them. My thoughts of returning to corporate law evaporated after that day. As did my need to earn money to show people I was as good as them.
I still struggle with the need to achieve goals. I am a little lost at the gym without the goal of losing weight or training for a race/triathlon. What do you mean I just get on a machine and have fun? How do I win at that? Do I beat the guy next to me? Is there some gold star for burning calories? It’s a transition. It’s a new way of thinking and I’m clumsy with it. I recently hurt my right shoulder, enough so that reaching for things became extremely painful. As in reaching for doors, opening jars, giving the bouncy dog scratches with both hands. It’s been about two weeks and its better now, but I struggled to figure out that I should be opening doors with my left hand (and foot) and maybe the bouncy dog could have scratches with one hand for a couple weeks and be ok (she didn’t care at all).  The point is, its clumsy, but it gets you through.
I’m struggling with trying achievement at work too. Not that I can abandon work for a couple days while my brain gets used to not trying to Be The Best at work or bill the most, but that I am currently in a situation where I literally have no motivation to put effort into my work. If I carefully craft an awesome motion it gets the same effect as if I throw something together at the last minute riddled with typos. The problem is, not that I want to be the best, but that I want to have pride in my work. It’s a fine line though. Because it means I have to focus on me having pride in my work, not on an external source of judgment. As in, I have to finish a memo and decide for myself that its lovely and useful, even though no one is actually going to read it properly (given the dynamics of the Philly courts).  And yes, I realize this is a terrible working environment and am doing my best to move along. Which does in fact raise other problems. When faced with a job hunt, what does a recovering achievement junkie do? Let’s go with, decided to look at it from a purely practical perspective: I decided I needed XX amount of money over XX hours and that whatever fits that bill will work. I do have a ton of projects, I am working to fill my resume with other things so I can leave what I’m doing now, but I’m constantly working to remind myself that none of these projects is on a deadline.  None of them are going to make me a better, stronger, prettier person.  And that it’s entirely possible that I will screw one or all of them up. And if I do, so what? If I fail at my class on policy analysis will my dog no longer love me? Probably not, she’s a fairly nonjudgmental sort. If I fail what is the worst that could happen? I’m out my tuition dollars. Which sucks, but they can be made back up again. The worst that happens is not that I don’t get to leave my job eventually. The worst that happens is not that I get sucked into some whirlpool of awful that I can’t get out of.  The worst that happens is that I wasted some time, and probably had fun doing it. Fear of failure, meet focus on learning, on growing.
Am I advocating that the answer to our addiction to achievement is to focus on growing and learning and stumbling through failure. Not really, because if you have kids or elderly parents that are relying on you, the stakes for failure are much higher. I get that. I really do. But I am saying that if you are rushing from status to status, from 5K to marathon in six months, that looking at what’s following you two steps behind, at what’s robbing you of fun or joy or a sense of accomplishment with these things, might be a good idea.
That’s my plan.

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