Achieving and Relating

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When asked, “What have done in your life?”, it is usually achievements that count as an answer. Imagine the difference between answering, “I was President/Prime Minister” compared to, “I’ve been a good friend and courteous to most strangers”.

It seems to me that there are two different attitudes to life: achievement and relationship.

Achievements

I find it easiest to relate to the achievement attitude, and it is often the one that our society validates. Most of us have endured schooling (sometimes humorously called ‘education’) where we were relentlessly compared to others and rated on our successes, failures and achievements.

A psychotherapist I met did a workshop with some teachers. Wanting it to be a relaxed and fun time she put out some bowls of lollies. Nobody took any — and then one of the participants asked what they had to do to earn one. Much of our culture seems like this.

My early decision was: I am unacceptable because I’m incompetent. So, my life could easily have become the pursuit of competence or, even worse, qualifications and achievements. I was fortunate that some very skilful and compassionate people were quite patient with me. As a result I was able to remake this early decision.

My temptation, at some times of my life (e.g., adolescence) was to rebel against this decision and not bother with the various systems of ratings. The anger behind this response was a useful resource for me — but rebelling against a system means that the system still sets the agenda. I feel that these various rating systems are largely juvenile. I now see that we can relate to others as people with varying gifts but with a fundamental value.

Achievements I think have their value. I am glad that many artists have finished works of great beauty. It is important for builders to achieve the completion of the plans of the houses they build. To set a goal and achieve it brings us satisfaction.

Achievement as an Attitude to Life

My problem isn’t with achieving works of beauty or utility. My problem is with achievement as an attitude to life. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Rating ourselves on our achievements is perilous. Others may let us down, equipment may break down, and the result is we don’t achieve our goal. If we blame ourselves for what is out of our control we are likely to be unhappy.
  • Rating ourselves against others’ achievement can be unfair. We are born with varying gifts into situations of differing resources. We may underestimate our resources or our gifts. We may know not realise how much easier or more difficult it can be for others to achieve what we desire to.
  • An attitude of achievement can lead to insensitivity to the process and the context. Achievement usually requires focus, which usually means ignoring lots of things. A runner is interested in reaching the tape, not what is happening around them. Extending this attitude to life can lead to narrowness and tunnel vision, missing the beauty that is around and the pleasure from the performance itself.
  • An attitude of achievement can get in the way of learning. If it is the achievement that matters, and how we get there doesn’t matter, then we may not value learning itself. (Learning can often slow down performance without guaranteed benefit. This leads to doing things the way they have always been done. Why question this if all those others who have achieved the result have done it this way? It can even be called impertinence or disrespect to question how something is done.)

Relating and Achieving

It seems wrong to me that some people are paid millions to play dress-ups in front of a camera, while those who dedicate their life to being a good parent aren’t.

When asked, “What have you done in your life?”, it is usually achievements that count as an answer. Imagine the difference between answering, “I was President/Prime Minister” compared to, “I’ve been a good friend and courteous to most strangers”.

Most of us recognise that it is our relationships which bring us satisfaction. Even in the business world this is a cliché: who ever died wishing they had spent more time at the office?

And yet, our schools are the way they are, our conversations are the way they are, jobs are rewarded are as they are.

Firstly I wish to register my protest. Secondly I wish to point out that there are probably many who do not endorse the current scale of values. The Australia Institute found that in five years one quarter of Australia’s population had ‘downshifted‘ — voluntarily reduced their lifestyle. (This excluded those returning to study or moving on to the age pension.) This is a remarkable social movement, one that is largely ignored and voiceless in media and political discussion. There is also the rise of what in marketing is called the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability sector (LoHaS for short) — those concerned with ‘green’ issues, combining concerns of ecology and social justice.

If we approach others as part of a relationship, this is quite different to viewing them in terms of achievement. If we relate to others as part of a project or other achievement we are likely to treat them as a means to an end; it is likely that they will feel used.

If we see our life as a series of relationships, we may be able to value the relationship itself (and so gain sensitivity to the process) and also be willing to include other people and elements into the relationship. It is easier to expand and enrich a relationship, while an achievement is prone to lead to narrowing of focus. If we approach our life as a set of relationships we are likely to be more sensitive both to context and to process.

The major puzzle I am left with at the end of this post is how popular the achievement approach is. If anyone has ideas why this is so, I would love to hear them. I’d also like to hear about your experiences of the achievement and relationship approaches. I’m looking forward to hearing from you in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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