Sunday, 10 October 2010

Achievement gap

There are several pervasive ideas floating around my consciousness which I have been unable to shake off despite their irrationality. One – shared by colleagues and respected polymaths – is the fear of being ‘found out’: exposed as an untalented fraud, my unintelligence revealed to the world, expulsion from the institutions and professions I aspire to. Another is an annoyingly illogical belief in destiny, fate, ka, predetermination, or whatever you want to call it. Then there is the idea of ultimate and final achievement. 

The idea is that there is a single achievement which will suddenly make life easier. J.R.R. Tolkien used the word ‘eucatastrophe’ to refer to the idea of a single moment in which everything is turned around: bad turns to good, defeat turns to victory, difficulty turns to ease. I’m haunted by the notion that the next achievement will be the one that makes me ‘set for life’: that one final achievement will allow me to stop working so hard because from that point on everything will be fine. This one achievement will lead to employers hiring me, colleagues respecting me, and success handed to me. 

Over the years there have been several such achievements that I thought would ‘set me up for life’. If I got good GCSE grades; if I got accepted to Cambridge University; if I got a First in my undergraduate degree; if I got short stories published; if I got a Masters degree; if I got the atypical post-library-qualification position of Assistant Librarian: if I could just achieve them, everything would be fine from then on. 

I achieved all of them (except Cambridge) and yet life struggles on. Clothes still need washing, books still need reading, blog posts still need writing. There will never be that final achievement that makes everything easier because each achievement opens the door to new achievements. There will never be a point where I can put my feet up and play video games guilt-free secure in the knowledge that I have achieved everything I can achieve. There is no final victory in life.

This is of course whiny self-indulgence and despite my seeming ingratitude I’m proud of everything I’ve done. Writing this post has been an act of catharsis. But it will not free me. I am unable to follow the sage advice of Alan Watts and dance to the music of life.

I’ll carry on marching to the implacable sound of distant drumming: the sound that in reality is the impatient tapping of my own fingers. I’ll keep working towards the nonexistent achievement that will finally give me peace.


Girl in the Moon said...

*Round of applause*

(And - are you inside my head? I even did the going to Cambridge bit - it didn't help at all. Whole bunch of brainy people all in one place just leads to massive, never-ending case of imposter syndrome.)

SimonXIX said...

Imposter syndrome! That's the phrase I couldn't quite remember when I was writing this. It allowed me to find this excellent post on the subject which eluded me earlier:

Thanks for that. And it's always good to know that one isn't quite as alone as one thinks.

thewikiman said...

Woodsiegirl has also written about imposter syndrome, I believe.

It's interesting, to me, how each stage you describe feels like the final stage at the time, because it is what facilitates all the others.. (which is illogical or oxymoronical but that doesn't stop you feeling that at the time. Or didn't stop me!) If I'd had any idea *just* how unimportant GCSEs were at the time - well, I probably would have done even worse than I did... So it makes me wonder what stages now I'm attaching great significance to, which are also relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

Anyway, don't want to muddy the philosophical waters even further, sorry. :)

SimonXIX said...

That's interesting. The ever-shifting finality of these achievements may be related to the imposter syndrome and general low self-esteem: every achievement becomes devalued and less monumental by the act of my achieving them.

"If I've done it, it could never have been that difficult / important / meaningful."

Girl in the Moon said...

"If I've done it, it could never have been that difficult / important / meaningful."

Oh, yes - that, too. We should start a club.

SimonXIX said...

"I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member." - Groucho Marx

Mac said...

Imposter syndrome does rear it's head at inappropriate moments, particularly when you start something new.

I think we never stop striving and trying to achieve new things , I compleated a p/t MSc in Library & Information nearly a year ago and did not feel it a significant achivement until I looked back on it after some months.

I think the yogic concept of Vairagya or non-attachment is very healthy. Strive to do things and better yourself but do not get "attached" to the outcome or you are setting yourself up for unhappiness and disappointment.