To Achieve Or Not To Achieve

lemonade 2

We’ve been looking at how inspiration, motivation, and ambition contribute to career satisfaction — or not. High achievers have plenty of all three. They richly populate the professions, where career disillusionment also runs high. What’s that about?

“The paradox is that success can seem like failure,” writes MIT philosophy professor Kieran Setiya, author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. “Like any paradox, it calls for philosophical treatment.”[1] He goes on:

“In search of an answer, I turned to the 19th-century pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer is notorious for preaching the futility of desire. That getting what you want could fail to make you happy would not have surprised him at all. On the other hand, not having it is just as bad.

“For Schopenhauer, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you get what you want, your pursuit is over. You are aimless, flooded with a ‘fearful emptiness and boredom’, as he put it in The World as Will and Representation(1818). Life needs direction: desires, projects, goals that are so far unachieved. And yet this, too, is fatal. Because wanting what you do not have is suffering. In staving off the void by finding things to do, you have condemned yourself to misery. Life ‘swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents.

“Meanwhile, your engagement with projects subverts itself. In pursuing a goal, you either fail or, in succeeding, end its power to guide your life. No doubt you can formulate other plans. The problem is not that you will run out of projects (the aimless state of Schopenhauer’s boredom), it’s that your way of engaging with the ones that matter most to you is by trying to complete them and thus expel them from your life. When you pursue a goal, you exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye.

“When you are obsessed with projects, ceaselessly replacing old with new, satisfaction is always in the future. Or the past. It is mortgaged, then archived, but never possessed. In pursuing goals, you aim at outcomes that preclude the possibility of that pursuit, extinguishing the sparks of meaning in your life.

“Hence … the striving high-achiever, obsessed with getting things done, who is haunted by the hollowness of everyday life.”

Thus spake Schopenhauer — “but Schopenhauer was wrong,” says Professor Setiya. His solution? Give up on deriving meaning from completing projects and obtaining new milestones, and instead focus on goals that don’t have an end point, and therefore can’t be achieved.

“In order to see [Schopenhauer’s] mistake, we need to draw distinctions among the activities we value: between ones that aim at completion, and ones that don’t.

“Think of listening to music, parenting, or spending time with friends. They are things you can stop doing, but you cannot finish or complete them. Their temporality is not that of a project with an ultimate goal, but of a limitless process.

“If the crisis diagnosed by Schopenhauer turns on excessive investment in projects, then the solution is to invest more fully in the process, giving meaning to your life through activities that have no terminal point: since they cannot be completed, your engagement with them is not exhaustive. It will not subvert itself. Nor does it invite the sense of frustration that Schopenhauer scorns in unsatisfied desire – the sense of being at a distance from one’s goal, so that fulfillment is always in the future or the past.

 “We should not give up on our worthwhile goals. Their achievement matters. But we should meditate, too, on the value of the process.”

“Life is a journey, not a destination” — we’ve heard that before, right alongside “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Advice like that has always struck me as sour grapes. Can’t get what you want? No problem, just trick yourself into believing that’s really okay. But now, as I write this, I realize that these days my whole life is all about the process. I work out, write, read, research, study, learn. I do artwork. I cook and clean and stick to a budget. I’m there for my wife and kids. None of that has a goal. I’ll never achieve any of it.[2] But it’s rich in satisfaction.

It helps that I don’t have a job anymore.

Or maybe I’m just good at making lemonade.

Photo by Julia Zolotova on Unsplash

[1] “How Schopenhauer’s Thought Can Illuminate A Midlife Crisis,” Aeon Magazine (Jan. 26, 2018).

[2] My workouts are full of metrics I try to meet, but that’s not the same thing. Maybe more on that another time.

Author: Kevin Rhodes

Kevin Rhodes draws insight and perspective from his prior career in law, business, and consulting, from his studies in economics, psychology, neuroscience, entrepreneurship, and technology, and from personal life experience.

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