This is the third in a series of essays. You can access the rest here, though it’s not necessary to read them all or in order.

In my last post, I hope I communicated that I don’t think ambition is a bad thing. I think it becomes problematic however when our ambitions are driven by achievement culture. It can be so easy for what society tells you success looks like to become your ambition rather than the things that really move you. It’s often so difficult to separate out what our authentic desires are when we are so steeped in achievement culture and when society rewards some types of work more than others. But I think when you’re driven by the things that authentically move you, the rewards are much more rewarding.

Achievement culture is largely seen as a positive in the literature of business and education, but some have more recently started criticizing some of the results of achievement culture, wondering if it has caused a rise in mental illness among young people and a culture of overwork. If you do a Google search or look for articles about achievement culture, so many are focused on creating an achievement culture in workplaces as if it’s an unquestionably good thing. A lot talk about results-oriented workplaces, where employees are measured/ranked/evaluated by what they produce. You also see “achievement culture” being used a lot in K-12 settings, where teachers and administrators are creating a culture that encourages student achievement. Kids from an earlier and earlier age are feeling the pressure to achieve and we program them to define themselves by their work by constantly asking them what they want to “be” when they grow up. Obviously, wanting to do a good job in your work is not a bad thing. Caring is important. Liking your work is ideal. But I think achievement culture can create that unhealthy need for external validation that I wrote about in my last post which leads to a never ending cycle of trying to one-up ourselves in a futile effort to feel fulfilled. Heather Havrilesky writes about that in What if This Were Enough:

I was always checking in with my bosses to make sure that they saw me as capable. I wanted them to measure the amount of concrete work I did. I wanted them to notice that my work was better than other people’s work. I wanted them to see how much effort I put in. Generally speaking, bosses are not fired up to do a careful accounting of their underlings’ work… Most of the time, what bosses respond to it what bosses themselves value most: bravado.

Achievement culture comes from deep within the soul of our national character (and Christianity). It’s the Protestant work-ethic. The prosperity gospel. The Horatio Alger mythology that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you only work hard enough. The mythologies of our founding fathers who were “young, scrappy, and hungry” (Alexander Hamilton: our nation’s first workaholic) and built a nation with their “hustle.” Roxane Gay also writes about buying into this mythology in her chapter in The Double Bind: Women on Ambition:

I have come to realize how much I have, throughout my life, bought into the narrative of this alluring myth of personal responsibility and excellence. I realize how much I believe all good things will come if I — and we — just work hard enough. This attitude leaves me always relentless, always working hard enough and then harder still.

The educational system fuels this with achievement test scores that either broaden or narrow your potential in your own eyes and in the eyes of those around you. It’s a trap for everyone, even those with high scores. When you score in the top 10% or 5% or even 1% on achievement tests, suddenly, you’re expected to always succeed. To always get those sparkling scores. To always get the pats on the head as if your innate ability to do well on a test was somehow a measure of your worthiness. 

I was one of those kids as I’m sure were a lot of people who ended up in librarianship. And I will fully admit that I went into high school without a strong work ethic, thinking my innate ability would always get me through. I was disorganized and unmotivated. My grades at the start of high school weren’t terrible, but they certainly weren’t dazzling. Then, towards the end of 9th grade, we received our class rank — a number that told us where our grades stood in relation to all of our classmates. Mine was right around the middle of my 110-student class. Beyond my parents being unhappy with that, it created in me a deep sense of shame since I’d always scored so well on aptitude tests. So I started to work hard. And I ended up graduating 8th in my class with a high GPA and lots of laurels. But these things like class rank and achievement tests create an environment in which we are measured and compared to our classmates. It engenders that need in many for external validation and the compulsion to compare ourselves to our colleagues. It’s totally toxic. As the mother of a 10 year-old who also tests very well, it’s something I worry very much about perpetuating.

Many of us feel the pressure achievement culture has laid on our shoulders. The drive to be the best. The need to always be working on a visible project that people can ooh and ahh about. The need to be seen as the hardest worker, the best worker, the most dedicated worker, the most creative problem-solver, etc. From a Quartz article on achievement culture:

I’ve learned my demons aren’t just mine. Thousands of young people share the same thirst to achieve that I had (and still have)—rising out of family pressures, alienation, and an identity that they’re smart or talented or special or destined to do something significant. On the plus side, it can make them hard-charging, industrious, and willing to put themselves out there. On the flip side, it can be paralyzing. It can lead to depression, a sense of isolation, even self-destruction. I think it’s harder in an era of social media, where there’s always something you’re missing. FOMO (fear of missing out) is the enemy of valuing your own time.

In the workplace, you don’t get graded and ranked on everything you do. A lot of our work isn’t even particularly visible. Heather Havrilesky writes that “being capable isn’t celebrated or embraced or rewarded handsomely, or often, even noticed these days. We prefer to celebrate the valiant, charismatic leader who speaks confidently of what should come next.” So to get those pats on the head, we need to be visionary leaders; to create something big and visible that is valued by the powers-that-be. 

And our profession certainly valorizes what it sees as heroic or visionary work, rather than consistent, good, steady work over a long period of time. Our awards don’t necessarily reward being a great instruction librarian who supports student success or a great children’s librarian who engages kids and comes up with terrific programming. Most awards celebrate the big project, the major initiative, the one important research article. And it encourages people to focus on work that is visible and big and singular rather than, perhaps, the things that will have the greatest impact on our patrons. When I think about the awards I’ve won, they have mostly been for my big projects and not the work I’m most proud of. The Public Library Division of the Oregon Library Association has something called the Pearl Award (like a pearl in an oyster), which recognizes someone who maybe hasn’t done anything flashy, but has spent a long time in Oregon libraries doing excellent work. Our profession needs more awards like this.

I actually feel much busier with work than in the past, but over the past year, I don’t have a lot of big results to show for it. At first, that felt really weird, but I’m becoming more and more comfortable with it. I’m more proud of my teaching than I’ve ever been at any other point in my career. Towards the end of Spring term, I sat in on student presentations in a Reading 115 class I’d worked with three times over the course of an academic quarter and nearly burst into tears when I saw how much progress these students had made and how terrific their projects were. I’m proud of the relationships I’ve built with faculty in some of my liaison areas and the support I’ve been able to provide to get them to use open and free textbooks for their students. But my work results are far less visible to others. And, really, given where I am in my career, that’s fine by me. 

We know that vocational awe is a big issue in our field with many problematic implications. And vocational awe, in itself, can lead to overwork. Because if you love your job, it shouldn’t feel like work, right? And all those patrons who need you — how could you give less than 100% of yourself?

One of the biggest problems with being good at your job is that you’re always going to be asked to do more. An article I read in the Atlantic described a study which found that managers tended to assign more work to employees they saw as highly capable (something I’m sure many of us suspected) and that those managers tended to underestimate how much effort it would take to get that work done. The study also asked the overburdened workers how they felt about this situation. “In a survey of more than 400 employees, they found that high performers were not only aware that they were giving more at work—they rightly assumed that their managers and co-workers didn’t understand how hard it was for them, and thus felt unhappy about being given more tasks.” This is what leads in many workplaces to people resenting their colleagues who take on less, when, really, the blame should be placed on the managers who perpetuate the unequal system and take advantage of people with workaholic sensibilities (or vocational awe). Working hard becomes a trap where the expectation that you will do more only grows. The pace you set is the pace they will expect.

Beyond being taken advantage of and overworked by your boss(es), pursuing society’s definition of success rarely leads to happiness. I read an interesting article by Charles Duhigg in the New York Times about his experience at the 15 year reunion of his MBA class at Harvard. He was surprised by how many of his classmates were unhappy and felt crushed under the weight of expectations around work hours, money, and status. Strangely, he found that the classmates who were the happiest were those who hadn’t ended up at the sort of places Harvard MBA’s usually clamor to get jobs:

They had been passed over by McKinsey & Company and Google, Goldman Sachs and Apple, the big venture-capital firms and prestigious investment houses. Instead, they were forced to scramble for work — and thus to grapple, earlier in their careers, with the trade-offs that life inevitably demands. These late bloomers seemed to have learned the lessons about workplace meaning preached by people like Barry Schwartz. It wasn’t that their workplaces were enlightened or (as far as I could tell) that H.B.S. had taught them anything special. Rather, they had learned from their own setbacks.

I know that for me, the first time I considered that my upward trajectory was not going to make me happy was when I had a career setback; when I was in a job where I experienced bullying and mobbing. It made me temporarily question myself, my abilities, and my likeability. In the long-term, though, it made me think more about what was really important to me in a job. For me, it was challenging and creative work, great colleagues, lots of interaction with students, a supportive manager, an institution where everyone is truly committed to helping students be successful, and a job where I can be a whole person. I realized that while I loved being a manager and supporting my direct reports, climbing the ladder wasn’t as important to me and that any job that totally took me away from working with students wasn’t really one I wanted.

I am not a David Brooks fan by any stretch, but his two-mountain analogy does get at this perceptual shift that often comes when people hit roadblocks in their careers:

Many of the people I admire lead lives that have a two-mountain shape. They got out of school, began their career, started a family and identified the mountain they thought they were meant to climb — I’m going to be an entrepreneur, a doctor, a cop. They did the things society encourages us to do, like make a mark, become successful, buy a home, raise a family, pursue happiness…

These hustling years are also powerfully shaped by our individualistic and meritocratic culture. People operate under this assumption: I can make myself happy. If I achieve excellence, lose more weight, follow this self-improvement technique, fulfillment will follow.

Some of them achieved success and found it unsatisfying. They figured there must be more to life, some higher purpose. Others failed. They lost their job or endured some scandal. Suddenly they were falling, not climbing, and their whole identity was in peril. Yet another group of people got hit sideways by something that wasn’t part of the original plan. They had a cancer scare or suffered the loss of a child. These tragedies made the first-mountain victories seem, well, not so important.

Brooks sees the second mountain being about contribution to society and choosing a spiritual life. Personally, I’m not a believer in prescribing a specific way of being (especially when that answer fits exactly what the author themself did or it requires you to be more like David Brooks), but I do believe that there is value in questioning the path we are on, what motivates us to achieve, and what contributions we really want to make. Your answers may not be spiritual nor ego-free and that’s cool. It just needs to be true to you.

Chasing success is like being a greyhound chasing a fake rabbit on a track. You might win a particular race, but you’ll never catch the rabbit, you’ll never scratch that itch that is really driving you. There will always be a new one to keep chasing and chasing and chasing, always just out of reach. Achievement culture and the myth of the meritocracy keep us constantly chasing wins that never add up to real happiness. It’s worth trying to separate out what actually makes you happy and what you’re chasing because you think you should be chasing.

Up next — “The Cult of Productivity: You’re Not Getting Enough Done.”

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