The drive to achieve: Worthy pursuit or waste of time?

May 27, 2004|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Again and again, looking at academic competitions among our youths, I have noticed that a disproportionate number of the very highest achievers are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. This has raised in my mind the question: Is it OK if the native-born youths of America are less likely than these newcomers to have the drive to achieve to their highest potential?

The question of the role of achievement in a life wisely led has engaged me all my life. Brought up in a family in which the drive to excel was instilled deeply and thoroughly, I both bought into that system of values and felt burdened by it. What was burdensome about my family's ethic of achievement was that it was through excellence of performance that one proved one's worth. With that at stake, the striving was inevitably accompanied by anxiety.

From that perspective, maybe it's good if we Americans are less driven. Maybe we've become more comfortable with who we are in the world, with nothing left to prove. Maybe it is a cultural advance to make the enjoyment of life - not the striving for achievement - the central goal. After all, Henry David Thoreau wrote of his New England neighbors, a century and a half ago, that they labored under a mistake, plowing "the better part of the man" into the ground with their dogged work ethic. These hard workers lived, he said, "lives of quiet desperation."

So is it good for us to move away from a fixation on work and achievement?

I know a bright and capable young man who has spent the better part of a decade since graduating from college working - at the kind of job he could have had as a high school student - to support his surfing in his spare time. He says he's happy with his life. Should we, like this young man, embrace the idea that we're here, in the words of the old beer commercial, to grab all the gusto we can?

Perhaps the issue hinges on the meaning and purpose of striving to "be all that we can be."

I teach now at a very fine independent school, many of whose students are sent there because their parents believe a first-rate high school education will help their kids climb the ladder of success toward status and wealth.

But how wonderful a reason for striving for achievement is the urge for self-advancement?

True, that's the capitalist way. More than two centuries ago, Adam Smith described how the pursuit of self-interest is channeled, as if by "an invisible hand," into furthering the goal of bettering society as a whole, even though that altruistic outcome was no part of the intention of any of the actors in the system.

Although that system has worked marvels in terms of creating material wealth, that reliance on the "invisible hand" to connect us to the wider world has exacted a serious moral and spiritual price. If we strive to excel for reasons that are merely self-serving and narcissistic, something vital remains missing from the core of our lives.

That leads to a better possible reason for striving to fulfill our best potential. We should encourage our children to make the most of their gifts, not so much to enrich themselves or to prove their worth, but out of a desire to serve the world. The question that should inspire their lives is, "What is the most wonderful thing I have within me to give to the world?" Our "gifts," properly understood, are not just something we have been given but something from which we can give our best back to the world.

This idea connects with some of the best elements of our spiritual tradition. It connects with the old Protestant notion of the calling, which sanctifies every human endeavor as an opportunity to do God's work: It's not only a Bach or a Shakespeare who can realize his potential, but anyone in any walk of life can find worthy ways to pour his or her best into the work at hand. And, in this nation privileged with unprecedented power and wealth, it connects with the New Testament notion that "to whom much is given, much will be required" (Luke 12:48).

Undertaken in such a spirit, it's possible for the path of striving to be all that you can be to be one not of desperation but of devotion.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (SUNY Press, 1995).

Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.

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