Achievement is not a bad thing

I have been thinking a lot about The Race to Nowhere, and what I wrote about it, and about the thoughtful comments that people made.  My sister, the younger-and-wiser Hilary, and I have been going back and forth in email about it too.  She is the only person on the planet who shared with me the overwhelmingly rich and challenging terroir of our childhood and uniquely qualified to discuss those days and to hold up a mirror to me.  She is also a deeply thoughtful person and an educator, so I am particularly interested in her view on this subject.

And she said something that really struck me.  With regard to The Race to Nowhere, she averred that she did not like the way that “achievement has become anathema.”  And I agree.  Fully.  In fact when I read the comments on my post last week, I found myself with an uneasy feeling in my stomach, that creeping sensation of not having adequately or articulately conveyed what I really feel.  I’m worried I left out a big piece of my view.

And so here I will try again.  I think achievement is terrific.  I have written time and time again of how important it is for a child to feel the feel mastery.  Of a skill, a place, of themselves.  I will never forget the glow in Grace’s eyes when she rode a two-wheeler alone, the light in Whit’s face when he swam a lap of the pool solo, the sheer, palpable delight Grace felt when she began reading chapter books.  These accomplishments are immensely self-esteem building, and I would never, ever suggest that they are a bad thing.

In my life this theme reached a crescendo at Phillips Exeter Academy, where I went for 11th and 12th grade.  Frankly, my years there were relatively unhappy, for a constellation of personal reasons.  Despite this, even while I was there I felt a deep respect, almost a reverence, for the place, an awareness that I was somewhere unique.  The further I get from Exeter the more crystalline my appreciation of the place becomes.  As the years have passed, and since I’ve had my own children, I’ve come to understand why.

It feels rare, these days, that an institution that deals with children says as baldly as Exeter does: we have high standards.  And we know you can meet them.  I’m not entirely sure why that’s a threatened stance in education today, but as far as I can see it is.  And Exeter unflinchingly does that.  I’ve never been somewhere that so fiercely believed in the potential of its students: we won’t lower the standards, the voices seem to whisper, because we know you can do it.

And they do.  It’s powerful, being believed in.

Nowhere I’ve been to school before or since has even remotely touched the education I received at Exeter.  Exeter pushed me and defied me and never, once, for a single second, gave up on me.  And you know what?  I could do it.  It is the first place that I began to believe that I might have something to say.

I think the problems begin when one’s identity becomes entirely intertwined with achievement.  This is what happened to me; I entirely lost the voice of my soul, which was a whisper, because the voice of the world telling me what to do, and applauding me when I did it, was so deafening.  Of course the risk of this is high when you begin achieving, because the world’s adulation feels good.  At least if you are a pleaser like myself.

But never let me miscommunicate my lack of commitment to the idea of excellence in general, and of achievement in specific.  I hope to raise children who are tuned in enough to their inner voices to discover what it is that makes their hearts soar, and full of energy and passion enough to go after those goals with everything they have.

24 thoughts on “Achievement is not a bad thing”

  1. For me it’s less about achievement, and more about the journey. I want my children to appreciate and grow to love the learning and enrichment that comes from immersing oneself in a passion. I want them to feel less like there is an end to reach or an achievement that will ultimately define them. Because, I’m sure you will agree, there is never an end, one things leads to another and if we continue to assign value to achievement as an end we set our children up for a difficult life in search of, as you say, adulation.

    Thanks for this discussion! I think it’s an important one that has no black and white answers, but that should be discussed at length.

  2. Lindsey, thank you so much for this follow-up. Race to Nowhere has been shown three times in my town and producer Vicki Abeles is coming for yet another showing. While I appreciate the dialogue it has started, I feel the film only touched on the role of parents in all of this craziness.

    I have two high school daughters and two younger sons and am amazed daily by what I see. Our public library had to cordon off areas and start charging fees for table use because the library was overrun after school by private tutor meetings (paid for and arranged by parents). Youth sports programs – which are all parent-led here – have been corrupted. (That alone would be the subject of a great documentary). I think we as parents need to look inward on the Race to Nowhere subject.

  3. I absolutely agree – setting up a life where the end goal is achievement is a road into a brick wall or … a road to nowhere. I know. I was on it. But at the same time I do think there is great power in doing well at something, and in success, and I don’t want to be misconstrued as not representing that point of view as well. xo

  4. “I think the problems begin when one’s identity becomes entirely intertwined with achievement.”
    And “I hope to raise children who are tuned in enough to their inner voices to discover what it is that makes their hearts soar, and full of energy and passion enough to go after those goals with everything they have.”
    Yes and YES!

  5. Just this morning I was thinking about Amy Chua (I actually liked Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I just finished. Not because I liked her specific approach, per se, but I liked it as a book. As a BOOK, people! It was a good read!). I do agree with her that something becomes fun when you can do it well. Maybe that something is school: math or writing. Maybe it’s tennis. We do need to give our kids a push, however, so that they do gain this confidence. Otherwise, how would they know? I think that is actually a mainstay of our responsibility as parents — in the end, they have to go out on their own. We need to prepare them for that. Yes, we need to prepare them for the disappointments in life, but the way you become prepared for these is confidence. As a parent, you want your kids to know that you believe they can handle anything. (I could make a long-time analogy I’ve had with the justice system: we need to say to young offenders — I believe you can do better. I believe you can create a meaningful life. I believe you are better than this.) I think this is a very important point — and one that I think Amy Chua was actually trying to make but which got lost beneath they hysteria of her techniques.

  6. Don’t underestimate the “at least if you are a pleaser like me” piece of this.

    You know what? For me, it’s failures that motivate, not successes. Success feels phony, unearned. Failure feels real and raw. Something to overcome, to beat.

  7. I went to public school, but my high school drama teacher was Exeter-esque. We did Shakespeare every fall. We read and performed challenging works. We were pushed to our limits, and I have no doubt I went on to majoe in drama in college because of him. Young people are capable of much more than we give them credit for.

  8. “It’s powerful, being believed in.”

    This? This is powerful.

    This post is so thoughtfully and carefully crafted and I get it. I so get it. I aslo look at my high school and its exacting standards with a sense of awe and reverence. I also think there is something exquisite about achievement, but I feel (as you do) that problems arise when our identity and our sense of personal worth are tied up exclusively in our sense of achievement. We all do have inner voices, internal whispers, that need to be felt and heard and the notion that these voices are so frequently stamped out is alarming.

    Thank you for writing this.

  9. The trickiness lies in the misconception that achievement and perfection are equals. Once we realize that they’re not one and the same, and – as you said – our achievements are not our identity, I think we can all breathe a little easier.

  10. There’s nothing wrong with achievement as a by-product of doing something you care deeply about. The danger is when achievement becomes a goal unto itself.

    Achievements tend to be visible and measurable; as a result, we have an easy time optimizing our lives to collect them. They are much easier to track than nebulous things like mastery or meaning. But mastery and meaning are far more important than achievement; achievement is simply a convenient proxy. For too often, we mistake the proxy for the real thing.

  11. “I’m not entirely sure why that’s a threatened stance in education today, but as far as I can see it is.”

    I have a theory on this. High standards take work on the part of the educator. If our schools set their standards high, they have to run the risk that their students may fail. And to prevent that failure they have to work very hard. You said that Exeter never gave up on you, and I’m sure that’s true. I’m also sure that it would have been easier to give up on you, or perhaps more likely, just to lower the bar.

    I think most of our teachers care deeply for their students and work hard to facilitate their success. But (especially in light of the Tiger Mother conversation that’s going on nationally right now) our culture seems so inclined to embrace the “we are all winners” mentality that we aren’t willing to have the hard conversation – on a micro or macro level – about the fact that not everyone is above average.

    I realize this wasn’t the broader point of your post. But that once sentence leaped out at me. You are right, achievement is a good thing. But in order for their to be achievement, there must also be the possibility of failure. Otherwise, for what are we striving?

  12. I’m all for high standards and the power of being believed in. I think many schools and educators need to employ higher standards for their charges. I do, however, think there is a shadow side to achievement. Lindsey, you wrote about this side when you discussed succumbing to achievement and losing your voice. I think there is a danger in *only* being validated for our achievements. I, for one, am working toward embracing all the parts of myself that have been silenced and ignored due to a singular focus on achievement for so long. I think a balance is what I’m looking for–for myself and others. xo

  13. I think your distinction is an important one, one I hadn’t considered but glad you brought up. Yes to achievement and success, driven by the fire in our bellies and souls. Yes to defining our versions of success by heeding the “voices of our soul” (as you so eloquently said in your first post on this topic).

    But no, no no to the trappings of success, achieved only to appease the masses, only to measure up to a prescribed societal definition of success.

  14. I’ve been thinking about this a lot too, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that the conventional kinds of successes Chua talks about it not something we should value in and of itself for our children. Yes, I agree absolutely that we should maintain high standards. But I also think that children should do what they do because they love it. They should value the thing itself, not the public accolades or awards that come from succeeding at that thing. I think this is what has saved me: valuing production rather than achievement, and taking your identity from doing a thing rather than being rewarded for it.

  15. This is such an important subject, Lindsey. In our attempts to be a more touchy-feely culture in which we give each child many opportunities, and wish to nurture self-esteem and individuality, we all too often denigrate the value of achievement. The necessity of it.

    Those of us who were raised to feel our value as the result of non-stop accomplishment, we may wish to be a bit more compassionate with our own children – seeking to allow them more room to move about within their own spirits and perceptions. Not to be as driven as we were – to make straight As, to attend the best schools, to always push ourselves harder and higher.

    At the same time, I think many parents swing too far the other way. The “try your best” adage – overdone – when you know your child to be capable of more than “just trying” – is not doing any favors. Many kids need to be nudged and nudged again, before they begin to self-motivate, and really reach toward their potential.

    It’s a fine line to walk – and one in which we need to be mindful, with each child, of how hard to push and when. But achievement isn’t and shouldn’t be a dirty word. And a parent encouraging a child to push his or her own boundaries is part of the job.

  16. I’m with you on this one, Gale. Everything needn’t be seen in terms of winners and losers. But the reality is – everyone cannot be a “winner” any more than every activity should be a competition.

    But for our children to survive in a competitive world, I agree with you. Depending upon age and context, they need to learn both sides of the win-lose equation, and acquire the skills and grace to deal with both.

  17. Love this post. I am definitely very pro-achievement. I’m just not OK with it being the only or most important goal, or the way a person’s worth is defined. I’m also not crazy about parents imposing a narrow and high-pressure definition of “achievement” on their kids. There are lots of ways to be successful; I hope to help my kids find their own way–a way they can be proud of for all the right reasons.

  18. There’s a book I think you would LOOOOOVE on this topic. It’s called “Mindset: The new psychology of success” by Carol Dweck. Changed my life. *Continues* to change my life. I’m tempted to ask for your address so I can just order it and have it sent to you. 🙂

  19. This makes me think of the different aspects of the archetypal hero/heroine, particularly the need to balance the warrior with the altruist. For if we are an altruist without a warrior, we are a bit of a doormat (a “pleaser” in one of its incarnations), however, if we are a warrior without an altruist aspect, we are pretty much a mercenary.

    The hero/heroine, thus achieves excellence/victory/courage/reward FOR the group. This sense of serving the group may be what is missing in the blind race to nowhere.

    To be happy, we have to have a sense of meaning or purpose (which is one reason that parenting is so powerful in getting us beyond ourselves, in teaching us to truly love, and serve, someone beyond our own selves). This is one of the things that makes parenting so potentially interesting—it is like some universal potential Exeter, it teaches us how to be excellent for a good cause, although it may be up to us fellow parents to carry the undying belief in each other’s capacity for excellence (rather than in imagining that we are all competing with each other).

    We need to inspire, love and support each other, not just to our personal best, but to raise the bar on what our collective personal best looks like. And on that count we have plenty of room for growth and learning—and even though I have a lot to learn, I’ve never liked “school” better than this current school of life.


  20. Let me give you the other side of this important topic….my experience was quite the opposite of yours. I skated by in school and maintained my 3.0 with zero studying. I was never pushed, never held accountable, yet highly praised and loved regardless. Imagine being praised even when you were screwing up! 🙂 I had no direction and went on to college as that is just “what we did”. By senior year I was seriously floundering. While I would never trade my life now, I wonder what I might have achieved if I had been pushed from a young age. There is another side to this coin and I guess my goal is to find the happy middle…although I may be weighing in on the achievement side as I know how much I missed.

    After seeing Race to Nowhere I left feeling that we did not get the whole story with the two families. There was much more going on in those homes that we were not let in on. If your kids are over scheduled..change something!

  21. I found myself thinking a whole lot more about your post and my comment and all the topics raised. Interestingly, this all coincided with my discovery of the book THE GENIUS IN ALL OF US by David Shenk, and while I haven’t yet bought the book (waiting for pb release on March 11), I read parts of it on Amazon and just grow further intrigued by his ideas about the misconceptions in the nature vs nurture framework and his ideas about parenting. It’s such a challenge to figure what good expectations are for ourselves and our children, how to be motivated, productive, perhaps even passionate, and perhaps also patient, esp as Shenk emphasizes that “Talent is not a thing; it’s a process.” And how to do that with children… and to allow them to be themselves and not to need them to fulfill our needs.

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