There’s a very popular narrative regarding achievement I’m seeing pop up across the arts and business fields, particularly in industries with a large self-employed or freelance population. The idea is that happiness is not worth seeking, but rather one should seek meaning through passion, mastery, and achievement. The idea continues: happiness is fleeting, meaning lasts forever. However noble this idea sounds, it can lead rather quickly into a downward spiral. David Burns, one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, argues in his book Feeling Good that this belief system stems from capitalism and the Protestant worth ethic, and is designed to make people work harder, accumulate capital, and generally be miserable. In short, “meaning” is an abstract concept and doesn’t add tuppence to your life.
To be honest, I was rather fond of this idea of “purpose” until reading the book, as running a business can be a gruelling, thankless job and it was nice to believe that though I was temporarily unhappy, I was creating “meaning” and “value”, and therefore I was somehow more worthy as a person. This boost to my sense of self-worth helped make the long hours bearable, and perhaps even made them desirable. This belief was often validated by the praise of others—“You have a company! How impressive!” Thus, I would work even longer hours, often at the expense of time with loved ones or pursuing hobbies I enjoy—after all, that’s what makes me cool, interesting, etc, right? Soon, all I could think about and talk about was work. And subsequently, I convinced myself that the only thing of any worth I had done in my entire life was creating this company.
The problem with this value system is that it is very deceptive. When things are going well, your self-esteem is super high, and you’re a confident person with light radiating from the core of your being. However, when there is even a very minor setback, things can spiral out of control very quickly. Mistakes and failures get blown out of proportion—every challenge or risk threatens who you are as a person. There’s a voice in your head screaming, “You’re worthless! You’re a failure!” You’ll never make it!” Some people get paralysed or quit. Others, like me, try to work even longer hours to feel better about themselves, but it’s like digging a pit when you’re in it. Sometimes, the ideal solution is to step back and make a decision—perhaps to use a particular tool, delegate the task to someone else, triage what is most important—but that is rarely possible when you believe that the only way to silence whatever negative emotion/thoughts you’re experiencing is to work harder. After all, meetings, brainstorming, and delegating rarely feel like “work” because you don’t have a finished product to show off at the end of it.
When I first encountered this idea the first time—that this conflation of self-worth and achievement is highly detrimental to one’s mental health—I shrugged it off. It’s this capacity to work hard that has brought me this far. However, here is a contrary perspective: really, I should be congratulating myself for having come this far despite this belief. All the times I failed to give my team members greater autonomy when it may, in fact, have improved their performance; my desire to review all work myself instead of investing my time in training and nurturing my team so that their quality improves; and my reluctance to take risks or set challenging goals all stem from this very flawed belief that the more successful I am, the more worthy I am as a person. This value system goes along with a bunch of other deeply flawed ideas:
- If I’m not productive, I’m wasting my time
- If other people don’t work hard, they don’t “really” deserve their achievements or are shamming
- If other people are not “passionate” and working hard, they are “boring”
- I’m not getting the opportunities I want because I’m not working hard enough
- To create I must sacrifice, and if don’t, I’m not performing at my maximum potential
I’m starting to really feel the pressure of this flawed belief, because as a business grows, problems get more complex and there is greater pressure to collaborate and innovate. And this is not possible if you feel like giving away a part of your work to someone else makes you less of a person.
However, though I theoretically understand that the system is flawed, it is hard to cast it off entirely. After all, what would fill the void its absence creates? Where would one derive one’s self-worth from? And without this idea of “meaning”, how does one explain why one does what one does? In reply to the first question, Burns would answer that the idea of “self-worth” itself is abstract nonsense and belongs in the dustbin. There is no such thing. All human beings have the same “worth” no matter how successful they are—every single human being has one unit of self-worth and there is nothing anyone can do to increase or decrease this number. Or, in other words, it is a completely meaningless quality that is completely made-up.
The second question is a bit tricker, though. How to explain why we’re slogging away at something if it doesn’t bring us satisfaction or enrich our lives in an immediate and tangible way? The answer to this is two-fold: the first is to deglamourise “meaning” and break it down to tangible and personal terms. For example: I enjoy running a business because I enjoy solving new problems; I like being able to provide jobs for others as it makes me feel like I’m contributing to society; I like being my own boss because it allows me to have a flexible schedule. Once we knock meaning off its pedestal and articulate it in more mundane terms, it is easier to identify what exactly gives us satisfaction and not get carried away with the idea that our achievements lend meaning and purpose to our lives as a whole. Also, this is a useful exercise to remember that success and failure are not binary. In fact, they’re probably not even on a linear scale.
The second part of the solution is much harder though. This disassociation of self-worth and achievement inevitably comes with a feeling of loss. It becomes harder to justify the comparative value we give certain activities in our lives, in contrast to others that may perhaps bring us greater immediate satisfaction. Without that boost to self-worth provided by this value system, weekends spent working seem increasingly meaningless. It becomes that much harder to justify doing what makes one miserable. Caught in a state of dissonance, it’s hard to not automatically conclude one has become lazy and irresponsible as one loosens the tight leash one has maintained for so long. It’s hard to resist the urge to dive back in and grind through the hours to push those thoughts away. There are also very practical concerns about how to manage expectations as one reorients oneself. Also, it is important to acknowledge that belief systems aren’t dismantled in a day, a week, or a month. Rather, one must work through and around them.
But, hopefully, this reorientation will lead me to prioritise actions according to what actually gives me satisfaction versus what I think should give me satisfaction because it would make me “successful”. Thank you, Dr Burns. Though its true effect will be validated only by the test of time, I feel my life is changed, for the better.