Redefining achievement

While working out (on the elliptical machine) at the Y last Thursday, I read an excellent article in the January Toastmaster magazine. The cover hadn’t captured my interest back when I first got it, which is why I’m just getting around to reading it now (and even so, just to have something to read while exercising). But it’s well worth reading, regardless of whether you have any interest in Toastmasters or public speaking.

I knew I wanted to do a blog post on the article because it is worth sharing, but I had no idea it was suddenly going to become particularly relevant to my life right now. Then this morning, shortly before lunchtime, my manager asked me to come into the HR office. I was informed that my position is being eliminated, effective in 60 days, and they gave me a copy of the severance agreement they are offering me. Then they sent me home to deal with this blow in private.

There are a lot of issues to deal with as a result of this news. We have to consider the financial implications, especially as we found out also today that our son’s car needs a new transmission (and may not be worth repairing), and we already knew we will have to replace our furnace within a year. There is the matter of trying to find another job, and all that goes into that endeavor. (This, after my husband just resigned his part-time job at Walmart for health reasons.)

There is the emotional fallout of feeling unwanted by company management. There is also realizing that most of the people I know well in this area are my co-workers, and now I have to find a way to make new friends, or shift existing friendships to outside of the work environment.

But the aspect of all this that is relevant to the article in the magazine is the idea that this isn’t how my life was supposed to go. “How Far Has Your Bottle Gone?” addresses the disappointment of realizing our lives haven’t produced the great achievements we dreamed of when we were young.

I wanted to be a great writer. I wanted to be an inspiring teacher. I wanted to be a role model for young people. I didn’t think in terms of salary, job titles, or a large house (some of the common measures of success mentioned in the article), but I did dream of degrees, awards, and honors.

I didn’t imagine having a job I felt stuck in (mid 1990’s) because I didn’t know where else to put my particular mix of skills and experience to work. I didn’t imagine being laid off (2001) and spending over a year working part-time at jobs that didn’t require a college degree, much less two masters degrees. And I certainly didn’t imagine finally having a mix of job responsibilities I enjoy, only to have the company decide that particular mix was not valuable to them.

The main thrust of the article is that our unhappiness with not having met our early expectations comes largely because we define achievement in terms of what other people think of us. Whether it’s how much money a company is willing to pay us, or how much people admire the work we do, if achievements are defined by what other people think, our satisfaction with our lives is in someone else’s hands.

Back in 1998, when Jon and I were preparing to move to Michigan for his first pastorate, a close friend told me I needed to learn to depend less on what other people think of me. I didn’t worry much about what most people thought, but it was very important to me what a few people – like her – thought. (This was an issue because, moving away, I wouldn’t have her around to encourage me on how I was doing.)

I had always depended on other people’s assessments of how well I was doing. One reason I loved being a student, besides the fact I enjoy learning, was that there was always evidence that I was doing well, in the form of good grades and awards and honors.

Without that kind of feedback, how do I know whether I am doing well in my job? As a wife and mother? As a Christian? As a Bible study leader or Sunday School teacher? I accept the fact that part of maturity is not depending on the kind of feedback I got as a student, but I missed it. And I didn’t know how to evaluate my life without it.

The article doesn’t tell me how to know whether I’m doing well in any of those roles, but it offers some ways to look at achievement by some very different measures from those commonly used.

How many times did I refuse to quit? I did quit teaching Spanish, because I clearly wasn’t cut out to teach young teens, but I got through that awful year rather than quitting early. I never quit any other job because it was too hard, only because I had a better job, I was moving, or I no longer needed it. (At one point I worked three part-time jobs in addition to my full-time job, until my salary increased sufficiently.)

How many times did I learn from my mistakes? Most of them, I hope.

How many times did I make a comeback? I never taught Spanish again, but I have taught Sunday School and I lead a Bible study. I only ever got two poems published, but I have found in this blog and outlet for my interest in writing.

How many times did I let someone else have all the glory? I struggle a lot with this one. I yearn for recognition, and it’s hard enough not to seek out praise. To deliberately deflect praise to someone else is even harder. I don’t know whether I ever have.

How many times did I take criticism gracefully? Another hard one. I try not to react defensively, but even if I say nothing to justify myself, I feel very defensive inside. My tendency is to accept the criticism without saying anything, but I don’t know whether it’s being graceful, exactly.

How many times did I make somebody’s day? I have no idea – I don’t generally tell people when they make my day, so I wouldn’t expect them to tell me if I make theirs. But I probably am much less attentive to the ways I could brighten other people’s days than I could be.

So where does that put me, in terms of achievements in life? Not a failure, by any means, but plenty of room for improvement. And the most recent burst bubble offers plenty of opportunity to practice learning from mistakes, making a comeback, being a bright spot in somebody’s else’s day instead of trying to get them to brighten mine.


One Response to Redefining achievement

  1. modestypress says:

    As I don’t have much money, I can’t help out much financially. (I could probably send $5; let me know if that tiny smidgeon would help. You would have to email me at and provide a postal address.) As I am not a religious believer, I won’t tell you to trust in God. For what little it is worth, I will express my concern and hope that things get better for you and that something turns up as far as employment.

    While one should always keep striving, I suspect you have a tendency to beat yourself up too much. Perhaps you should take it easy on the self-questioning and self-flagellation. Of course, many Christians talk about how they help each other out; perhaps there are some in your neighborhood who practice what they preach.

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