Achievement

I played full-contact football when I was a kid. From age 10 or so up into high school I was in organized leagues every fall. I enjoyed the game. – The adrenaline of making a crushing hit. Rushing down the field, stiff arming defense men, high-stepping over safeties, and out-running eleven guys was so intense the memories of it feel surreal. When I was running with the ball I didn’t just think I was going to get tackled, I thought I was going to be crushed, break two bones and then get an infection that would lead to my ultimate demise at a tragically young age. Running down the field with hopeful tacklers in chase felt like running from a pack of wild dogs. And when I was the defense man, I didn’t just want to tackle the guy, I wanted to hit him so hard his helmet popped off, his toes curled up and he peed himself. I think my youth and my intensity as a player somehow allowed me to suspend all rational thought when I was on the field. I was a killer when I put that helmet on. – More machine than boy. If I’d found an errant loaded gun on the field, given the state of utter aggression I was in, I’d probably have used it.

The league put players into groups by some weird weight and height metric. I was a tall skinny kid and somehow I always fell right on the upper limit of my weight/height group so I was always one of the biggest guys on the field. We had to weigh in at the beginning of the season and my coach would have me on a water diet for about a week and then a starvation diet for about a day so that I could qualify to be in the group he coached.

I was a pretty good player mostly because of my size. I could tackle anyone and run through just about anyone else. As a team though, we were terrible. I played two full years without a win. Everyone seemed to be bummed out every time we lost, but I didn’t much care. I had fun making a few plays and goofing around with my teammates on the ride back home, so at the end of the day, what’s the difference what the score was?

After every loss we’d get some kind of pep talk from the coach and I’d have to stifle my laughter and pretend to be somber like all my teammates. “Oh woe is us. We’ll get ‘em next Sunday.”

It was the same routine, every week, for two years. Get the mournful pep talk on Sunday after the game. Get the admonitions on Monday’s practice for whatever sins we committed the day before and pay our penance of push-ups or laps around the field.

Then, when I was 13 or so, somehow, everything clicked for us one cool Sunday morning in October. We traveled up to the lakes region on the edge of the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire to play against Plymouth. I remember I scored two rushing touchdowns that day and some other guys scored a couple more. What’s more, we managed to shut out the other team. Like most games, I made some gratifying plays and generally had fun.

But instead of the somber, “We’ll get ‘em next time.” We got the more celebratory, “Way to go,” pep talk. I vaguely remember exchanging some high fives that were offered. But what I remember clearly is my complete indifference to the whole affair. I almost felt more like someone who had watched a team win a game, than a member of a team that had just won. Back in the car, after taking off my pads, toweling off and settling into my seat I recall my dad’s eyes in the rear view mirror as he asked me, “So how’s it feel to win?”

“The same,” I said with a shrug of the shoulders after thinking on it a moment.

“You don’t feel any different? Doesn’t it feel good?” He asked in bewilderment and with what I think was a hint of anger, or maybe frustration.

“ummm, not really.”

In retrospect, I probably should have faked some enthusiasm just so that he could have enjoyed the moment a bit more. But I wasn’t quite yet mature enough to be that considerate.

Now, I look back on that moment with an analytical eye, and an ounce of pride in that young man’s natural disposition.

When I think more on it. I’ve never cared at all for winning or losing things. I’ve never cared about my grades in school. I’ve never cared what my bosses thought of my work. I’ve forever seen attending ceremonies to receive an award as more of an inconvenient social obligation than anything to be proud of or to look forward to.

And still today, I don’t care about titles or my status in others’ eyes. When people talk about being afraid of leaving their job because of a loss of a sense of identity, I have to really dig deep to try to understand what they’re saying. When career-focused people tell me about their goals to attain a certain position in their field simply because of the difficulty in getting there and the admiration that follows, I’m bewildered. I feel like an alien from another world with a complete lack of understanding when people talk about needing to be challenged so that they have something to overcome. It’s like people need to achieve. Not for the sake of bettering themselves, or getting more money or making life easier. But simply achievement for the sake of itself.

I love to learn and engage in new ideas. I love mastering a subject. But who cares what my letter grade ends up being? I suppose it might have some limited use as a measure of how well I’ve learned something, but it’s pretty easy to measure that myself.

Playing a game is a good time, and it’s fun to out strategize your opponent, to out maneuver them with superior technique, or to get lucky at just the right moment. But after it’s over, what’s the difference who prevailed?

And then there’s achievements that are worthy of pride even without anyone donning any accolades upon you or offering you their praise. I’ve completed educational requirements at some of the greatest schools in the world. I’ve thrived for over a year in a desert environment in conditions where most people wouldn’t last a week. I’ve traveled to exotic places. I’ve taught children valuable skills. I’ve taken a house from shambles to a beautiful place my tenants are proud to call home. I’ve made a neighborhood just a little bit nicer. I’m glad I can get good returns on my investment. And I’m glad for the utility some of what I have done still provides for me today in skills, knowledge, and monetary returns. But I don’t feel fulfillment, pride, or a sense of achievement from any of it. And I don’t seek it.

I think maybe this is something that sets me apart and could be one of the reasons I look to simply retire while others around me seek to make their lives a string of recognized successes. I’m happy to work towards or build things that have real rewards and real returns. Studying and learning about the world makes me happy. Making things beautiful and well-crafted is fulfilling. Helping someone is gratifying. Building investments that provide real monetary returns is rewarding. But recognition from others, titles, awards, reaching goals or being admired, envied or respected doesn’t tempt me at all.

I was, and still am, completely unconcerned with the scoreboard.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Posted August 3, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    I can relate. when I was young and 1st starting in my career I routinely won the sales contests. but I never did anything different when they were anounced. In fact I was always fagually insulted by the implication I wasn’t really doing my best and needed to be spurred to greater efforts.

    since I don’t particularly like to own things I wasn’t much motivated by the prizes either.

    when I moved into management it took me awhile to realize just how important these things are to most folks….

  2. RJ
    Posted August 5, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    I ‘get’ what you are saying and admire it. I do wonder though, what *does* make you feel that you have achieved something? What is the internal bar you set for yourself? Is it FI or ER? Then what?

  3. Posted August 6, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    RJ I think what I was getting at is that feeling of “doing” and “accomplishing” doesn’t need to be satisfied in alternative ways, but rather, that need can be completely overcome.

    It’s very freeing to realize nothing need be done. It’s part of why some make a ritual of taking a sabbath. To show you that even if you do nothing, all day long, the world goes on. – And may even be the better for it.

  4. Jo
    Posted August 28, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    this is an amazing post. only the second i have read of yours, so i can’t wait to get started on the others. not I guess that my gratitude/approval will mean much to you… i have always struggled with what i should do next, while my peers are out their gaining recognition/running marathons/writing books. none of it really seems worth doing to me, existentially speaking. but watching my investments grow and even fall is something i do enjoy, and seems worthwhile.