Don't shoot for the moon

On 'unachievement' & why it's better to build spaceships for their own sake

Once upon a time, psychology was mostly about studying the ways in which people’s brains turn on them. Eventually, so-called ‘positive psychology’ came around — you may have heard some of its punchlines, including this one: no matter what happens to us, humans tend to pretty quickly return to some baseline level of happiness.

Win the lottery? Get a new car? Left your mic on when you dialed into that work call from the bathroom? Eventually, the novelty — good or bad — wears off and you go back to whatever your normal is. In evolutionary terms, this is a survival trait: spend too much time dwelling on your feelings and sooner or later you’re dino lunch. (Dinosaurs ate people, right? Do me a favour and don’t fact-check that one.)

That puts us in a bit of a pickle. For most types of ambition — think: ‘wants’ rather than ‘needs’ — you know up front that the thrill of reaching the top is guaranteed to be temporary. Kinda makes you wonder if all the fuss of climbing the mountain is worth it.

What’s worse is that by throwing the weight of your hopes and dreams into that next promotion or that new shiny thing, by definition there’s a gap today between where you are and where you want to be. Imagining that satisfaction lies somewhere in the future is a good way to convince yourself that you can’t be satisfied today.

So let’s zoom out: you spend weeks, months or years wishing for X. Then X happens, and after a brief ride on the hype train, you’re back to wishing: if only you had Y...

What’s going on here? Why would you choose to devote most of your life to meh, aside from the odd burst of yaaas?

Well, you don’t really choose that — you do it by nature. That’s that whole survival thing: you strive for the next achievement the same way your great-(great^n)-grandparents strived for the next dino steak. (Once again, fact-checking… please no.)

What to do about it? I mean, you could spend your whole life sitting still, mumbling to yourself that nothing is worth trying for… but that sounds like a major bummer. Plus, achievement feels good, even if you know that the high is only temporary.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Shit.

Happily, there’s a loophole: enjoy the destination — just never at the expense of the journey.

By finding satisfaction in the process of achieving, rather than purely in the achievement itself, you can avoid accidentally spending life wishing you were somewhere else.

Oh, and the best part is: you’ll probably end up achieving more this way. 

To enjoy writing is to be most likely to stick with it until you produce something great. To look forward to exercising is to probably wind up in pretty good shape. Sure, down the street is someone who stresses their way to the NYT bestseller list or to the highest echelons of fitness — but for every one of those, there are also 100 people who burned themselves out trying to do the same.

Okay, so odds are that both journey and destination are improved by not letting desire run your life… The less you want, the more you enjoy.

Bit of a head-scratcher, huh?

When you think about it, achievement is best welcomed as a side effect of doing productive things that you can enjoy in the moment. Panicking your way there just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Watch out, though: just recognizing this isn’t enough. If you let your guard down, your hardcoded instincts will take you — by default — right back into wishing/wanting mode. The only way to access the loophole is to actively practise the mindset, day in and day out.

I have a word to remind myself to do this: ‘unachievement’, to me, is about remembering to value the present and to try to find joy in the process of… everything.