The perils of achievement

A lot of the things we want in life stem from our need for stability.

Most young people make critical decisions about their future lives and careers based on factors that they assume will give them some sense of predictability.

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Similarly, many adults strive for financial freedom, so they don’t have to think of money as something that deters them from fully controlling their lives.

We dream about the white picket fence, a secure job, and a nice car or two in the garage so that we can be sure that we have some sort of foundation on which to build our lives. We need security, and we crave order, and we make a quiet presumption that our achievements will get us there.

It makes sense, too. If we didn’t have this orientation and if we didn’t have a solid foundation, we’d be continuously exposed to chaos and uncertainty, and we would have a much harder time feeling grounded and safe.

There are many people that don’t have any sort of stability in their lives — people that are poor or people without strong career prospects, for example — that we can look to who reassure us that these things are worth having.

Yet, in a world where, fortunately, more people than not have some kind of grounded foundation providing this stability, we still see large-scale dissatisfaction, boredom, and a general sense of purposelessness.

This sense of dissatisfaction, boredom, and purposelessness may be temporarily subdued when we find ourselves striving for the next thing that we presume will bring us stability, but for many, it’s still not too far away.

What exactly are we missing?

The Hidden Curse of Achievement

Let’s break down the process of achievement into two different states.

There is a state of striving where we are moving and working towards a goal. And then there is a state of accomplishment after having achieved said goal, thus achieving a form of stability.

The general assumption we all make is that achieving this stability is what will make us satisfied. After all, that is the hidden purpose behind whatever goals we choose to define when we decide that we want something.

First, we decide that a particular future will make us happier. Then, we choose a particular aim which we feel will allow us to experience said future. Finally, we set ourselves on our way to figuring out how to get to that goal.

By definition, then, when we are striving — which is most of the time — we are in a state of instability. When we accomplish something, we gain ourselves stability. That’s how most of us intuitively think and feel about this process.

Except, that’s not how it really works. The paradox is that achieving a goal is what leads to instability, whereas the state of striving provides stability.

Once we accomplish something, we lose our sense of orientation and get swayed towards the chaos that we naturally fear. On the other hand, while there is discomfort in the act of striving — which we confuse for instability — it’s ironically the only thing that actually keeps us grounded over time.

Being in a state of unquestioned movement is what protects us from feeling that we are without a foundation. Achievement, however, is static. Once acquired, it fades towards instability.

Volatility as a Measure of Well-Being

In finance, volatility is essentially a measure of how much the returns of an asset are expected to deviate. It’s the variation in price over a set period.

The daily difference between the closing price of a stock, for example, could be something you might measure the volatility of. If it deviates a lot, then the volatility of that stock is high. If it doesn’t deviate much, then it’s low.

According to the author and statistician Nassim Taleb, systems of any kind with no volatility are bad at absorbing shocks, and thus fragile. Systems with some day to day volatile, however, can use such movement to absorb shocks well, and sometimes, even benefit from them. It’s what he calls antifragility.

When we are in a state of striving, we are constantly on the move over a sustained period of time. Some days, we move a lot. Other days, not so much.

On a day to day basis, this movement may even be uncomfortable, but over time, it keeps us stable by protecting us from the chaos of disorientation.

In a state of accomplishment, however, we don’t move much at all. We’ve achieved what we wanted to, assuming we have acquired a sense of stability.

On a day to day basis, we may even enjoy this lack of movement, but over time, if the lack of orientation catches up to us, it immediately throws us into a state of instability, causing damage that we don’t even see coming.

Humans, like most systems of the world, need a degree of volatility to stay healthy and being in a position where you have everything you could ever want makes you fragile to the instability that we instinctively aim to avoid.

Not having every luxury of stability, ironically, is what keeps us stable.

Where’s the Balance?

Naturally, no matter what the system, too much volatility can itself be harmful. Having some sort of a foundation is necessary.

If we don’t completely limit downside, then that same volatility can shock itself out of temporary and varying instability into complete chaos.

Humans need some foundation of achievement, and we obviously need many of our basic needs met in order to have a shot at contentment. Getting some of the things we want is healthy and important.

That said, the assumption that once we have everything we can imagine and want, we will be satisfied beyond our current level is more than flawed.

While things like complete financial freedom or a career that goes perfectly according to plan can bring a lot of joy and value to many people, these same things can also indirectly cause a lot of misery. And they often do.

It’s easy to see how not having enough can be an issue, but it’s even easier to overlook how getting what you want might be similarly problematic.

Sometimes, what you don’t have is just as important as what you do have.

This article first appeared on Design Luck. 

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