How Do You Define Your Achievements?

February 17, 2019
Career Development

How do you define achievement? At first glance it seems like a minor, even inconsequential, question but when considering how much the word achievement impacts our lives—what we create, the trajectory of our careers, the experiences we have—it takes on new meaning. Less talked about is how we internalize our definitions of achievement, whether you’re a creative professional or working in a different industry.

Beginning with family

There is no set bar for what success is. Like looking at a painting, the meaning can change for everyone (no matter what social media may try to convince in us). Clichéd expressions aside, it comes back to what we’re exposed to. To be the first in our family to graduate high school is successful. To be the first to hold a full-time job is successful. To have an idea made into an advertising campaign is successful.

For many of us, it’s relative to what our parents and maybe our siblings have achieved. Perhaps some of us come from families where financial worth is more important than artistic achievement. Breaking out of that mold and defining our own paths is challenging, especially when we may not have the support or goodwill of our families behind us.

Think of someone very well known who you admire and then think of their children—it’s hard not to wonder about the pressure or maybe bar set by our parents that we feel we need to match. Does this mean that it’s necessary to outdo those who came before us? Definitely not. Your worth is not linked to what you achieve; we firmly believe it is your character that defines you.

Of course it’s always nice to have achievements we’re proud of, and even sweeter when others respect them, too.

“When you are content to be yourself…everyone will respect you”

The caveat to this statement by Lao Tzu, founder of Daoism, is that so much of life is built around comparison to others, as if we’re constantly forced to prove our worth for the sake of recognition, financial reward, and respect. Some art historians echo critics that art needs to be defined by a set of “temporal standards” that measure the value of a work. Unsurprisingly, more than a few artists disagree and insist on an openness of ideas, subjectively good and bad, so long as they mean something to us.

It’s hard to balance that line when our lives depend on financial reward for our work, provided we don’t have an alternative source of income. While that opens up an entirely different set of questions, your best bet is to be open to many different styles, periods and creators, informing yourself and opening your mind to new ideas and new possibilities. Take it from these emerging creatives.

New York City street art
New York City street art

There’s something to be said for competition, that it can be dangerous to our mental health and to our communities. It’s less common to think of competition as something that stifles our truest expression of self and perspective, qualities critical to art that moves people. If you don’t take Lao Tzu’s word for it, maybe you’ll consider Karl Lagerfeld’s: “Personality begins where comparison ends.”

Measure success against your own goals

Compete with yourself only. Create a career development plan where you define your goals and what you would like to achieve. Stay open to your artistic and creative community, but celebrate their success (despite any feelings of insecurity that may arise—something totally normal) and then return to focus on what you’re doing.

As Reader’s Digest suggests, feel free to unplug from social media for a bit and don’t judge yourself or others harshly. This is especially true when competing with ourselves; it’s easy to criticize our progress against a former idea of ourselves. It’s important to recognize that even artists like Gerhard Richter, considered one of the greatest painters today, has grappled with constant self-doubt and criticism in his career. It’s perfectly okay to have these feelings. It’s important to accept them and realize that you’re human.

Be kind to yourself and others. Your creativity will flow and you will bring yourself closer to achieving what you really want.