Achievement is the greatest poison

Achievement is the greatest poison April 19, 2016
"Trophies," Terren in Virginia, Flickr C.C.
“Trophies,” Terren in Virginia, Flickr C.C.

I’m addicted to achievement. The dopamine in my brain rises and falls every day in accordance with a set of numbers that determine whether I’m winning: the attendance at events I organize, my blog stats, and now, my book sales. I figured I would start there instead of saying something like achievement is the most toxic idol of the white middle class. I suspect that’s a true statement, but I’ve got an axe to grind when I say it. I don’t really know what’s going on in the minds of the other parents on the soccer fields of suburgatory. I just know that when parents get invested in their kids’ sports, they stop coming to church, which impacts my personal achievement numbers and makes me hate travel soccer.

I’m not sure how I acquired this addiction. It may have been the ERB tests we took in elementary school. I always scored in the high 90’s in percentile. Somehow I’ve always felt that I’m failing if I slip under the 90th percentile in whatever it is I’m doing. I come from a family of overachievers. My great-grandfather Luther Weigle was the dean of Yale Divinity School and chief translator of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. My grandfather Arthur Guyton, whose body was half-paralyzed by polio in his twenties, invented the electric wheelchair and wrote the definitive textbook of medical physiology that predominated medical school curriculum for fifty years. My dad and almost all of his nine brothers and sisters graduated from Harvard Medical School and became leaders in their respective fields of medicine.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with one of my uncles at a family reunion. I was talking about how being a Guyton set a standard of excellence for me that was often intimidating. He was puzzled, and he told me that wasn’t his experience at all. He said that what my grandfather did for him was to make him feel like he could do anything. He felt liberated and confident, the opposite of how I feel. It’s so interesting how different generations in the same family can have such a radically different perspective on achievement.

I wonder how many people who achieve great things like planting megachurches or selling thousands of books are as addicted to achievement as I am. It seems like there are lots of bestselling books that say things like the secret to writing bestselling books is not to obsess over how well they sell. Is the secret to walking on water just having faith like Jesus said to Peter? Is my desperate fear of failure the reason why I always fail or at least feel like I’m failing? Maybe it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with whether I’m trusting hard enough. Maybe the water I’m trying to walk on just doesn’t have enough salt in it.

I’m particularly annoyed by the pyramid scheme of the “Follow your dreams” writers, who sell lots of books by telling aspiring writers and achievement addicts of all kinds what they desperately want to believe. Just pray the prayer of Jabez. Pray a “circle around your dreams.” Because God uses people exactly like you and me who are “unqualified.” You too can “punch fear in the face, escape average, and do work that matters.”

I’m sure that Rob Bell is a great guy, but that’s how his latest book How to Be Here came across to me. It’s easy to be a rock star; just go surfing on the beach every morning and God will give you cool thoughts and people will flock to your cool thoughts. He probably had substantive things to say, but my envy and achievement addiction made it impossible for me to hear any of them.

The most infuriating thing about achievement in my particular fields of writing and pastoring is I am utterly not in control of the outcome. I can put up posters everywhere. I can network with all the right important people and carefully smooth talk all of them into supporting me. I can line up dozens of book reviews. But at the end of the day, a thousand factors that have nothing to do with me determine whether people show up or whether they click “Add to Cart.” Working hard guarantees nothing. That is the hardest reality to come to grips with. It fills me with rage. I’ve written a lot of judgy things about white middle class meritocracy. That’s because it’s my own personal hell.

When Twitter and Facebook say nah to me every day, what is God doing? Hopefully taking care of people who have real problems in their lives. But I want God to wave his magic wand and make my words viral. I want a deus ex machina who guarantees destinies. I want it to happen like the famous writers who say, “I remember back when only my grandma was reading my blog.” It feels like the magic window has closed. The golden age of pre-monetized social media is over. I’m five years too late. Even if 250 people tweet a promotional message about your book, it’s buried in the feed and forgotten in fifteen minutes.

Social media is like an opium den for achievement addicts. You spend hours every day sifting through the tweets and shares of everyone who went viral when you didn’t. You share things you’ve barely read because you want the author to do the same for you. There’s no way of knowing whether people are blowing you off or if they honestly didn’t see you in their timeline. It makes me hate everything.

I know I’m not supposed to admit that I want to be a big deal. I’m supposed to be all about amplifying other peoples’ voices, standing in solidarity with the marginalized, creating space for vulnerability and authenticity, etc. I’m supposed to humblebrag by broadcasting to the world “how grateful I am” for the stats that make it look like I’m winning (so that people will get tricked into thinking that I’m winning which is what makes you go viral). I just don’t have the stamina to keep up that charade. What I want more than anything is not to care about those stupid numbers. So if my book completely flops, but on the other end of that, I’m a person who’s able to be fully present and enjoy actual life, then I’ll call it a gift of God’s mercy.

There’s a line from a psalm that I’ve been given to pray. So far I’ve said it a few thousand times. Let your steadfast love become my comfort. My gosh, what an amazing gift it would be to actually gain that kind of heart. To honestly believe that God’s unconditional love really is enough would be the greatest achievement I could ever hope to accomplish. When I actually trust in that truth, then I will be saved.

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