Sunday, February 28, 2010

On the Achievement Treadmill? Look Again

Do you spend your life on the achievement treadmill? You might want to stay on, or risk hitting the pavement. What I'm referring to is an essay by Peter Michaud on how our lives are spent completing fake achievements. But let's back up and start from the beginning: how our brains are hard-wired for Facebook and Twitter.

Emily Yoffe in her post describes the concept of "seeking". You might find that when you are working toward a goal, and you finally reach that goal, it is not as great as it seems. This is because our brains find more pleasure in "seeking" achievement rather than actually getting it. It might seem illogical, but we do this because the pleasure of seeking becomes our motivation for continued achievement. So do not feel depressed when your goals seem less illustrious then they were before. This is just our brains kicking in and getting us to take it to the next level. Some psychologists even theorize that humans have the ultimate goal of becoming the best, whether we get there or not is another story.

Anyway, back to achievement treadmills: Michaud explains that there is a point where we would rather participate in "games" that stimulate the feeling of "seeking" rather than actually doing something. His example is so perfect I could not come up with a better one myself. A kid (in this case Michaud's own son) steals $10. You punish him for it in some way. The kid can either stop stealing, the desirable option, or just become better at stealing so he does not get caught. The same goes for achievement. Our society has been so focused on goals and progress, for good reason though, that people could either actually achieve, or become better at avoiding it. To avoid achievement, you play "games" that stimulate the same feeling you would get from actually doing something. An example is video games. You play for goals that are almost impossible to fail, and improve your character and rank. But do you actually gain anything in life? Does it make you any more friends or make you any more successful? Probably not.

I agree with his essay to a certain extent. To find something that is not a game, ask yourself if it is actually benefiting your life or somebody else's live. And there are many games out there, with more popping up every day. Even education, as Michaud explains, is a game, because students just find a way to avoid actually doing the work but still get good grades. This I am personally aware of, as I write this blog entry instead of spending the amount of time I should doing my homework. However, the essay continues to say that Facebook and Twitter and everything else are all just games to lure people in to a sense of "seeking", a dopamine rush that will make them think they are doing something when they are actually not. This is where I come to a bit of a disagreement.

Some will argue to the ends of the Earth that everything is an achievement game, because there is no real meaning of progress, and there is no real meaning of life. I like to take a more relative approach. Sure, if you say what is the purpose of this blog post relative to the entire universe and its internal workings, I would agree that it is pointless, and my life is meaningless. But in the scope of humanity, in the scope of my friends and family, in the scope of my readers, the post means something. I point this out because while things like Facebook and Twitter may in fact be an outlet for people to get a false sense of seeking and achievement, in a certain scope it does have a very real meaning. I use Facebook to promote my events, and it works. I use Facebook to contact people, and it works (sometimes even better than email). There are so many things Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and more actually do that is important to our lives and others' lives. So while Farmville and many other applications are achievement games, I am not willing to hop off Facebook, the supposed treadmill, and take a walk, because it is useful, and it can be a tool to improve the lives of myself and others within a certain scope.

If you read an essay online describing the meaning of Facebook and how Twitter is just a game for people to think they are doing something, be wary. Because as long as you use them correctly, as many people are doing, they are tools that can and will help you or others in some way and in some relative scope. Comments?


  1. Nice writings. Look at the Enneagram , which I've found to be the most useful of personality tools. Enneagram shines when looking at people's motivations - which come in so many different flavors.

    Enneagram 7s (adventure-types) talk about about their future dreams, and seem to enjoy most the "dreaming" of seeking, before it even starts. They never talk about stuff they've already done (even if it's notable).

    Enneagram 3s (image-conscious) are name-droppers and resume-braggers. They talk about all the wonderful things they've done. Seeming to enjoy the after-effects of accomplishment more than the doing.

    7s talk about the future. 3s talk about the past.

    3s often treat life as an "achievement" game.

  2. Sounds interesting. I'll take a look.