It’s only taken 18 years to work this out — essentially an entire cycle of development, from being born into the world of work to finally attaining majority at 40, and having the maturity and experience to grasp the truth. I’m very accomplished, but have achieved little, and succeeded even less.
What is the difference between accomplishment, achievement and success? There are many definitions of these words, but here is how I view each one:
Accomplishment and becoming accomplished is about developing skills, talent or knowledge, and is usually quite relative, both in terms of one’s own improvement and measuring against others. It is usually impossible to become totally accomplished at anything much — there is always more to learn and hone. In many ways, it differs from competence in my mind because the journey to accomplishment is just as important as the destination, if not more so, and certainly should give pleasure along the way, whereas competence is more born of necessity. An accomplishment is often its own reward, and may well be fairly intangible in nature.
Achievement on the other hand is usually a tangible measure of reaching certain levels of accomplishment, for example mastering a language sufficiently to pass an exam. Quite often we are obliged to achieve certain things, whether or not we really wish to become accomplished, such as getting a driver’s licence. I don’t think many teenagers set their hearts on becoming accomplished drivers; rather, they want to achieve a pass on their test, so that they can acquire more mobility and hence more freedom.
Success is different again. It’s the outcome of what you do with your accomplishments and achievements, usually over time, and measurable in various ways, perhaps the main one of which these days is financial. We take our skillsets and certificates to an employer, who gives us a role where we are rewarded, through salaries, promotions, bonuses and worker of the month stickers, for using them in a way that generates profit or moves a government department or non-profit closer to its own definition of success.
So let’s look at my own life in the context of these definitions.
Due to certain natural gifts, I appear to be highly accomplished, especially because accomplishment demonstrates itself relatively. For example, I studied languages at uni, and speak French and Spanish to a fairly high standard, especially for a Brit. Whilst to a non-native speaker, I sound incredibly fluent in French and Spanish, any francophone or hispanohablante immediately detects an accent and errors of syntax.
It is only recently that I stopped to consider that, because of the compliments I receive about my linguistic capabilities, my level of accomplishment was something I had become extremely complacent about, and I had stopped trying to push even further. People are not complimenting me on my mastery of French and Spanish; just on my relative mastery compared to themselves as non-native speakers, or if their mother tongue, compared to a typical Brit or foreigner — or perhaps their mastery of mine.
This misplaced sense of accomplishment as a self-identified linguist was brought to my attention in the past few months when travelling in Namibia, Japan and Greece, and thinking that as such, I should easily pick up a few dozen words so as to at least be polite and able to do the basics. The sum total of 2 months in these countries is zero vocab in any African language, half a dozen words in Japanese, proficiency in the Greek alphabet and marginally more words, mostly because we derive something from them in English.
So it transpired that being a linguist was just one of the many markers of my identity that I had to accept were really just part of a persona (“The Great I Am”). Other areas included being well-read, being a skilled cook, being a prolific writer, and so on.
Part of being accomplished is the thirst to become even more so. I think perhaps another part is that you should never need to describe yourself as such; you should exude accomplishment by demonstrating it in a natural and authentic way.
Hence when I got back from Greece (43 minutes before Israel introduced mandatory quarantine for all returnees as a precursor to nationwide lockdown), I decided to do something about this. I set out to discover what I really wanted to be accomplished at, and to set aside time to work on those skills.
At the same time, I began to consider how to measure and test these gains and know what I had accomplished. I realised that achievement is a relatively objective, usually third party and recognised, measure of accomplishment. In other words, I could sit an exam in a foreign language, cook a meal for critical and perhaps paying guests, write a regular Medium article and count the claps (hint!), and be able to say “I did that”, not just like to think or tell people that “I am that”.
Whilst I don’t plan to go for an MA in Hispanic Studies or do GCSE Greek any time soon, nor do I intend to open a restaurant, I have set myself some informal benchmarks to give me some idea of what I have achieved and how much more accomplished I have become. This brings us to the final aspect; success.
When we talk about successful people, what we usually mean in the for-profit world is that they have received a financial reward for their success, normally triggered by finding the right working environment that requires their extant accomplishments and achievements and offers the shared material benefit of such people working to accomplish and achieve more. The company is successful (usually measured in profitability) as a result of this co-investment in ongoing improvement. Of course the public and non-profit sectors have their equivalents, which you can extrapolate for yourselves.
My observation about my own life, then, is that I spent most of my career to date trying to skip straight to the success part wherever possible, without defining what I was and wanted to be accomplished at, then proving it through achievement in those spheres. I have tried to wing it on my natural abilities, which allow me to seem competent or accomplished.
It transpires that anyone with serious competence or success sees through this charade. Applying oneself to one’s accomplishments, and setting goals for their improvement, is important as a mark of self-respect, and of respect to those who have put in the legwork.
This also combines with chronic and severe ADHD, which I have only started to get to the bottom of in the past couple of years. The Covid-19 lockdown gave me a chance to be undistracted and in my own home for 2 straight months and attempt a full reset of many patterns and goals, not least going back to accomplishment as the foundation for achievement and success.
The funny thing is that I’ve really enjoyed the discipline and structure of working regularly on the various things that I like to tell myself and other people I am. The process has also let me filter out things I thought I was. Other than it being, as the joke goes, French for unemployed, I’m actually not an entrepreneur. I lack the drive, organisation, capacity for managing other people, and the frequent sociopathy of a typical CEO or founder. I am, however, an ideas guy.
This realisation has allowed me to focus on things that make me happy, whether or not they succeed financially. Watch this space for my new project in this light, CanIFlyThere, which goes live this month! It is about harnessing my passion for travel, and being an accomplished scavenger of amazing flight deals and affordable but awesome accommodation, with achievement measured by finally having a platform to share some of this knowledge with the public.
Whether or not it brings financial success, it is already bringing motivational, intellectual and mental success for me and some friends I roped in who also needed the boost. Having redefined it accordingly, I finally feel like I might be on the path to success, but most importantly I feel more accomplished each day, and am beginning to actually achieve things regularly.
So my conclusion is this. We are likely to be happier over the long term by becoming accomplished at things that stimulate us. If these can be harnessed into professional achievements, we will be fulfilled in the workplace. It is probably quite likely to lead to financial success, but certainly we can then define success as much more than that.
Trying to skip straight to boring old certified competence, or megalomaniacal wealth accretion, as proxies for achievement and success, merely disguises the lack of depth of someone who has nothing more profound about themselves to work on and give to the world. Most will fail anyway; you won’t like the ones who succeed.
Next week, some more about my own journey to “work adulthood” and tackling my chronic ADHD through regular home-brewed drug-taking.