Sam Holstein

What It Really Means to Accomplish Something

How do we judge the accomplishments of others? If you have a western sensibility, you probably judge the accomplishments of others according to how impressive they are according to a shared set of cultural standards about what it means to be impressive. In America, being financially successful is impressive, as is being an Eagle Scout and being in great shape.

This way of judging accomplishments, though, does not actually tell you how much of an accomplishment something actually is, just how we as a society make snap judgments about it. Being financially successful is widely considered impressive, but when you recognize that many financially well-off people had parents who were also well-off and funded them generously with gifts and loans, it becomes less impressive.

Status Accomplishments

Our first instinct for judging accomplishments, by judging them compared to a set of common cultural standards, creates status accomplishments. Status accomplishments are accomplishments that are externally impressive, regardless of how hard they are to achieve. They are valued for their absolute position ahead or behind of others in the leaderboards of life. For instance, we are all impressed by people who can run marathons because on the leaderboard of fitness, they are clearly doing well.

Most people who pursue status accomplishments are usually motivated by something external about the accomplishment, something about the way people who have achieved this thing are treated by society. Many people who exercise do not necessarily care about their body or what’s naturally the healthiest for it; they exercise because hot people in great shape impress others, especially on the dating scene.

This is the way American culture teaches us to think about accomplishments. Our default position is that it isn’t until you achieve some status like 5K Runner or Marathoner that your accomplishments matter. Accomplishments which fall well short of these statuses, like walking up and down the stairs, simply don’t rank.

I was tempted to call this an imaginary accomplishment because when you think about what it means to achieve this kind of accomplishment, you’ll realize they are not really accomplishments at all.

Real Accomplishments

Real accomplishments are accomplishments that you can take pride in because you know how hard you worked to make it happen, regardless of how much it impresses anyone else. They are the accomplishments that matter.

Here’s what a real accomplishment looks like:

I was at the gym running on the treadmills with a friend today when I decided to compliment her on her progress. “You’re hauling ass, dude. Good job.”

“Hauling ass?” She snorted. “Megan, I’m walking and you’re running.”

When she first started coming to the gym with me, she could barely walk a mile on the treadmills. By her own account, getting up and down the stairs in her home made her short of breath. Eight months later, and she’s walking several miles at the speed I am jogging. That’s a real accomplishment.

The true measure of accomplishment isn’t in your external situation. There will always be people doing better than you and there will always be people doing worse. The true measure of accomplishment is in how far you have come to get to where you are.

Just because something is a status accomplishment, though, doesn’t mean it’s not real tooBecoming a millionaire is a status accomplishment for sure, but to the boy who was born into the projects and dreamed of the day he could provide security for his own family, it’s a very real accomplishment as well.

Some status accomplishments are necessarily real to some degree or another. Running a marathon is a status accomplishment, but it is also always a real accomplishment because everyone, no matter how naturally athletic, must do a lot of training to run a marathon, and they are right to feel proud of it.


Unfortunately, when we talk about accomplishment, this distinction doesn’t always make it into the conversation. We are quick to praise the newly minted marathoner, but we are slow to congratulate the depressive who found the wherewithal to go for a run at all. As a result, people with hidden (but very real) accomplishments like “I was once wheelchair-bound but worked with a trainer until I learned how to walk” and “I used to have social anxiety so crippling I was house-bound but worked with my therapist until I could go to parties every weekend” never get congratulated.

In some cases, their accomplishment is actively dismissed. The teenager who found the courage to go to school today and try to enjoy it is docked points by the teacher for his negative attitude. The fat woman who goes to the gym once a week, even though she is stared at and avoided by everyone else there1. The depressive man who finds the courage to admit to someone what he is feeling is called ungrateful for daring to feel that way at all. People often judge what’s on the outside without considering what happened on the inside.

If we’re going to have meaningful conversations about accomplishment, we’re going to need to understand the distinction, keep an eye out for accomplishments like these, and congratulate people on them when we see them. We’re also going to need to keep an eye out for status accomplishments masquerading as real accomplishments, like people who were born into money patting themselves on the back as if they earned it.

Most importantly, we need to congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments, even if no one else can see them. The person whose opinion matters most is you. So feel proud of what you’ve achieved, even if no one else will.

Footnotes

1: If you want to start going to the gym but are embarrassed about the way you look, know there are non-judgemental gyms out there for you. The YMCA and Planet Fitness, for instance, both have an eminently welcoming atmosphere and I highly recommend them.