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Achievers Anonymous

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My name is Wain and I’m an achievement addict.

It all started when I received my first Boy Scout merit badge, a small piece of cloth signifying skill mastery and rank. I loved the exclusiveness of it. Either you had the badge or you didn’t, you’re in or you’re out.

This led me into a frenzy of collection. I didn’t care what the badge was: signaling, barbering, bird study, or personal hygiene. Like a little Pokemaster, I wanted them all.

When merit badges went out of fashion, I moved onto collecting As, awards, degrees, and even pats on the back from authority figures. With the help of Achievers Anonymous, a (fictitious) organization that helps overachievers rehabilitate from their addiction to winning, I was able to retake control of my life and begin to, once more, relish the beauty of failure.

If my story sounds familiar to you, whether from experiences in your own life or of someone you know, read on. There is hope.

Step One: Acceptance

The first step toward rehabilitation is acceptance. That world in our minds where we are winners is a hallucination, and winning is the drug that feeds it.

Allow me to illustrate. Two kids make a bet and toss a coin. One wins, one loses. Well and good. Winning and losing are in the nature of the game. They play several times more. The same kid, out of sheer luck, wins four times in a row. Classmates who are watching start praising him, calling him a winner. They also make fun of his opponent, calling him a loser. Is this fair?

In the context of a coin toss, calling anyone a winner or a loser is not fair because the results depend more on luck than skill. But, if you think about it, many of the successes we adults claim are not caused by sheer intelligence or skill either. Like our younger counterparts, however, we are confident in taking credit for good results and labeling ourselves winners, achievers, or champions.

I don’t mean to say smarts and hard work count for nothing. They do, of course. But even if winning was, for the most part, of our own doing, terms like 'winner' and 'loser' imply more finality than is appropriate.

Going back to the coin toss example, we know that, if the two kids continue playing and toss the coin enough times, the results will tend toward a tie. Similarly, real world results like returns on investments in 'hot' mutual funds, for instance, often generate great short-term gains but hardly outperform the market over the long-term.

This doesn’t stop people from labeling successful fund managers rock stars.

Step Two: Feedback

The second step toward rehabilitation is feedback. It is likely that, if we’ve been thinking quite highly of ourselves for too long, then we wouldn’t have sought for or listened to feedback when it came around.

Continued success requires that we leverage our strengths, while progress requires that we improve on our weaknesses. Feedback is golden; it gives us a sense of both our strengths and weaknesses, which are equally important and equally likely to be blind spots for former Mr or Ms Perfects.

Step Three: Failure

The third, final, and most difficult step toward rehabilitation is failure. Failure is a powerful tool as it reinforces acceptance, helps us understand our strengths and weaknesses, and opens us up to opportunities for real success.

At Achievers Anonymous, we often get people who want to charge through the program. “Is that it? I can do steps 1-2-3 in a day,” they say.

Step 1, acceptance, takes time and is easy to fake. Orchestrating failure by taking on a challenging task can reinforce acceptance by clearly calling to mind our limitations. Getting a grown-up who never learned to bike to start biking is an example of orchestrated failure. Who, after all, ever learned to bike without falling off a few times?

A really difficult task can cause frustration and often rationalization. A healthy feedback session with trusted friends or family can help a recovering achievement addict accept failure and see these difficulties in the context of personal strengths and weaknesses. A tough start in biking can be attributed to a lack of experience in the activity (a personal weakness) rather than to a technical issue with the machine (a rationalization).

Finally, failure sets us up for real success. This may sound counter-intuitive. If it does to you, just remember a common advertising adage of yore: The more tries, the more chances of winning!

Recovering achievement addicts tend to have a fear of failure. This may lead to extreme risk aversion, which will in turn limit opportunities for big successes. Being willing to fail is, ironic as it may seem, equivalent to the willingness to succeed.

Print ed: 11/10


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