The Achievement Wheel
The achievement wheel is a treasured American institution. We are groomed early on in a structured education system to strive for that golden place of success defined by titles and prestige, our own small piece of the American dream. As the 2010 documentary "Race to Nowhere" points out, these pressured expectations have been produced and reinforced by the culture at large, from colleges to parents to workplaces, and these messages get internalized by kids from a young age. Many of us continue on this treadmill of achievement and expectations long after we have left grammar school and grades behind...
And I was no exception.
After perfecting my high school educational manifesto and making my way through an Ivy League college degree, the next obvious step for me seemed to be the world of cubicles and commuting. When I took my first job in 2006 as an entry-level publicist at a corporate book publishing company in New York City, I thought I had made it.
And I had...in a way.
I had a coveted position in the premier city for publishing jobs: a steady job with a pay check and benefits, with fun colleagues and industry-sponsored happy hours. But I was only 23, and I couldn't have actually known then what my soul needed to thrive. I didn't understand yet that aligning with these personal values in my work would be vitally important, if not fundamentally essential, to building a life of deeper fulfillment.
In corporate America, I put in additional effort beyond my pay grade, staying late, and funneling all of my energy into being a good worker. I was traveling the path of perfection, as I had been taught to do from a young age. Achievement had been my drug of choice, A+'s my daily fix. And I was succeeding, as I had before.
I was confused, however, by the hierarchy I saw around me. Despite the company being predominantly female, most leadership and executive positions were filled by males. I saw very little representation of the path that I could forge to have a greater say in the direction of the industry. And interesting young colleagues didn't seem to make up for a overarching corporate culture that seemed outdated and lacking in emotional depth and meaningful mission. I looked around at trade shows and publishing catalogs wondering if I was the only one noticing the trend in favor of quick profit and celebrity authors over authentic content.
I found myself yearning for more meaningful work. I was chafing at the structure of 9-5 and the lack of creativity or connection from my daily tasks and email inbox. Some in generations previous to mine have labeled this type of yearning as "entitlement," or a lack of willingness to work oneself up the corporate ladder.
Perhaps I was just being lazy, I thought? Was I just being an idealist, one foot dangling off the ledge of reality in favor of a future that didn't and couldn't exist?
This yearning, however, is not particular to me. It's the yearning we feel when we work only for the weekends. It's the yearning we feel when we continue to put off taking steps toward what we know will fulfill our deeper selves, in favor of a better "time" or when the fear goes away. It's the yearning of women who feel trapped in corporate positions that prize their intellect and ambition but don't value innate skills of empathy and community-orientation. It's the yearning of younger generations struggling to fit into a system that doesn't seem to honor the gifts of creativity, emotionality, or service, nor provide the security and upward mobility that it once seemed to.
Don't get me wrong. There are many who are content and successful in the work structures as they have been set up. But there are many, many more that aren't.
What if rather than labeling this as some personality flaw, I could see it for what it was? In truth, this was a questioning of the box that I had been placed in.....a small voice telling me that this container wasn't large or flexible enough to grow with me or honor the person I wished to become.
And so I got out.
My own personal changes began with a decision to enter a graduate program in psychology nine years ago, something I had had a passion for in my undergraduate days. At first, my decision to enter a doctoral program in psychology seemed to be more of the same, continuing the prescribed path of education, achievement and success. However, my inner self was choosing a deeper path of uncovering what I was here to contribute, even if I couldn't have predicted then exactly where it would lead...
Opening my own private practice in therapy and healing wasn't originally in the cards, but my soul kept nudging me to this place, pushing me to accept the risks as an inevitable facet of the rewards. I made the choice this fall to step off the salaried position pathway once more, opening my practice full-time, something I didn't actually imagine as a possibility when I first started grad school.
And I am only just now beginning to find out what this path is going to look like.
The unknown and the uncertainty all bring their fair share of discomfort, but they also bring their own brand of adventure and ownership over the story as it unfolds, outside of expected storylines and scripted outcomes. As once I worked with authors birthing their words into the world, I now work with others birthing their own expressions into the world, holding space for their own healing path to unfold. Aspects of myself that were devalued by a patriarchal system at large are now honored as I see more clearly how I was rewarded for my work ethic but never my compassion, my intellect but never my intuition. As I travel the corridor of this new life for myself, I offer this pathway to clients, knowing that possibilities that can turn into probabilities.
I contend that we are only just now on the edges of a generational shift, in which work that is not meaningful, creative, soul-led, innovative, or socially beneficial is more and more difficult to tolerate for many. As I see more people, especially women, question the structures they are a part of and what their inner selves are truly yearning for, I see how this change gets made. One by one, it gets made from within, as we reconnect with what we are really here to do and to be. This won't be found in any self-help book, through any guru, or through anyone else's well-meaning advice.
We each have our own unique story, unsullied by the books that have come before.
The question is: Are you willing to write it?