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Fulfillment vs. Achievement

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A client of mine recently made partner at the VC firm he works for. For months this had been all he could think or talk about. He was so focused on making partner that little else seemed to land on his radar.

I congratulated him and remarked on how excited and happy he must be when he retorted, “It was actually one of the most disappointing days of my life.” As we explored this he explained that the day he made partner he had the following realization: “I was so convinced that once I achieved this goal I would finally feel like I had made it, like it would prove to me that I was good enough. But what I found instead was that upon making partner I still felt just as empty as I had felt before.”  

How could something that had been so important to him, something that he had worked so hard for, make him feel so terrible? Because he had been caught in the endless game of chasing achievement, rather than fulfillment.

While the boost in pay and title was certainly a positive thing, it didn’t change the way he felt about himself. It only provoked this daunting question: What would the next benchmark be for feeling successful enough?

This is a trap that most of us fall into. We believe that it is our accomplishments that prove our worth and make for a happy life, but we forget that achievement and fulfillment are not the same thing.  While they are certainly not mutually exclusive, achievement without fulfillment can be a very empty place.

For example, many people who are highly successful in the professional realm have sacrificed their health and time with their family and friends in the name of achievement. But a life without balance and deep connections with others often lacks meaning. This point is well illustrated when we look at the top regrets of the dying: wishing they hadn’t worked so hard and wishing they had been courageous enough to live a life that was true to themselves, rather than life others had expected of them.  

So I encourage you to ask yourself what a life that was driven by fulfillment would look like and how it is different from the life you are living today. What are you doing because you think you should? What else could you being doing because you want to or because it fills you with a sense of purpose or meaning? When you are at the end of your life looking back, what are the kinds of experiences that will have made your life feel valuable and purposeful? Perhaps you’re already well on your way to living a purpose driven life, but if not, it’s a great time to step back, evaluate, and re-route to make sure you’re ending up at the right destination.

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