What We Lose When We Push Our Kids to ‘Achieve’
When I was 12, I disappeared into my bedroom with a $40 folk guitar and a giant book of Beatle songs, with elementary, large-type “E-Z” chord diagrams to follow. I had no musical gift, as a series of failed music lessons had assured me — it was actually the teachers who assured me; the lessons were merely dull — and no real musical training. My fingers stung as I tried to press down on the strings without making them buzz and my left hand ached as I tried — and for a long time failed — stretching it across the neck. Nonetheless, I worked my way through “Rain” (abbreviated to two chords) and “Love Me Do” (three) and finally “Yellow Submarine” (four chords, or was it five?) and discovered by myself the matchless thrill of homemade musical harmony.
No one asked me to do this, and surely no one was sorry the door was closed as I strummed and stumbled along after the nirvana of these simplified songs. But the sense of happiness I felt that week — genuine happiness, rooted in absorption in something outside myself — has stayed with me.
Fifty years later, I am still not a very good guitar player, but that week’s work, and the months and years of self-directed practice on the instrument that followed it, became a touchstone of sorts for me, and a model and foundation for almost every meaningful thing I’ve done since. It gave me confidence, often wavering but never entirely extinguished, that perseverance and passion and patience can make one master any task.
So it seems suitable at this season, as the school year ends and graduates walk out into the world, most thinking hard about what they might do with their lives, to talk about a distinction that I first glimpsed in that room and in those chord patterns. It’s the difference between achievement and accomplishment.
Achievement is the completion of the task imposed from outside — the reward often being a path to the next achievement. Accomplishment is the end point of an engulfing activity we’ve chosen, whose reward is the sudden rush of fulfillment, the sense of happiness that rises uniquely from absorption in a thing outside ourselves.
Our social world often conspires to denigrate accomplishment in favor of the rote-work of achievement. All our observation tells us that young people, particularly, are perpetually being pushed toward the next test, or the “best” grammar school, high school or college they can get into. We invent achievement tests designed to be completely immune to coaching, and therefore we have ever more expensive coaches to break the code of the non-coachable achievement test. (Those who can’t afford such luxuries are simply left out.) We drive these young people toward achievement, tasks that lead only to other tasks, into something resembling not so much a rat race as a rat maze, with another hit of sugar water awaiting around the bend, but the path to the center — or the point of it all — never made plain.
My own accomplishment of learning those Beatles songs seems to echo in the experience of almost everyone I know. My wife recalls learning to sew her own clothes by the same process I undertook — breaking it down into small, manageable tasks, getting the pattern, choosing the fabric, working the machine, until you find yourself making something like music — in the clothing maker’s case, wearing that beautiful thing you’ve made. The experience of breaking down and building up that she learned then informed her later professional work as a film editor and producer.
Sometimes the process actually produces a vocation: Another friend recalls struggling to draw anything as a kid — Superman, Spiderman — and being astonished by his own growing skill as each week one more piece of the world got decrypted on paper. He became a realist painter. But most often these early self-directed obsessions produce not a job to earn from but a platform to leap from — they produce a sense of fulfillment through passionate perseverance that crosses over into the most seemingly alien enterprises.
As a parent now, I’ve seen the pure satisfaction of accomplishment, of a particular passion arduously pursued, arise in my own children. Yet I’ve also seen it actively discouraged by the well-meaning schools they attended: More than a decade ago, my then 12-year-old son Luke, a boy enchanted by Dai Vernon’s card tricks, a pack forever in his hands, found that the many hours he’s spent learning the Erdnase color-change was not a necessarily rewarded act in eighth grade. I fought a good fight on his behalf to cut down on homework — a fight that landed eventually on the front page of this newspaper — exactly because homework was cutting into his magic.
I may have been naïve but I was, surely, not wholly wrong; the steps he has taken in life that led him eventually to pursue graduate degrees in philosophy began in the pursuit of those illusions. The concentration and subtlety of mind required to master Wittgenstein’s gnomic parables puzzles can be rooted more readily in the art of “twisting the aces” than in getting straight A’s. Self-directed accomplishment, no matter how absurd it may look to outsiders or how partial it may be, can become a foundation of our sense of self, and of our sense of possibility. Losing ourselves in an all-absorbing action, we become ourselves.
I know there are objections to his view: At some moment, all accomplishment, however self-directed, has to become professional, lucrative, real. We can’t play with cards, or chords, forever. And surely many of the things that our kids are asked to achieve can lead to self-discovery; taught well, they may learn to love new and unexpected things for their own sake. The trick may lie in the teaching. My sister Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist and author, puts this well: If we taught our kids softball the way we teach them science, they would hate softball as much as they hate science; but if we taught them science as we teach them softball, by practice and absorption, they might love both.
Another objection is that accomplishment is just the name people of good fortune give to things that they have the privilege of doing, which achievement has already put them in a place to pursue. But this is to accept, unconsciously, exactly the distinction between major and minor, significant and insignificant tasks, that social coercion — what we used to call, quaintly but not wrongly, “the system” — has always been there to perpetuate.
Pursuit of a resistant task, if persevered in stubbornly and passionately at any age, even if only for a short time, generates a kind of cognitive opiate that has no equivalent. There are many drugs that we swallow or inject in our veins; this is one drug that we produce in our brains, and to good effect. The hobbyist or retiree taking a course in batik or yoga, who might be easily patronized by achievers, has rocket fuel in her hands. Indeed, the beautiful paradox is that pursuing things we may do poorly can produce the sense of absorption, which is all that happiness is, while persisting in those we already do well does not.
The pursuit of accomplishment, what I call the real work, never ends, and always surprises. I learned in that chord-building week so long ago that if you simply lifted one finger from the C chord, you got the most tender and poignant harmony. I didn’t know then that it was a major seventh chord, favorite of the bossa-nova masters; but I later learned that Paul McCartney, like me, didn’t know that’s what it was, either, when he first made the shape, and referred to it simply as “the pretty chord.” From the most gifted to the least, we are brothers and sisters in the pursuit of accomplishment, and our stubborn self-propelled decoding of its mysteries. That’s our real humane achievement."