( Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash )

The Failure of Our Achievement Culture

It’s a truism that we all face impossibly demanding jobs these days: an always-on culture, bosses that want stretch goals accomplished routinely, older workers who feel threatened by younger entrants who think nothing of spending 18–20 hours at work each day, everyone threatened by the rise of automation and low-cost outsourcing, wage increments that barely keep up with the cost of living, etc. And, sadly, our performance at work can degrade with age creating its own sources of frustration and anguish for many.

Even if we “succeed” in such an environment, we tend not be much “happier.” In fact, paradoxically, the more successful we are, the unhappier we get. See here and here.


Because it’s not just the job that makes impossible demands of us. It’s that we ourselves make impossible demands of the job. We want:

  • an awesome boss who is nurturing and provides autonomy;
  • an amazing team with whom we bond both at work and with some of whom we form life-long friendships;
  • work that is meaningful and that we can get passionate about. “Success literature” advises you to think of the “great things” that users of your products/services will achieve thereby bringing meaning and purpose to your work. The classic example used in such literature is that of a brick-layer who lays bricks each day with a song on his lips because while mere brick-laying is boring, backbreaking and mundane, building a cathedral is not. (Parenthetically, such thoughts are most often advanced by those who have never laid any bricks of their own but find themselves well positioned to write about such matters from the comfortable perches of their tenured university professorships.)
  • a work environment free of politics.
  • compensation & benefits commensurate with what we think we bring to the job.
  • a pure meritocracy in which we are promoted right when we expect (preferably earlier).

Any fair-minded reading of this list of demands can see that some bosses, some jobs and some companies can meet some of these demands only some of the time. Most will fall short most of the time.

Why do we punish ourselves so?

Our work-obsessed culture demands this. Work is not something to do; it’s become an increasing part of “who we are.” Our culture celebrates professional work and accomplishments; less so, personal ones. So it’s natural that all of our efforts are directed towards the professional often at the expense of the personal. Measures to quantify success on the “personal” front are ill-defined and squishy. How do you measure time with family? With friends? What is the measure of “tangible” success at volunteering?

The Answer?

The key to happiness at work is to make the least possible demands of it:

  • Don’t expect to form life-long friendships with your colleagues.
  • Don’t expect that your work has great nobility and purpose.
  • Don’t expect your boss to be an angel.
  • Don’t expect your work environment to be free of office politics — for in reality, we are tribal, animated by jealousies, pettiness and the like.
  • Don’t expect that you will be recognized and rewarded fairly (or, even in a timely manner) for your efforts.

But how to do this?

‘Wait a minute,’ you protest. ‘Are you seriously suggesting that I should just settle? Put up with a bad boss? A bad culture? Should I just retire-in-place?’

No, of course, not. It’s the word ‘expect’ that creates the problem and our expectations that set us up for disappointment. The Bhagavad Gita addresses this very topic in a famous passage that asserts:

You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.
Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2, Verse 47)

We are only really in control of our own actions. We have zero control over the actions of others. And, we certainly have zero control over the tectonic forces shaping our companies and our industry in the economic landscape.

Our current job or boss or team may be bad. But leaving for a different job does not guarantee that we will get what we are looking for. Or, even if we did, there’s no guarantee that it will last, that our new job will continue to be great or that our new great boss will continue to be our boss.

Expect More from Yourself, Expect Nothing (or, Less) from Others

The best we can do is to do the best we can do. Then, let the chips fall where they may. If you expect a lot from others, first expect a lot from yourself:

  • If you expect an awesome boss who is nurturing and provides autonomy, then be an awesome employee exploits the autonomy to do more. Be an awesome boss yourself if you have direct reports.
  • If you expect an amazing team then be an amazing team-mate.
  • If you expect work that is “meaningful,” then derive your own meaning in what you do. Don’t expect others to define this for you.
  • If you expect a work environment free of politics, play no politics of your own. When a colleague speaks ill of someone who is not present, shut it down immediately, or better yet, defend them. Be loyal to those that are absent, as Stephen Covey advised in his landmark ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People.’
  • If you expect to be paid based on what you think you bring to the job, be sure that you view your own accomplishments from your manager’s standpoint. Often times, we think too highly of ourselves. As Franklin Roosevelt once quipped, “The ablest man I ever met is the man you think you are.”
  • If you expect a pure meritocracy in which you are promoted when you expect it, make sure that your work measures up. If you are responsible for promoting people that work for you, make sure that you apply the same yardsticks when evaluating their performance and readiness for promotions too. Too often, we want to be promoted because of our potential. But we are only willing to promote those that work for us because of their results.

Be Grateful for What You Have

The other way to dial down expectations or, at least, not be crushed when they are not met is to enhance your gratitude. Gratitude is an amazingly powerful force that has been shown to yield physical, psychological and social benefits. According to Prof. Robert Emmons:

  • “Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present.” Put differently, gratitude allows us to celebrate what we have.
  • “Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, … .”
  • “Grateful people are more stress resistant.”
  • “Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth.”

Gratitude transforms the disappointment laden in the question: “I did not get what I deserved” into “How lucky I am to have what I have”! Scarcity is one mechanism that makes one feel lucky they have what they have. This is best embodied in the saying, “I was angry that I had no shoes until I saw a person with no feet.”

Now let’s take that crappy job that you hate and see how we can transform it into (at least) a less crappy job by viewing it through a gratitude lens. Viewed through this lens, your company is actually a pretty amazing and inspiring entity. Few companies have achieved its level of success. For consider:

  • It provides products/services (including through your efforts) that meet a market need for which customers are willing to pay.
  • It provides employment to many including you. Because of this, employees are able to provide for themselves and their families.

If this sounds routine (or, ordinary), it isn’t. It’s far from ordinary. In fact, it’s extraordinary. Consider that most (small) businesses actually fail — according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics of businesses that started in 1994, only 16.6% survived in 2019.

‘That doesn’t apply to me,’ you counter. ‘I work in a large Fortune 500 firm.’ O.K. While your company may not be in danger of closing its doors, its continued success is far from assured. In a paper provocatively titled, “Do Stocks Outperform Treasuries?” Prof. Hendrik Bessembinder examines the stock returns of every stock listed in the US stock exchanges since 1926 and compares their shareholder return compared to US 1-month Treasuries over the life of the company. Here are the key findings:

(Key Findings from Prof. Bessembinder’s Paper)

This is a staggering statistic: Only 4% of companies listed on US stock exchanges generate additional wealth beyond those generated by 1-month US Treasuries. In other words, if you work in a company that is in the other 96%, investors would do better to invest in 1-month Treasuries than to invest in your company over the long-term!

Taken together, these failure statistics show that capitalism is an extraordinarily harsh taskmaster — a treadmill of ever rising difficulty from which there’s no off-ramp. Now consider the forces arrayed against your “crappy” company:

  • Customers are a demanding bunch. Deliver anything else than what you promised and you will get taken to task. Customers defect to use other products/services from competitors. It takes a lot of imagination and effort to build up customer loyalty. New customers are extraordinarily difficult to sign up.
  • Investors are demanding too. Great performance delivered in the past is just that: past performance. They want to know what you are going to do for them in the future?
  • Rising costs due to inflation. Wages and other such as health care, etc. rise inexorably. If we set inflation at 2% (for example), your company’s costs will be 2% more next year compared to this year everything else being the same. If you do nothing else, in other words, you need to generate (at least) 2% additional revenue (either in new features for existing products/services, or in new products/services) each year just to keep pace!
  • Competition increases. Larger companies may muscle into the market. New entrants think they can outdo your products and services. So your company has to keep pace by making necessary investments. Which means increased spending.
  • But competition may also mean that your company cannot automatically pass on rising costs to your customers. Your company may have to absorb some of those costs, or find savings elsewhere — by freezing (or, reducing) wage increments, letting employees go, shutting down projects that do not justify continuing investments, squeezing suppliers, etc.
  • Key employees may get poached by the competition. New technologies, processes and methods are introduced. So employees need to be trained, retrained, etc. Hiring gets harder. Your company may be seen as the establishment. Newer companies and startups may be more attractive to young talent.

When you zoom out to view your company from this broader perspective, instead of only seeing the close-up view of your crappy job, your company now appears tiny (feeble, even) with an array of formidable forces stacked against it. Yet, gamely, each day you and your fellow employees heroically go to work to do what you can to propel this tiny entity succeed against all odds!

What can be more inspiring and more noble than this?

Viewing your job and company through this perspective may inspire awe in you for the formidable accomplishments of your teammates and your company against all odds. And, hopefully this awe translates into a measure of gratitude as well. This gratitude — borne of skepticism not blind acceptance — affords you the opportunity to view the efforts of your boss, your teammates and your company in a more favorable light.

We cannot make bargains for blisses,
Nor catch them like fishes in nets;
And sometimes the thing our life misses
Helps more than the thing which it gets.

For good lieth not in pursuing,
Nor gaining of great nor of small,
But just in the doing, and doing
As we would be done by, is all.
— Alice Cary (1849) ‘Nobility

I like to think deeply about business, entrepreneurship, success and failure. I am the Founder/CEO of Arnexa (arnexa.com)

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