Are you accomplished?

Adam Gopnik’s recent distinguishing of achievement from accomplishment offers a fresh way to look at The Pathless Path, a critique of career development from Paul Millerd.

Are you accomplished?

Is it better to achieve or to accomplish? Perhaps that depends on what kind of person you are. I am seeing myself now as the accomplishing type, having reflected on a recent article from Adam Gopnik, a long-time staffer at The New Yorker.

One might claim that the two are the same, and might find some support in a dictionary. The point for Gopnik was not to argue about what the words really meant; it was to apply labels to different kinds of completeness.

Achievement, Gopnik proposed, was about the completing of tasks imposed from outside. In contrast, accomplishment was the end point of engulfing activity. The difference lay in the degree of engagement.

Achievements were items to be added to a list of stuff that you’d done. Accomplishments were things that you had desperately wanted to do, and that had required you to develop new capacities through sustained application. Accomplishment was attainable only through passion.

Accomplishment and The Pathless Path

Gopnik used his son’s boyhood pursuit of competence in card magic as an example of the latter, but his own mastery of long-form journalism could have stood just as well.

His distinction illuminates Paul Millerd’s critique of career development in The Pathless Path, in which Millerd encourages restless employees to abandon what he calls the default path and step off their career ladders.

You can read The Pathless Path as an argument for pursuing accomplishment, at the expense of achievement.

Millerd thinks it likely, however, that people chalking up achievements in corporate jobs will not immediately know what they want to accomplish. Hence his recommendation that employees step away from their jobs and prepare to get lost.

For many, he thinks, the getting lost will be a prerequisite for finding a way of working and living that is not directed by an unexamined prioritising of hauling in money.

Work you want to keep doing

It is easy to think that Millerd’s recipe for a satisfying life excludes corporate employment, given his celebrating of modern digital platforms and their support for the solo practitioner.

But the point of stepping onto the pathless path is simply to find the work that you want to keep doing, as Millerd describes it. In other words, work that is intrinsically motivated: activity for which the reward is primarily internal rather than external.

The distinction Millerd draws between working because you want to and working because you’ll get paid is strikingly similar to the distinction Gopnik draws between accomplishing and achieving. Again, accomplishment is not excluded from being pursued as a part of employment.

In an article last year on Georges Simenon, Gopnik observed that the French master could never have produced his 70 Inspector Maigret novels and 430 other books unless he had been excited to immerse himself in these forms of writing, and one might say something similar of Gopnik for his New Yorker output alone. And yet only Simenon was self-employed: on all appearances, Gopnik has a job – albeit one that offers an unusual degree of autonomy.

Selling out

Employed or not, the idea that enduring well-being is to be found in paid work that you would do unpaid goes back a long way. It has nourished the daydreams of most would-be musicians, actors, novelists, visual artists, comedians, and a host of other aspiring creative professionals.

For many of those who turn pro, the daydream runs into the unyielding reality that getting paid to do what you would do unpaid is not the same as actually doing it unpaid. The demands and enticements of the market for your work begin to determine the work, so that the work that you end up doing is not actually work you would do if you weren’t being paid for it. In colloquial terms, you begin to sell out.

This is where Millerd’s critique bites, and it is a place where he thinks his support for others on his kind of path can make a difference. It is also the part of his program that draws most on fortitude.

The idea is to sustain your resistance to this sacrificing of what you want to do for what it seems most lucrative do to. Bracingly, this may require you to persist in turning down the most lucrative looking offers you get – thus rendering yourself vulnerable to recrimination, from yourself and from others, should the options you take up prove unprofitable.

Your accomplishments remain yours

Here Gopnik’s distinguishing of achieving from accomplishing can help. Should you turn down good money and then find yourself in material need, it is indeed easy to tell yourself nightly and at length that you have behaved like a fool. Financial stress is not an imaginary ailment, and there are good reasons for our being ashamed to ask others, perhaps even unknown taxpayers, for material help.

However, if you are the sort of person who prioritises accomplishment over achievement, you can temper your embarrassment with some recognition of what you accomplished, while you were rebuffing external demands that you achieve.

Thus you are placed differently from the the person who has prioritised achievement and whose achievements, in the end, have amounted to nothing. It is not as though you have lost your fortune at the casino, or in a stock-market crash, or in a series of messy divorces. Your accomplishments remain yours until age takes your faculties.

Welcome surprises

In closing a recent article that expanded upon Millerd’s book, I asked whether I had been wilfully blind in assessing a series of surprising changes as rich compensation for my having got lost and then broke – and in late middle age.

Among the surprises, I listed my enhanced fluency and comfort in non-fiction writing, a deepening of my capacity to befriend people, more availability for romantic intimacy, and my completing of a novel I’d spent a decade composing.

It is easy to see such benefits as small, private, and perhaps of much less value than my enabling losses, which included a steady job and the status and income it brought me.

And that view would be fair for anyone who prioritises achievement. Leaving on one side the novel, whose status as an achievement turns on its reception long-term, I’ve given myself an expensive and stormy holiday that I could have postponed to advantage.

The picture adjusts for me when I understand myself as a person who prioritises accomplishment. Those surprising developments were surprising just because I had not been sure they were even available, and their joint contribution to my sense of well-being has been very significant. From this perspective, it is hard to see how my delaying of their appearing could have been prudent.

Are there really two types of people, those who achieve and those who accomplish? Thoughtful responses are welcome as comments.

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