We live in an age that celebrates achievement. Whether it’s Olympic success, winning a league, political recognition, or artistic recognition, examples are held up to us of what we are supposed to aspire to.
It is no coincidence that mental health services spend some of their time mopping up after the drive towards achievement. Part of the moral of the film Shine (1997) is that the push to achieve can take a terrible toll. The film follows the story of a pianist’s very mixed relationship with fame and achievement, as he struggles to come to terms with the tensions they bring.
This is not to say that excellence is a bad thing. But a better term than achievement is perhaps attainment. Spiritually, attainment describes the learning of a helpful behaviour, or the mastery of a helpful skill.
There are many documentaries that chart the difficulties that fame and fortune bring. There are inconsistencies and hypocrisies in the way in which society relates to its heroes. It builds them up, and then destroys them. The same forces that elevate reputations, can also destroy and forget them.
What attainments do I value? Can I find a personal journey, suitable for myself and my skills, in which I can find peace and mastery? I don’t need to be famous, or rich, or celebrated. That comes with several pressures that I can do without.
Whenever the world seems to be pressurising me to achieve, can I keep my feet on the ground and find my own forms of attainment? Whenever the world tries to wrap me in to its strange passions and attachments, can I find activity and learning that make me happy, and help me to help others?
Attainment has the focus of achievement, but is not burdened by its social chains. Attainment is a path to liberation, whereas achievement can be a path to slavery. I want myself, and all beings, to attain happiness and personal freedom. In the process, I and others may have to let achievement go. We will be the happier for it.