Confronting our collective addiction to achievement
An extract from Justine Toh’s new release
“Angelica, tell my wife John Adams doesn’t have a real job anyway.”
John Adams, if you’re not aware, was the United States’ first Vice President, so this jibe by Hamilton always gets a laugh. But it also sums up why I love Hamilton: An American Musical and yet feel a great deal of ambivalence about the story that its protagonist, American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, lives by.
Hamilton’s obsession with work and effortful striving sweeps aside everything else in its path. Work is central to Hamilton’s identity, meaning, and purpose. More than that, work is Hamilton’s salvation.
Hamilton exalts what Derek Thompson calls ‘workism’: work as religion demanding worship and sacrifice. I would call it, naturally, achievement addiction, in light of Jung’s claim that addiction is a misdirected yearning for God. Whether religion or addiction, workism is the pursuit of ultimate meaning and satisfaction through achievement. The crux is that work becomes all-important, and so holds the keys to someone’s happiness and fulfilment. Thompson should know: he confesses he’s a ‘workist’ himself. Or, in our terms, an achievement addict:
I am devoted to my job. I feel most myself when I am fulfilled by my work – including the work of writing an essay about work. My sense of identity is so bound up in my job, my sense of accomplishment, and my feeling of productivity that bouts of writer’s block can send me into an existential funk that can spill over into every part of my life.
This is something every other workist/achievement addict can identify with: in becoming the grounds of intrinsic worth and satisfaction, work morphs into something else too – the ever-present possibility of spiritual crisis.
When your identity is at one with your work, any failure to achieve can be soul-destroying because your reason for existence has judged you and found you wanting. And it’s not as though you ever really feel satisfied with your achievements. Instead, you need to keep challenging yourself to prove that any success wasn’t a one-off. Not only does this set you up to feel permanently insecure, but it provides no solid basis for identity that can withstand the shocks of life: a change of circumstances, losing your job, unexpected illness, or even simply retirement.
But perhaps the biggest challenge facing the workist is that, in the end, it’s their responsibility to prove their worth and, effectively, save themselves. In a meritocracy, your fate is ultimately in your hands. Undoubtedly, this makes success pretty sweet (if only briefly). But if you fail, it’s hard not to come to a logical, if punishing conclusion: you just didn’t have what it takes to thrive.
There’s a story Jesus told that undermines everything we believe about achievement.
There’s a story Jesus told that undermines everything we believe about achievement. It’s always worth comparing the stories we live by with those of a more heavenly bent since they can help us imagine an alternative to the status quo.
In the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a story to illustrate the upside-down nature of heaven where ‘the last will be first, and the first will be last’:
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
So the last will be first, and the first will be last (Matthew 20:1–16).
It’s a killer last line, one that reverses all our expectations. In Jesus the storyteller, meritocracy meets its match. The meritocratic values we consider all-important – like hard work paying off, and earning our way in the world – just do not weigh with God, Jesus says.
Which, if I’m honest, outrages me. It’s just so unfair. As an achievement addict, I know exactly how those disgruntled workers feel. I want to be recognised for my hard work, and I count being recognised as getting a reward that’s consistent with my efforts. But in God’s economy, it seems, no one deserves more or less on the basis of how hard or long they toil. The same pay – the same grace, in religious speak – is freely available to all.
More than that, the conventional ways we recognise people’s contributions – like high pay, a glowing performance review, or even just good feedback – don’t rate a mention in Jesus’ story. Which doesn’t mean that God undervalues hard work. Only the kind, it seems, that feeds the superiority complex of hard-core strivers who want to set themselves apart from others on the basis of their strenuous efforts. Smug, in other words, is in Jesus’ sights.
Which means that the story also undermines the competitiveness that destroys communal bonds. Greater rewards may motivate harder, better work, but they can also fuel the status games we play with each other. As Christian writer C.S. Lewis once observed, pride is essentially competitive: ‘Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.’ Yet in this story, each worker is treated with radical equality, leaving no basis for anyone to feel better than anyone else.
In Jesus’ story, all our assumptions get overturned.
This is an edited extract from Justine Toh’s Achievement Addiction, available now at www.reconsidering.com.au. Or tune into the recent CPX Conversation where Simon Smart and Justine Toh discussed our culture’s conflicted relationship with success.