How to waste an achievement

There is nothing more natural - and well deserved - than celebrating an achievement. Celebrations - rewards, more in general - release dopamine and create the desire to feel those emotions again. Achievements beget more achievements.

But achievements can also induce negative behaviours. Behaviours that - when left unchecked - will make it more difficult to accomplish something the next time around. I know - and have felt - two types of such behaviours.

The first is hubris. Hubris comes when we believe to be stronger, smarter, luckier than what we are. When that happens, we become sloppy. We prepare less. We act carelessly. All conditions that are likely to lead us to failure.

A good antidote is to remind ourselves that what generated our success is not a quality we possess but a behaviour we have shown.

A famous study about children and motivation has shown that children who connect their achievements to talent are more likely to fail afterwards compared to children who connect their achievements to effort. Knowing that success depends on what we do, and how we do it, is both humbling and motivating. It reminds us that we are the masters of our destiny, but also that failure is always around the corner if we stop paying attention.

The second achievement-generated and failure-inducing behaviour is less visible and for this reason - I argue - even more dangerous. In some ways, it is the opposite of hubris: it doesn’t spur from laziness or lowering the bar, but from raising it. Let me explain with a personal example.

I have recently had the fortune to get some editing help on a post I was writing for my favourite blog, Ribbonfarm. The editor did a great job - thanks, Kevin! - and it improved a lot the quality of my writing. Thanks to that, I have now a new bar, a new standard of quality to aim for. The next time I sit down to write something I am motivated to do at least as good a job as I did on that post.

It is difficult to see something wrong in this increased ambition, but here comes the challenge. As I sit here writing this post, I am way more judgemental about what I am typing. I want each sentence to sound well, I want different paragraphs to be linked well together, I want my arguments to come out clearly and in a nice, logical thread. In other words, I am afraid to do a poor job. I am hesitating. I am hitting backspace a lot.

It reminds me of something I have read in Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull’s book about the story of Pixar. Ideas - Catmull argues - are “ugly babies” who require protection.

“Early on, all of our movies suck. That's a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. I'm not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.”

Accepting that everything we produce - even our most successful creations - starts out ugly is a necessary step to avoid feeling paralysed. In The Shape of Design, Frank Chimero talks about “momentum” as a requirement for any creative effort. And momentum is something we can achieve only if we lower the bar of our inner critical voice:

“the weight of the objectives (the quality standard in our case) can crush the seeds of thought necessary to begin down an adventurous path. Momentum is the most important aspect of starting, and rejecting and editing too soon has a tendency to stifle that movement.”

We need to remember that the final output of our work - our achievement - is the product of a carefree ability to start combined with the ambition to reach our highest standards of quality. Not immediately, but eventually.