The Psychology of Achievement

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Success is generally defined as the “achievement of intention,” but another meaning of the word is the “attainment of fame, wealth, or power,” which gives insight into how the phrase has been (mis)understood by Americans in general. The traditional method of assessing someone’s achievement or lack of accomplishment has been to use outer-directed metrics of success, a practice that has over time hurt many of us. After all, the majority of us aren’t famous, affluent, or powerful, and even if one does meet any of those criteria, there are always other people who have more of one or more of those qualities.

I believe that this paradigm of success has caused a large number of Americans to feel less successful than they might otherwise feel if more inner-directed measurements were employed, which has resulted in a great deal of psychological and emotional anguish. We have, for the most part, been measuring or evaluating achievement using the wrong form of social currency, which is one of the reasons why our country’s levels of happiness and well-being are not very outstanding. In summary, I contend that despite how much importance we place on pursuing achievement, it has mainly been a failure in America.

Such a viewpoint is supported by a lengthy history of research into the psychology of success in America. William James, a Harvard psychologist, referred to Americans’ excessive desire as “our national disease” and “the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success” in 1906. Nearly fifty years later, Lawrence Kubie, a renowned psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in the nation, claimed that many externally successful persons experienced unconscious neurotic pressures. He stated, in 1949, to a group of medical experts at the University of Rochester, “External success is not an infallible indication of internal health,” since his therapeutic work had shown that achieving one’s professional goals frequently resulted in despair rather than contentment.

In the early 1960s, David C. McClelland, chairman of Harvard’s Department of Social Relations and director of the university’s Center for Research in Personality, was one of the few persons on the world who was more knowledgeable about the psychology of success. He had discovered that there was more to success than just wanting to get money. According to McClelland in 1963, Americans “enjoyed the sense of challenge and risk and overcoming obstacles and getting somewhere,” and the secret to success was setting reasonable goals.



A quarter century later, Steven Berglas had become a leading authority on the psychology of success, particularly its less savory aspects. The Harvard Medical School psychologist specialized in what he called “success-induced disorders” and was the author of The Success Syndrome: Hitting Bottom When You Reach the Top. For Berglas, success could be a “syndrome,” a pattern of behavior activated by the usually unacknowledged strains of accomplishment. There were “victims” of success, he maintained after treating many professionals who had crashed and burned after having “made it.” Within psychiatric circles, there was now even a name for what Berglas and other shrinks were seeing: “self-defeating personality disorder.”

After 25 years, Steven Berglas had established himself as a major expert on the psychology of success, particularly its less desirable facets. The Success Syndrome: Hitting Bottom When You Reach the Top was written by a psychologist from Harvard Medical School who specialized in what he termed “success-induced disorders.” According to Berglas, success could be a “syndrome,” or a pattern of conduct brought on by the typically underappreciated strains of success. After counseling numerous professionals who had failed after having “made it,” he argued that there were “victims of success.” There was even a label for what Berglas and other psychiatrists were observing in the psychiatric community: “self-defeating personality disorder.”

In the 1990s, more psychologists focused on achievement and its link to mental health as their workaholic patients started to reevaluate their goals in life. One of them was Stan J. Katz, a clinical and forensic psychologist with a practice in Beverly Hills who had a deep understanding of the shifting American success narrative. Katz saw more than his fair share of great achievers in his private practice who hardly ever had time to appreciate the things for which they had worked so hard. “With our passage into the 1990s,” he and Aimee E. Liu wrote in Psychology Today in 1992, “we seemed to hit the hollow ground between achieving success and feeling successful,” an essential distinction.

The same general idea was expressed by psychologist Gilbert Brim in his 1992 book Ambition: How We Manage Success and Failure Throughout Our Lives. According to the director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Mid-Life Development, success should be continually reevaluated because it is not an objective metric but rather a subjective one. After all, as one got older, life changed, so success at one point did not ensure success at another. In fact, he noted, it was maintaining the same success measures over time that frequently caused boredom or a sense of failure as one attained their greatest potential in a given sector.

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