How do we perceive our own success?

It’s not uncommon to achieve a goal, even a big one, only to feel deflated and unfulfilled afterward. As if it is no big deal. So rather than celebrate you hear a pesky voice inside asking “so what?”.  You’ve fallen into the comparator trap.

Everything can be compared. Success in anything, howsoever defined, big or small, is always on a spectrum.  And in your own mind you are rarely at the top end of that spectrum.

This means that when compared to others’ achievements in the same area you have fallen short. Again.

This is a falsehood.

The need to compare and compete is driven by a desire for recognition, which in turn stems from ego.  We all have it.  We all want to be admired and recognised.  There is nothing wrong with that.  It’s when others are admired more than you (or you might not even be recognised at all for something you have achieved) that the psychological gremlin that is your ego enters the game.

Before that, it was an idea, a passion or a fun hobby. Now that you have attained a level of competence it changes.  It becomes a game.

Human beings are naturally conditioned to be competitive. This can be traced back to primitive times when we had to compete for food to survive.  This instinct remains ingrained in our neural pathways and it’s not something anyone can simply ignore. It’s going to be an issue. Always.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Think of humanity’s tapestry of achievement as a giant Lego construction. Some people put in huge bricks that everyone can see – they are remembered as their bricks are so obvious. Others put in small or tiny single bricks which – although equally important – are hidden out of sight.  But they are still there.  And they are part of the same tapestry and make it what it is.

The person who invented the plastic tip of the shoe-lace has probably quietly impacted billions of lives – much more than the person who discovered black holes in space.

This brings us to another element. Prestige.

Why are some ideas, discoveries, inventions and achievements more notable than others?  Take the people who designed and then those who laid the bricks for the Great Wall of China? Or those who carved the marble stones for the Taj Mahal. Or those who chiselled an entire city of out of rock cliffs in Petra. Or the ‘great’ Egyptian Pharoes who ordered that magnificent pyramids and monuments be built to honour them. They did not conceive of or design these structures. Nor did they build them to mathematically exacting specifications. They wanted prestige and tapped into (often forcefully) the talent around them to achieve this.  All of the above are monumental achievements by a large group of highly talented people. Can you (without googling or checking Wikipedia) name a single one of these people?  I can’t.

Historical and cultural narrative greatly influences our appreciation of something. It follows that ‘prestige’ is a relative term often unfairly or inaccurately attributed.

The lesson here is to not be discouraged by a lack of recognition or prestige attached to something you have achieved. It does not make the achievement any less remarkable.

If all people throughout history had stopped bothering to achieve things because they did not believe they would be recognised, human development would still be in the dark ages.

While anonymity and insignificance are often conflated, the former is a curtain around the stage upon which human achievement invisibly grows and prospers. The actors are hidden from view – until the curtain is ready to be lifted.


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