Topic of the Day: You Can’t Earn Love By Performing Well

Five Lies Our Culture Tells,” an opinion piece published in The Times earlier this week, is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. In it, Times contributor David Brooks argues that our culture has perpetuated what he believes are myths around what make us feel happiest and most fulfilled, like having career success, remaining autonomous and independent, finding our own truths, becoming rich, and achieving things through self-sufficiency. It’s a provocative article, and one I hope you’ll take time to read. I was especially struck by the fallacy of meritocracy as an ideal we’ve come to fully embrace, especially as it relates to self-worth and how we perceive others valuing us:

The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you. The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organized around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized.

I’ve been thinking a lot about achievement lately — what it means to be a “high achiever” and what it means to sort of throw your hands up and say, “Eh, I’m ok not making achievement a huge focus of my life.” In case it’s not obvious, I fall into the second camp. I have never been a high achiever. I was a solid B-student all through school, and I didn’t excel at any one particular thing. Even in graduate school, I wasn’t a solid A-student (and, come on, by grad school, everyone is at least a B student). There was a brief moment in time — around ten years ago — when my advice column was especially popular. It was the most-read column on a popular website and it was syndicated on an even bigger and more popular website, so that I thought maybe I could leverage that into… I don’t know, something? My own column in a print paper, maybe? (I grew up reading Dear Abby; how cool would it be to be a sort of modern-day version of her?) A book deal? A big-deal website of my very own? Well, it’s ten years later and obviously none of that transpired. There’s no column in a print paper, no book deal, and I’d say my audience is about half the size it was at its peak, and I’m… I’m ok with that.

I have not achieved very much in the traditional sense — in the sense of what our culture values most highly. Instead of investing most of my time into chasing career goals, I’ve stayed home, raising two kids. I’ve managed to foster a small community here on DW where I hope at least some people have felt supported at a time when they needed support, entertained when they needed entertainment, and useful when they needed to feel useful. I’ve helped to foster a community in my neighborhood, too, organizing parent groups, family events, and meet-ups of different varieties. I volunteer regularly at our local public school. I don’t have a Linked-In profile — there wouldn’t be much to include on it if I did, but I’m happy.

I’ve been thinking about achievement a lot though partly because I’m 42 and I’m at the age when so many of my peers are hitting their career peaks and achieving so much. Sometimes it’s hard to hear about someone’s promotion, someone’s book deal, or someone’s huge raise and not feel that I haven’t reached my own potential – that I haven’t achieved as much as I could have by now. But that thinking is a direct result of the culture in which I live that celebrates achievement above almost everything else. It’s not a reflection of my own values, and sometimes I need to remind myself of that.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about achievement because it’s such a big topic of conversation at Jackson’s school – and in education, in general, in our country — right now. We’re hearing so much about an “achievement gap” (i.e. when a group of kids who are similar in either race or gender or socioeconomic backgrounds score much higher or much lower on standardized tests than another group of kids) and how to “address the achievement gap” (i.e. raise the lower scores to better meet those of “higher achieving kids”). But what if we are measuring achievement all wrong? (I think we are!) What if achievement isn’t measured by how high your tests scores are (or how high your salary is or how many books you sell), but instead is measured by the quality of your relationships, the time and energy you invest in building a community, how you serve others, how easily you ask for help when you need it, and how much compassion you show others?

I keep coming back to the idea of “the emotion of the meritocracy [as] conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you.” Is this not a driving force for so much of the achievement (in its traditionally-understood sense) that we seek and strive for? We just want to be loved. And we mistakenly think that achievement correlates with love – that the quality and quantity of our achievements is a reflection of the quality of the love and relationships in our lives, when actually it’s the love and relationships themselves that are the achievements.

In Brooks’ article he says:

“People looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.

It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.”

I want to use this space to address that more deeply. How do we live for relationships? How do we see people in all their complexities? How – and when! — do we communicate from our depths and not our shallows? How do we be more real – with ourselves and with others? I don’t know all the answers to these questions, but I have a few ideas, and I am committed to growing and sharing my understanding of them. More to come!

In the meantime, how do you define achievement? What are some of the achievements you’re most proud of? Do you ever feel that you haven’t achieved enough yet, or that there’s so much more you want to achieve? How are your relationships a reflection of your achievement (if they are at all)?


  1. This is what David Brooks told his wife of 28 years after he left her a woman 23 years younger:
    “The person being left has to suppress vindictive flashes of resentment and be motivated by a steady wish for the other person’s ultimate good. Without accepting the idea that she deserved to be left, the person being left has to act in a way worthy of her best nature, to continue the sacrificial love….”

    How do I know this is what he said? Because he put it in his PUBLIC COLUMN. For all the world to see, he admonished his estranged wife to suck it up:
    “The paradox is that the person doing the leaving controls the situation, but greater heroism is demanded of the one being left behind.”

    No, thank you, to whatever David Brooks has to say.

    1. I don’t usually agree with him either, but I found this column to ring true for me, and appreciated the opportunity to think more about the way our culture embraces status above everything else and how those of us who don’t value status can fight against that notion, if not on a cultural level, than at least in our own personal lives and relationships, and to feel good about the “achievements” we’ve made, even/especially if they differ from how and what our culture at large defines as achievement.

    2. I’m with FYI on this one; a white guy who’s achieved in the typical sense (NYT writer, traded in his wife for a younger model) isn’t someone who can speak credibly about alternative forms of success nor about the importance of relationships. Real easy to say career/financial success is overrated when you have a secure job and housing. Not to mention dude is a supporter of the republican party which has profited off of destabilizing social networks and communities of those deemed “less deserving.” Hypocritical nonsense.

      1. You can think critically about the messenger while still finding value in this particular message.

      2. And, you know, if you don’t want to listen to a man who has achieved success in its traditional success, listen to others (me, for example), who don’t have his status and level of traditional achievement making the same argument: your relationships and your contribution to your community will make you happier than your career and your degrees.

  2. Also, this ….
    “We’re hearing so much about an ‘achievement gap’ (i.e. when a group of kids who are similar in either race or gender or socioeconomic backgrounds score much higher or much lower on standardized tests than another group of kids).”

    …. happens because one “group of kids” has parents who BRIBE to get higher scores and often-unwarranted LD accommodations for those kids.

    It has nothing whatsoever to do with a wrong emphasis on meritocracy or achievement. The game is rigged.

    1. I’m not sure what you mean by “parents who BRIBE to get higher scores.” Maybe you’re referring to the issue of parents who can afford to hiring test-prep tutors for their kids? I agree that that is a problem, but I wouldn’t call it a “bribing” problem. Who are the parents bribing? But maybe you are referring to something else that I’m not aware of.

      And while I do agree that “the game is rigged,” I disagree that the pursuit of higher test scores – whether through actual merit or bribery or whatever you want to argue is happening to get them – has “nothing whatsoever to do with a wrong emphasis on meritocracy or achievement.” It has EVERYTHING to with the wrong emphasis on meritocracy and achievement! The test scores people are so obsessed with don’t reflect how much and how well kids are learning what *I* think is most important for them to learn (empathy, patience, compassion, dealing with failure and disappointment, the value of art, what they have to contribute to their community and society, how to get along with people) at all.

      1. My guess is that he/she is talking about the recent college admissions scandal where rich parents paid to have their kid’s SAT scores changed among other illegal shit.

      2. Oh, yeah, maybe. I was referring more to a so-called achievement gap among younger kids, but maybe that wasn’t clear.

      3. But other than that, I agree with you that kids aren’t being taught enough about things that matter in life. But even if they are being taught all the right things, standardized tests are not the best way to measure everyone’s abilities.

    2. dinoceros says:

      I think it’s pretty clear that the idea of meritocracy was created and is perpetuated as a way to keep it rigged, though. If the folks “in charge” make sure regular folk believe in meritocracy, then there are instant arguments against the idea that some people are being held back due to institutional reasons. You can easily convince people to ignore the rigging because they can tell themselves that the only reason that other group of people isn’t as successful academically or financially is because they “didn’t work hard enough.”

      If our society didn’t believe in a meritocracy, it would be a lot harder for the rich to get away with this stuff because people would have already eaten them alive.

  3. I have also been thinking a lot about achievements lately, but will try and keep this brief. From a personal standpoint, I am in my late 30s and have always been fairly career-driven and climbed the ladder at a fairly decent pace. These past few years that has changed, I have been focusing more on my health, friends, family, travel and being a strong community builder and social activist. I am happier, calmer and feel more like I am being true to myself than I ever have in my whole live (it might also be something that comes with age).
    When I hear about others career accomplishments, I do sometimes “Am I doing enough? Should I do more? How are they doing all of this?”. About 3 weeks ago I had a drink with one of those people who I think of as having achieved a lot in her career. We talked about how she did it, what she would do differently, etc and she flat out told me that she would never recommend what she has done to anyone else. She is happy with her life, and said she has a fairly good relationship with her kids, but that she worked like crazy and feels her priorities in life were not aligned with her values. It has made me realize that for me “achievements” are not the degrees on your wall, or your salary or job title, but the things I do in my life that align with my personal values. These are different for everyone, and for some people those values are salary, degree, etc, and there is nothing wrong with that. I am still determining what exactly my values are, although I have a pretty good idea, and I am working reframe my “achievements” accordingly.

    1. So I think we all have comparisons and it is hard. I am getting to my 20 year high school reunion. The weird thing is that there are some people in my graduating class that are still couch surfing and acting like a teenager. Then there was a woman a grade younger than me that invented ClassPass and sold for millions. So when you look around at what you have done in the last 20 years, you see the comparisons and it hard to realize that most of us are just sitting in the middle.

      1. In the middle of what though? External achievements? You know certain things about these people you went to high school with, but what do you know about their friendships, their family ties, their heartaches, the things they do for others that they don’t publicize? What is it you’re comparing about their life to yours? Is it entirely external bullshit that doesn’t really matter? Is your schoolmate who invented and sold ClassPass happy? Does she feel
        Fulfilled? And if she does, I wonder what it is in her life that’s made her happy? Probably not her career success.

      2. @wendy – I do think that a certain amount of external achievement and stability makes you happy. Like if you aren’t living hand to mouth because that stress is real. After that, the amount of happiness is less and less. I will also say that I am sure that building something you are proud of gives you joy. I am an IT Recruiter. There are a bunch of things that are annoying about my job, but certain achievements make me feel like I made real quantifiable difference in people’s lives and that gives me real satisfaction.

      3. Right, I think making a positive difference in people’s lives is fulfilling and rewarding, but that isn’t the kind of ”achievement” that is generally celebrated or rewarded in our culture.

        And absolutely, earning enough money so that you aren’t hand-to-mouth alliviates some stress, but Our culture most certainly would not acknowledge it as a noteworthy achievement to have a few months’ worth of savings. It’s just sort of expected that you have that and it’s only noteworthy if you don’t.

  4. This is so interesting! I think people tend to see society’s values based on what they themselves do not have. I’m in my late 30s and have always been a very high achiever in school and work. However, I’m divorced and have no kids. I am KEENLY AWARE of the premium society places on marriage and family, and don’t feel all that celebrated for my professional achievements at this point. I feel like the message we get at this stage of life is that we’re supposed to be married with kids, period. (You could call this “relationships.”) I am close with my mom, siblings, and friends, but especially around the holidays every year it feels like the people who have set up traditional homes are the ones who get all the recognition and warm-fuzzies. I’d appreciate feeling “loved” as a function of my work ethic, but life does not at all seem to work that way.

    1. I think that people’s professional achievements can be really important! Without those achievements, where would be as a society? The problem, I think, is when people rely on those achievements and successes to bring them happiness and fulfillment when, in fact, it’s the relationships in your life and the service you provide to others that bring happiness. You don’t have to be married or have kids to have relationships. Family and friendships are just as important! So is the relationship you have with your community, whatever that community might be.

    2. dinoceros says:

      Same. It also very much depends on the type of family or community you come from. My parents know a billion details about my cousin’s fiance, but probably could not accurately describe what I do for a job. They’re insisting I go to said cousin’s wedding (she’s nice, but I literally haven’t seen her in person in like 5 years), which will presumably be hundreds of miles away, but didn’t think my grad school graduation was worth traveling that same distance. I know there are other families and other pockets of society that would find my professional achievements equal to or even better than getting married or having kids, but it’s not the area of society I came from.

      1. How much does it matter to you what people think or the value they place on your professional achievements? I think part of the problem (your problem, potentially; society’s problem) is that our happiness and fulfillment is dependent on others finding value in our achievements. And so many of the achievements we want people to
        Measure our value by – and maybe even love us for – are pretty superficial.

      2. @Dinoceros- I think what you are describing can be a very lonely feeling. Everyone wants to feel valued by their community. We only get to captain our own little ship but I think many of us (perhaps especially women for a myriad of reasons) want to feel successful by the people surrounding us. I think it’s frustrating NOT to feel respected for our self-defined life accomplishments, whatever form they take.

        Some people seem to be able to do and have everything in terms of talent, professional accomplishments, close happy relationships. I think we are born playing a note. II think most of us play our note as well as we can and find value in harmonizing with others who want to share in the song. Most of us try to learn a few chords through life, but it is lonely when you feel like you have a small part in the eyes of the people who you love, respect, and rely on the most.

        It’s important to find value in your own melodies and it’s good to seek out people who can see different parts of yourself and celebrate with you, when you feel you have something to celebrate.

  5. This could have been written for me. I am dealing with this right now and getting pressure from weird places. My husband and I have really pulled back our lifestyle. We are aggressively paying off debt and both driving 10 year old cars. We are at a point in our career where most people get new cars and move into a bigger home. We have decided not to take out loans for new cars or furniture or whatever. Both sets of parents are really against this. My mom brings up my car every time she sees me. It is clean but old. They keep bringing up moving before our son is in school to a better, newer house. The funny thing is, I want to actually be rich. My parents and inlaws want us to look rich. It is a very odd thing to get pressure from our parents like this. But I am realizing that by taking away the vision of us and just showing what we have, it makes them uncomfortable. Like I am not putting a vacation on a credit card so we need to save up for a vacation. But by saying this out loud, it makes everyone uncomfortable.

  6. I think this is a fantastic opinion piece. The people complaining that the author has a certain successes/finances are missing the point. I used to judge myself so harshly for not “succeeding” in the traditional way but when I realized that I had what I needed and that my attitude about how I saw the world and myself meant more than anything “out there” I had a shift perception that could only be described as a miracle. People give away so much of their freedom to these concepts of success and the ideas that we perpetuate about what a good and meaningful life is supposed to look like.

  7. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

    It sounds like David Brooks is trying to explain why he dumped his wife. His job didn’t make him happy and then he had an affair and that made him happy and so he dumped his wife and said she should be okay with it. He achieved a lot with his career but found that success wasn’t fulfilling.

    As a culture we do need to emphasize happiness but you can’t ignore the need for an income that will support you. People living in poverty are hugely stressed. There needs to be some emphasis on success but it needs to be a broad enough emphasis to include being a good partner and a good parent.

    I expect schools to teach academic subjects and to test for those subjects. I wouldn’t assume those subject tests are the only criteria for success. The rest is mostly moral values. You emphasize what you value in your home. You do it through your day to day choices. You emphasize things by what you buy, how you buy it, what you choose to find valuable. You live your values by how you handle your own successes and failures and how you handle those of your children and by what you consider to be a success or a failure. You live your values by how you choose friends, by the criteria you have for friends and how you treat your friends and how you allow people to treat you.

    A great deal of happiness in life comes from finding the right balance for yourself and your partner and your children if you have them. Success and happiness will look different for each of us.

    1. True, we all need an income to support us, but I think the problem we have culturally is that so many of us measure our success by the size of that income and the status of the job that brings us the income. And, frankly, I think part of that is because our schools are so hyper focused on “achievement” of high tests scores, so that beginning very early on, achievement is measured in ways that reflect nothing about how children are actually developing as people.

      Traditional schools give very little thought to teaching empathy, compassion, building/serving community, fostering friendships. Yes, of course, parents need to teach those things at home, but is it so crazy to want the institution where our kids spend 30-40 hours of their week to devote some of their class time to these very important issues on a regular basis?

      1. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

        I think the hyper focus on high achievement is partly a function of where you live.

        Our schools do focus on volunteering and valuing people for being people. We have Actively Caring for People in our high school. We have various service projects in both middle school and high school. We have things like grandparent days and recognize the service of family members who have served in the military on Veteran’s Day in our elementary schools. The elementary schools have their own service projects.

        Our parents like kids to be successful in school but they also want them to be good people. I think that what is stressed is what is valued by your local community.

        Our middle school had a guest speaker in science class last week who talked about pipe fitting and his experience in the Navy. He talked about the value of jobs that get your hands dirty if you don’t want to go to college.

      2. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

        My daughter’s elementary school also fostered friendships. She spent three years in a row with her best friends. The teachers like keeping good friends together as part of the school experience as long as the kids do well together in the classroom. Her fifth grade teacher seated her with her three best friends for the entire school year because they worked so well together. I think very much that the school experience you have is based on where you live. New York City is probably more status conscience than where I live and probably more high stakes achievement oriented than we are here.

        We have high achieving kids. My daughter’s friend got an ACT score of 35. My daughter is going to attend a top University in England. We’ve tried to be supportive academically while at the same time emphasizing that we value people for the way they treat people.

      3. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

        Our high school seniors are required to do a senior project that is a community service project of their choice and design. Documenting their project is the final for their English class.

        Our schools from K-8 recognize kids monthly for things like kindness and leadership. At times I have wished that there was more recognition for academics because that is the primary reason for schools. We seem to note everything but academics.

  8. I don’t really feel like I should comment because I haven’t actually read this opinion piece. I am in the midst of cleaning my kitchen and preparing lunch for my eldest tomorrow while fearing my baby will wake up crying. But I have read the above and it just hits home.
    I have two very young kids (toddler and a baby) and I have a what you would call a ‘career’. Have had it for about 10 years: going to the office, giving it all, trying to beat traffic, bearing a smile, loving deadlines. A few months ago, I broke down. I don’t think it was a burn-out, but my body was definitely giving me signals: I had been experiencing intense neck and back pains for months, taking painkillers three times a day, every day. Suddenly I just couldn’t anymore. The painkillers stopped working and I stopped functioning. I took a week and a half off work to think and rest. Started doing therapy, physiotherapy, yoga – I still do those things today.
    Of course nothing changes overnight and I went back to work. But as the weeks and months go on, I’ve been slowly realizing that this isn’t worth it: taking on stress at work, then stress in traffic, to come home to a stressy mess. I find myself letting go of my own expectations of great ambitions, a great body, being a perfect mom. I’m trying to be fine. I’m trying to settle for values and morals, and pass those on to my kids. I don’t know where that will take me but that’s ok.
    And I don’t know if that adds a lot to the conversation, but thank you for bringing this up. I love Dear Wendy, this site really does mean the world to me and has offered me so much support throughout the years. If that’s not a great goal you’ve achieved, I don’t know what is.

    1. Aw, thanks, I appreciate that.
      And you are in the thick of it with a toddler and a baby. My kids are a few years older; it does get easier. Hang in there.

      1. Thanks!

  9. Ok, I did read the piece.

    I agree that this meritocracy we have going on is created and perpetuated by rich white people. And it’s BS. And yeah, public schools are pushing it. But so are rich white parents on their kids. And then people who aren’t rich and white try to keep up with it to the extent they can.

    But I don’t totally agree with him that professional accomplishment isn’t fulfilling. I mean good for him that he felt nothing when his book became a bestseller or whatever, but look, contributing to something with a mission you feel good about, and achieving things, can make you feel great!

    I also disagree that human relationships are the key to happiness, if that’s what he’s saying. Relationships don’t necessarily bring fulfillment.

    I think happiness is internal, not external. I think we have everything we need within ourselves. We shouldn’t be looking outward – whether to a job or a relationship – to make us happy. I think we have to try and figure out what our purpose is and do our best to fulfill that purpose. That is going to look different for everyone. With more or less of an emphasis on work and on relationships.

    But yes, definitely, caring and receiving care, and being part of a strong community are great things and I think help us feel like we’re fulfilling or able to fulfill our purpose.

    1. I think to the extent that human relationships bring us joy, it’s because we feel good and in touch with a purpose and so we have something to give to others … and we feel good and open enough to receive love.

      For some people, feeling good is at least partially about feeling that they’re *good at* something and really have something to offer.

    2. Oh and as to your “purpose,” I think everyone has unique talents and they need to use them. You don’t have to be *best* at whatever, but you need to be using your talents. And doing that professionally or athletically or elsewhere can definitely be fulfilling. And helps you be a better person able to bring more to relationships.

    3. “I agree that this meritocracy we have going on is created and perpetuated by rich white people. And then people who aren’t rich and white try to keep up with it to the extent they can.”

      Your comment makes me laugh because it reminds me of the CEO of my previous company (old, rich white dude). A number of times he asked me to attend meetings with him and CEOs/VPs of client companies (also old, rich white dudes) because I had background knowledge of the projects we’d be proposing.

      So I’d go with him, and the meetings would always start with the CEO bragging about other rich people he knows (so-and-so’s villa in Florida is next to this-famous-person) or something expensive he’d bought (his $5,000 custom made lamp for his office) or about the 14 porsches he’s owned over the last decade.

      I’d feel SO EMBARRASSED for him, like OMG dude, this boasting and bragging and showboating is not a good look and it’s not going to win us the account. And I would worry that he was making us look bad, because ugh.

      BUT then I realized that the other old rich white dudes, the CEOs and VPs we were there to meet, were TOTALLY into it and they’d do the same thing. This was some sort of traditional part of networking and socializing among old, rich white men.

      I still found it uncomortable and embarrasing but it was certainly an eye-opening experience for me (I grew up with a single mom who worked 3 jobs to keep the house going).

  10. I haven’t read the piece but I consider this website to be a huge accomplishment. I think finding value in time often means living as presently as possible. We are alive for such a short period of time, I think there is value in those who took ownership, coursed a direction, and pursued living their life in the fullest way possible.

    I often feel unaccomplished. I think it’s because when you nurture other’s you can’t really take full credit for the results. I think most of us want to feel proud but my particular set of talents are not ones which are rewarded with a lot of income to show for my efforts. But I don’t begrudge the big dreamers and earners; if I could live a million other lives perhaps I would, but I can only be me and live my own and make the most of my own fruit and time.

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