A few days back, I stumbled upon a blog called Study Hacks (http://calnewport.com/blog/) through the tangential recommendation of a friend of a friend. Today, I decided to rifle through the site’s contents to see if it delivered on its promise of decoding “underlying patterns of success.”
A cursory examination of several of the blog’s posts led me to the following conclusion: it does deliver on its promise and it does offer a few compelling if counter-intuitive insights on the drivers behind performance and productivity. However, the brief investigation left me vaguely disquieted and it took an hour of moderate introspection to uncover why.
The bottomline is, blogs like Study Hacks and the voluminous literature to which it belongs represent the science of a pursuit whose siren song I’ve followed most of my life. The quest for ability, mastery, excellence, performance, productivity, success and superiority has been a life-long compulsion whose attractions have only recently begun to wane. And the only reason for the vanishing allure is the simple fact that spending two-thirds of my life on the quest hasn’t made me remotely happy.
This realization hasn’t guaranteed my immunity to the game’s attractions however. Why I bothered so much with achievement to begin with was because it was a surefire means of gaining acceptance and winning admiration—pleasures so intoxicating that they disguised the absence of happiness for a considerable while.
And this, precisely, is why I find most of the self-help literature in the field disconcerting. They take excellence, mastery and success as unquestionable and unconditional goods whose only vices stem from their deficiency. But without disparaging the good that geniuses, prodigies and virtuosos in various fields provide, is there anything truly laudable in promoting unmitigated excellence, mastery and success for their own sake? Or does the endeavor simply lead to an endless treadmill of accomplishment and a destructive attachment to results?
I ask because the question needs to be asked in a culture that unconsciously celebrates the cult of success for its own sake. A successful life is taken to be synonymous with a happy life, yet none of the philosophical, religious or spiritual literature I’ve read has corroborated the link. Again and again, the admonitions call for the far more modest—if also vastly more demanding—work of developing an open mind and a compassionate heart. Very often, the quest for success can be antithetical to the latter task.
None of this means that I’m against excellence, mastery and success, only that I believe that they should be subordinated to other aims. After all, only successful people say that it’s hard and lonely at the top—I haven’t heard the happy ones complaining.