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The difference between success and achievement

Posted by on Tuesday, 6 May 2014

A few months ago I was invited to be the guest speaker at the Academic Awards Banquet for my hometown’s school district. I had twenty minutes to talk to the top 10% of the graduating seniors for all four of the district’s high schools. So what do you say to a group of students about to head off to college? Something they might not hear elsewhere? Sage advice from some old guy they’ve never met before? After bouncing a few ideas around, this is what I ended up with.

Achievement and Success
NCSD Academic Awards Banquet
April 27, 2014

Good Evening, and thank you for the opportunity to join you tonight in celebration of your academic achievements. When I was asked to speak to you tonight I immediately agreed, and it wasn’t until later that I started to give thought to what we might talk about. I could tell you about Mr. MacGuire’s 9th Grade math class, where we learned a mnemonic for the ratios in trig functions and how I still use it today. I could tell you about how Mr. Strube’s Sophomore biology class saved my bacon when I was first hired as an engineer for a medical device company. I could even tell you about how the conservation of energy concepts from Mrs. Livingston’s physics class were the basis of my PhD dissertation. But the reality is that not all of you are going to be going to be engineers, and not all of you are going to pursue graduate degrees. That message might not matter to you. So instead I want to talk to you about something that will matter to all of you and will impact your college life and well as your future careers and relationships.

So at the beginning of this talk I congratulated you on your achievement in being here, and it is well deserved. Being in the top 10% of your class is no small feat, and demonstrates your ability to perform at a high level for a wide range of topics across a number of years. But I want you to notice something. You are being congratulated on your achievement, not on your success. Is that important? Is there a difference? If you look up either of those two words in the thesaurus it will tell you they mean the same thing. If you look them up in Webster’s dictionary, you’ll find that they couldn’t define one without using the other. But there is a key difference. An achievement is a “thing”. It is something that you reach for and attain, like a goal. It is something tangible, something others can see, is clearly defined and something you can measure.

Tonight’s honors are an achievement. It can be measured, and in fact was, in order to figure out which students to invite to the banquet. An achievement can be pointed to and you can say “hey, look what I did”. In contrast there is success. Success is much mushier. It is a state of being or a feeling. We use words like “he is successful” or “she feels successful” do describe a state of being. The feeling of success is one of having done something worthwhile. That all the effort I put it was toward something meaningful. Success is messier, because while it is easy to make a plan to meet a measurable goal, it is much harder to plan for a feeling of success. It’s easy for me to congratulate all of you on your achievement, but it would be impossible for me to know if you all are successful. That requires something that I can’t see from the outside.

So what do we want, achievement or success? It isn’t a choice that has to be one or the other. The reality is we need both. They are distinct from one another; sometimes going together and sometimes not. More importantly however is that sometimes you can mistake what you achieve for the destination. This is why many never truly feel satisfied no matter how much they accomplish. The false assumption can be made that if they simply achieve more the feeling of success will follow. This very real difference between achievement and success can sometimes entangle people in misunderstanding for years; only to wake up one day and realize that the two are separate, and sometimes success has not truly been attained in spite of a very long list of impressive achievements.

One way this is described comes from the aptly named book “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek. For us the achievement is the ‘what’ and the success is the ‘why’. When someone wants to achieve something, it’s always a what. I want to achieve a great job. I want to achieve an degree in a particular major. They are always very specific, as we said tangible, things – making the motivation behind them still very material. But when someone is in it to succeed, it isn’t a matter of what they want, rather why they want it.

All that sounds good, unless you don’t know your why. Why are you putting your time into these projects? Often this advice is phrased as “Finding your passion”, but this is the wrong way to approach it. It’s actually backwards.

“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.” –Simon Sinek

What do you love? What gets you up in the morning? What motivates you to work late into the night? These are thing things that will lead to that hard work that is called passion. Sometimes is it quite literally what gets you up in the morning.

A few years ago our family took a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando. And we had a great time. But every morning, as we headed into the theme park of the day, I was always the last one through the gate. Before that I was the last one up in the morning and the last one to finish breakfast as we got ready for the day. It wasn’t that I was having a bad time, but there were definitely members of our family more excited to be in the land of the mouse. But Wednesday was different. I was the first up. The first to finish breakfast, and the first ready to head out the door. I was excitedly shepherding everyone to the rental car for the day’s activities. Why? We were going to Kennedy Space Center. I was going to get to see rockets and spacecraft, and all sorts of cool things. It wasn’t Disney, it was NASA. I was excited, and that is what got me up in the morning. Aerospace design is a passion of mine, and something I had always had an interest in. It got me up in the morning.

But what if all you love is playing Call of Duty on the Xbox? Does that mean the only way to be a success is to become involved in the videogame industry? Not necessarily. It might be the online teamwork that is important to you. It might be the problem solving challenges as you advance through the levels. These things open a wider range of opportunities. Sometimes you have to dig beyond the surface to find what is the part that resonates with you.

So why is your ‘why’ important? Just to help you feel successful? It turns out there are other advantages to knowing your why. First, when things don’t go as planned and there’s always associated stress and disruption. If you can use your why as a touchstone to help you stay focused on the important bits. Your why keeps you connected to success, even when the achievements are arriving according to plan.

Secondly, when you have a clear ‘why’ you have a better chance of identifying new opportunities that come your way. When I was in college I had plans to go work in aerospace. I was going to design rockets, and robots, and all sorts of cool, challenging things that were going to change the world. But as I neared graduation, I wasn’t offered a job in aerospace. Instead I got a call from a medical device company. But that work was challenging too. I got to make a difference in the world there as well. I have enjoyed my years of working in medical devices knowing that these are things that matter to me as much or more than working my original plan.

A third impact comes when you are very clear in why you do the things you do- you will start attracting like minded people to help with your cause. When you know what your vision is for success and you can clearly communicate it, you end up with a powerful recruiting tool. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this, as he worked though the Civil Rights struggle. His ‘why’ was a world devoid of racism, when children played together? This was communicated masterfully through his “I have a dream speech” and helped millions to understand his why. Sinek asked how successful would Dr. King be if it had instead been an “I have a plan” speech?

As soon as you have others that are joining you in pursuit of the success, you start to realize something else that is important. Being a leader is not the same as being in charge. Leaders can come from anywhere in an organization, and often they are the ones that have the clearest ‘whys’.

It doesn’t matter what your job is. Take working in fast food at the counter. One person knows that their why is to positively impact the people they meet every day. The other is begrudgingly working for a paycheck. Which is going to excel in the job?

If you have a group of like-minded motivated peers and a clear sense of direction, next the investment of time and energy in the team brings out a spirit of generosity in your teammates. All aligned with a common understanding of success, the motivation added by a leader (regardless of their job title) just adds fuel to the process. Things take off from there, and it all starts with understanding success and achievement.

So you need both. As you accumulate achievements that feel empty and unfulfilling, it is time to reexamine your why. If you know your why, but there aren’t any achievements, it is time to evaluate your goals and plans. It is time for something tangible that reflects your drive. This cycle comes up throughout life, and being aware of the very distinct differences between achievements and success will equip you for setting your own course and keeping your journey on track. Congratulations again on your achievement. This honor is one to be proud of. But don’t lose sight of your why, and it will help with your future of success. And that is the best that any of us here could hope for you. Good luck in your future endeavors, and thank you for the opportunity to join you tonight.