Achievement Versus Accomplishment and Redefining Success

As a musician, I was drawn first to the photo of a young person’s hand hovering over piano keys. The picture accompanied a New York Times opinion piece written by The New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik that explores the distinction between achievement and accomplishment. According to Gopnik we tend to place greater emphasis on achievement, the process of completing a task or working towards a goal often imposed on us like doing well in school to get into the best college possible. Many believe the “better” the school, the greater opportunities for success in landing the optimal job. Accomplishment, according to Mr. Gopnik, is more about personal initiative and striving to master a skill or explore an interest through discipline and persistence. It’s about the curiosities we pursue for their own sake.

Gopnik came to this understanding after years of pursuing something for the sheer joy of it; he devotedly practiced the guitar on his own when he was young, even after former teachers insisted that he lacked talent. His point in the article isn’t that he ultimately excelled and grew to become a skilled musician; he didn’t, but he attributes his hours and years of practicing to laying the foundation for everything he has accomplished since. In Gopnik’s estimation, accomplishment is undervalued. Accomplishments are the things that bring joy to our lives, but as a society, we are too achievement focused.

Working with young people, I am troubled by the amount of daily stress they feel and its impact on their mental health. And I’m increasingly aware of the ways I contribute to it.  Families come to me with expectations about the college process and what they see as a successful outcome.  My message is mostly about achievement: good grades, lots of course rigor, and depth of extracurricular involvement are what they’ll need to achieve these dreams, and by the way, even by doing “the right things” there is no guarantee. Stress often arises from the things we can’t control, and college admission is right there at the top of the list. For many teenagers today, the expectations they set and internalize do more damage than good. It is primarily focused on achievement, what do I need to do, rather than accomplishment which is driven more by curiosity and a desire to explore the things they enjoy.

There is no easy solution for managing the pressure students feel, but a good place to start is by changing the dialogue and reframing how we define success. Perhaps it was kismet that just days after first reading and pondering Adam Gopnik’s May 15, 2023 article, I caught the end of a previously recorded interview on NPR with former UCLA women’s gymnastics coach, Valorie Kondos Field.  She speaks about reinventing our definition of success to ensure we develop individuals who are champions in life, not just winners. Her 15-minute TED talk is worth a listen by anyone who has kids of their own or coaches young people in some capacity: .

These ideas are easy to embrace, more challenging to implement. It means having more conversations focused on accomplishments, what brings joy and sparks curiosity, rather than probing about the day’s achievements.  The accomplishments that come with pursuing something they love and enjoy have benefits that extend beyond whether their team won the championship or where they go to college.

I encourage you to read Adam Gopnik’s New York Times article: and Valorie Kondos Field’s TED Talk.

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