William running on a high school track and holding a relay baton

I Want Our Kids to Accomplish Things, Not Achieve Them

I don’t want our kids to achieve much. I want them to accomplish a lot. At least, according to the way Adam Gopnik distinguishes accomplishment from achievement, this is what I want. 

Gopnik writes:

“Achievement is the completion of the task imposed from outside — the reward often being a path to the next achievement. Accomplishment is the end point of an engulfing activity we’ve chosen, whose reward is the sudden rush of fulfillment, the sense of happiness that rises uniquely from absorption in a thing outside ourselves.”

Our son William joined the track team this spring. None of us knew what to expect. He just went out there and ran as fast as he could and paid attention to what the coach told him. And he enjoyed it. “Running up hills is kind of fun,” he admitted one day. He liked the feeling of getting stronger and faster and of blocking out everything else to just move.

So then one of the older students was injured, and William was asked to run a race he had never run before, and to do so in a Varsity meet. Later he said it felt kind of crappy to be the slowest member of the relay team. But his coach commended him for getting out there. The next time someone was sick, William ran on Varsity again.

And then came the league championship. He was asked to run in another relay. It didn’t go perfectly. Their team didn’t win. In another race that day, he came in second to last. 

It was so great. 

William didn’t achieve something out there on that track. By Gopnik’s definition, he accomplished something. He ran hard and did his best because he enjoyed it and cared about his team. 

What made that accomplishment possible? Paying attention to joy, connecting with other people, and working towards a common goal and for a bigger purpose. 

I want to teach our kids (and myself) how to live a life of accomplishment and not achievement.

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