Are our greatest accomplishments meaningful and does it matter?

What is your greatest accomplishment?

It’s a question that gets asked a lot but how do we really answer it? Our careers are littered with facts and figures, accomplishments all, but what makes one stand out against another. Recruiters are constantly telling us to list our accomplishments. ‘That’s what they want to see,’ they say. But when you’re sitting in an interview for a new role or talking to your manager at review time or simply reflecting on your career, how do you rank one accomplishment against another?

I must confess, when asked this question recently, I couldn’t really think of an answer. At the time, it was difficult enough to think of an accomplishment, let alone my greatest. But there’s the rub, what makes one achievement more significant than the rest?

Psychologist Albert Bandura once said that, ‘Accomplishment is socially judged by ill-defined criteria so that one has to rely on others to find out how one is doing.’ So perhaps the difficulty is not so much in the answer, rather, it’s in the question. Perhaps we should be asking, ‘What makes an accomplishment meaningful?’ Perhaps once we know that, then we may know which of our accomplishments is the greatest.

The meaning of it all

The search for meaning is one humanity has been conducting for years. It is a search that is often tiring and fruitless. Marshall Ganz, esteemed lecturer in public policy at Harvard University, says that meaning is derived not from things, but from experiencing humanity. Famous for helping Barack Obama become president by extolling the art of storytelling, the professor believes that people are rooted in their values and interests, so in order to find meaning in their accomplishments they need to relate them to their core values.

It sounds good, but using value alone as a factor is tricky. Values are deeply personal and one person’s values may differ significantly from another’s. You may see the 1000-plus views you received on a blog you wrote on the Eurovision Song Contest (a topic close to your heart) as your greatest accomplishment but many others may not see the same value in it. How then do you relate your valued accomplishment to them, particularly in a work setting?

What we value must be important otherwise we wouldn’t value it, but is it enough to measure an accomplishment by? Not for all of us. For some, like Deepthi Amarasuriya, Assistant Professor of Physics at Northwest College, the meaning in an accomplishment comes from the effort undertaken to achieve it.

‘To me, meaningful accomplishments are based on skills I've developed over a long time,’ she says. ‘By the same token, a personal trait that other people see as an accomplishment is not important to me if I haven’t put in any effort to hone the underlying skills.’

To Deepthi, learning to play a difficult piano composition is a far more meaningful accomplishment than successfully running an international student committee, despite the value she places on the committee’s activities.

‘My being able to play Chopin's Fantaisie-impromptu is a meaningful accomplishment, whereas I do not see my involvement in the committee as an achievement. I've always been interested in other cultures and enjoy getting to know people from different backgrounds. Thus I'm naturally drawn to multicultural activities—it's not something I've had to “work at”,’ she says.

Perhaps then, to truly find meaning in an accomplishment, a balance needs to be struck. Does it come from the work we put in towards something we hold dear to us? Or is it something more again?

According to Matt Cheuvront, CEO of brand consultancy Proof Branding, our greatest accomplishments are those that have directly influenced who we’ve become as people. Through his work coaching organisations and people on branding and cultural identity, Matt says he is continually struck by the human side of their accomplishments.

Much like Professor Ganz, Matt believes it is the human connection that creates value and meaning in accomplishments, suggesting that in order to rank them, we need to think about which accomplishments have taken us to where we are today, for they have had the most impact in our lives.

‘Every one of the responses (I get) serves as reaffirmation that we are all inherently good people. People that strive to do more and be more for ourselves and for our communities,’ he says. ‘We all have something to be proud of. We all have a story to tell. When you think about your greatest accomplishments, think about where you are today, think about being alive, think about all the good in your life and the good you can bring to the world around you.’

Made to measure

In a world run by numbers, our accomplishments need to be measurable, and while we’re beholden to the laws of the KPI, there are always one or two achievements that aren’t so easily calculated. According to author and career-coach Susan Whitcomb, the best way to quantify those less tangible achievements is to measure their impact.

She tells us to plumb the depths of our jobs and probe every nook and cranny, looking for things we do that increase efficiency.

‘Focus on how you add value, by working smarter, faster and more efficiently,’ says Whitcomb.

Whitcomb suggests we need to shift our focus out of pure numbers and explore the influence we have in the workplace, ‘Look at the impact you leaving your job would have on the company. If you quit today, how many staff would your company need to replace you? What training do they need? If you’re doing the work of two people, each paid eighty thousand, you’re saving your company eighty thousand dollars annually. That’s an accomplishment.’

Whether an accomplishment that is measurable is considered meaningful is difficult to say. As seen above, there’s certainly no true recipe for determining meaningful accomplishment. But it seems there are certainly factors that we can use to determine which of our many deeds—and we all have many—we deem to be meaningful and therefore significant. 

Matt Maier, Vice President, Business Development of Media, IAC, says that sometimes a simple list is all it takes.

‘Take out a sheet of paper and fold it in half. On one side of the fold, write down your accomplishments, working backwards. Write as many as you can think of. Flip the paper over. On the other side of the fold, write down all of the things that are important to you. Write as many as you can think of. Then unfold the paper and compare the two lists,’ he says. ‘If you aren't happy about any of the things you're doing, then you're doing the wrong things according to the only standard that matters: your own.’

Matt says we need to determine where that list of accomplishments came from. Is it a result of our parents’ expectations, is it a list of business goals or is it the result of circumstances that have simply happened? Once you weigh one list against the other, you’ll have a much better understanding of whether your accomplishments are meaningful and therefore significant.

Ultimately, the only real measure of your accomplishments comes from how satisfied you feel. The road to accomplishment is a personal journey and if you go to bed feeling content with what you have achieved, then that is an accomplishment in itself.

Originally published at