How balancing action and acceptance helped me overcome my achievement addiction and find joy?

You can approach any problem in two different ways: You can act or let go. Acting implies you refuse to accept. You fight to change something in the world, even if that fight is painful. Letting go implies you refuse to fight. You just let go, and there’s no more pain.

As for me, most of my life, I was a fighter.

The scene

When my friends had gone to universities, I had decided to pursue freelancing as a software developer instead. I made my choice with confidence, and yet, walking the walk was more complicated than I anticipated.

I lived in a room so narrow that I could barely extend my arms. The white walls around me were paper-thin, and I heard my neighbors tv loud and clear. The only window in the room overlooked a church across the street. That church blocked most of the sunlight. In that room, there was only enough space for two chairs, a sofa (that also doubled as my bed), and a desk. I strategically placed the latter next to the window to catch the few rays that somehow made it inside.

My life in that room was all about survival.

First, there was the money. I made barely enough to cover the rent and food, let alone afford luxuries like having a beer with friends or a dentist appointment. I kept checking my bank account after every transaction, but it said “broke” most of the time.

But even though the finances were distressful, I was more worried about my value as a person.

As long as I had that small, uncomfortable room, my life choices were unpopular but responsible. But losing it would mean that I chose some irresponsible whim over pursuing a degree like everyone else. That I was a loser. It was so terrifying that sometimes I couldn’t sleep. I just stared at the wall imagining how my parents and friends would laugh with a sense of superiority, saying they knew I could never make it on my own because I was such a loser. It was dreadful, and I wasn’t going to let that happen without putting up a good fight.

The fight

I was charging per hour. The more hours I billed, the safer I was, the more control and agency I felt. With every hour, I was moving away from being a failure and towards being worthwhile.

Soon, time became the most precious currency for me, so I planned it carefully. I became the most organized person I know. I learned GTD, bought a calendar, and made to-do lists. I set goals that were specific, measurable and all that. I allocated most of my afternoons, evenings, and weekends to work. I even asked myself again and again, “what is the most important thing I could be doing right now?” 

Does it sound extreme? At the time, it felt totally reasonable. I was fighting for survival, and planning helped me like it helped people in the middle ages gather supplies for the winter. So what if there was some added stress? There’d better be some when the stakes are high! 

As life has it, achieving one goal only led me to another. I initially wanted to save enough for one month of rent, then three, then a short trip, and off it went. Eventually, I didn’t have goals, but the goals had me. A tricky question of “how to be worthwhile” became an easier one of “how to work more”. I kept going like this for the next 10 years.

It was a never stopping treadmill. Even after buying an apartment, visiting Hawaii, and founding a startup, there was no peace in achieving. That’s the paradox of if: “I’ll be at peace when I get what I want” really means “I refuse to be at peace today”. 

In a way, goals are like gambling. We bet that achieving them will make us feel a certain way. How exactly? We decide by imagining our feelings as if we achieved our goals more–or–less now. However, we really need to consider how we will feel when our circumstances, passions, and priorities change. And most people are bad at predicting the future.

So goals are helpful to a certain point, and I passed that point a long time ago.

The acceptance

Once I realized that the game I was playing was rigged, I thought about therapy.

Initially, I was hesitant. I expected to hear advice about accepting life as it is without judging. To me, it resembled becoming a sea squirt. It’s a creature that finds a rock on the ocean floor, permanently attaches to it, and then eats its own “brain”. It only needed one to swim around. I didn’t want to accept my current rock; I craved swimming in the ocean of life.

But I also didn’t see many other options, so I started therapy. Surprisingly, it didn’t tranquilize my mind. It blew it.

It took some digging and inner work, but then everything just clicked. I realized that inner peace is a way of thinking, not something to achieve. I internalized that my achievements don’t determine my value. That the word “loser” is just an emotionally charged label with no actual meaning. That my fear of rejection actually says something awesome about me: that I value my relationships. 

I also learned that it’s okay to choose what I enjoy instead of what I “should” do. Even the word “should” became quite hard to define. Seriously, try it.

Suddenly I had agency over my feelings. They no longer had me. Now, I had them.

It was a deep, cathartic, spiritual experience. I cried, reflecting on all the self-imposed pain and stress of the past ten years. When the crying was over, I entered a state of euphoric enlightenment for the next couple of weeks. In more quantifiable terms, my day-to-day anxiety and fear went from 80% all the way down to 0%. In their place, I found joy and excitement. Everything was just good the way it was. Instead of obsessing about work, I spent evenings with my wife, brother, friends and had some good laughs and lots of fun.

But then there were the downsides. Once the anxiety and the need for approval were gone, I found that working was far less attractive than spending time with my close ones. This was new and shocking. The euphory eventually wore off, and these days I actually like keeping just a tiny bit of anxiety around. About 5% of it. It’s manageable but keeps me going.

So while acceptance gave me peace, it wasn’t the ultimate solution either. Just like goals, the acceptance was only helpful to a certain point. Accepting everything would just mean not acting at all, kind of like a sea squirt. But even Buddha talked about acting on the goals of the spiritual path.

The joy

So what do I make of it? 

Acting and accepting is not an exclusive choice but a spectrum.

When the situation is challenging, acting helps you survive. Like if you broke your leg and your bone is sticking out, it’s a perfect time to act.

But when resources are available, accepting helps you enjoy them. Like if you’re chilling on a beach, it’s time to just accept and relax. 

The way to place yourself on the spectrum is to stop and reflect. To fix something, you must realize it is broken in the first place. Those closer to spirituality tend to do journaling, prayer, and meditation. Those closer to business tend to do sprint reviews, performance reviews, and retrospectives. Integrate both, and you’ll gain a deeper understanding of what’s helpful and what’s not in your current life circumstances.

And that’s what enduring life satisfaction is to me: It is about maintaining the right action-to-acceptance ratio for my current circumstances. It is a dynamic equilibrium, always slightly out of balance, but that’s okay. That’s not the part to fix. That’s the part to accept.

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