The Viktor Frankl Achievement Paradox Silently Sabotages People's Lives
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Today’s video lesson with psychotherapist Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) beautifully captures one of his central ideas that's completely under-appreciated today. It may be the single most important idea that I’ve been exposed to as an adult.
I call it the Achiever’s Paradox.
It makes all of the sense in the world...
IF you want something
THEN you should make it a goal to achieve it
THEN you should make sure that each action you take aligns with that goal
In other words…
If you want more money, turn it into a goal
Same thing with prestige
Same thing with happiness
Same thing with sex
Same thing with success
Paradoxically, this achievement approach often has the exact opposite effect.
Frankl illustrates this with the following quote in the video clip…
As long as you are aiming at happiness, you cannot obtain it. The more you make it a target, the more you miss the target.
Male patients who are striving to demonstrate their potency, they fall prey to impotence.
The more a female patient tries to show how much she's capable of experiencing a full female orgasm, the more she's doomed to frigidity.
Frankl then points out how:
IF you focus less on achievement for yourself
AND give yourself to a larger cause
THEN the more good things happen to you
AND the more you help others
More specifically, he says…
At that moment that you are no longer concerned with becoming a happy or a successful man or a woman, at that moment happiness installs itself by itself.
An Oprah quote really resonates here:
You get from the world what you give to the world.
In the second part of the clip, Frankl provides an incredibly powerful story of the Achiever's Paradox…
This Frankl Question Saved Two People’s Lives
He shares the story of two fellow comrades in the concentration camp with him who each were on the brink of suicide.
When they each independently came to him and said...
See doctor, I have nothing to expect for my life anymore.
Frankl intuitively responded:
Isn't it considerable that, instead, life expects something from you?
Amazingly, both individuals flipped 180 degrees as they realized that life, in fact, did expect something of them.
One comrade had a daughter waiting for him.
The other had an unfinished work to complete.
Frankl summarizes his finding by saying…
Those inmates or prisoners were most likely to survive the camp period were:
1. Oriented toward a future
2. Orientated for becoming free again in the future
3. Oriented to a meaning that they had to fulfill the future, a task that they had to complete in the future, and/or to be reunited with their beloved people in the future, again (most important).
Maybe JFK was on to something at a deep psychological level when he famously said:
Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
Moral of the story: We humans are not innately selfish or lazy. Even under the most difficult conditions, we are wired to think beyond ourself. Even on the brink of impossible odds, we are wired to still push.
Link To Full Viktor Interview
I first became aware of the Achiever’s Paradox when my wife and I did an independent study with the president of NYU, John Sexton, 20 years ago. What inspired me the most about President Sexton wasn’t that he was leading the largest private university in the world or that he was one of the best fundraisers in the history of higher education. What inspired and surprised me was his unique, authentic, and circuitous path to get there.
When he was a Fordham University student , he started mentoring a Brooklyn debate team at a low-income, all girl’s high school for 70+ hours a week. This caused his GPA to fall to a 2.1, but he didn’t care because he was so passionate. For the 10 years after college, he continued to mentor the team 70+ hours per week. He even bought a mini tour bus he used to drive the team around the country to debate competitions. Eventually and amazingly, the team became one of the best debate team’s in the country, outcompeting teams from the most elite private schools. Even though the graduation rate at the girl’s school was less than 5%, all of girls on his team graduated and went on to have extremely impressive careers.
I remember him stating how important it was to follow one’s authentic passion, to do meaningful work, and not to worry about following the same rat race as everyone else toward power and prestige. I also remember his deep love of his family. Our meetings were regularly interrupted by calls with his wife or daughter just share their deep love with each other.
President Sexton showed me another model for one’s career and life, but I was too young to fully grasp it.
It took me until age 30 to hit bottom and fully realize the Achiever’s Paradox. I had spent years vigilantly setting and reviewing big hairy audacious goals (BHAGs), but I kept on running into road blocks. In the end, I was getting progressively burned out, and whether I knew it or not, I had fallen prey to the existential vacuum that Frankl talks about in his work. I could see the limitation of the goal setting paradigm, but I didn’t know what was beyond it.
Then, I read Greatness Cannot Be Planned by two AI researchers. This book gave me the distinctions I needed to transcend and include the goals paradigm. After reading this book, I researched the ideas across multiple adjacent domains and then synthesized and summarized everything into a longform article: If you want to be massively successful, do NOT set ambitious goals, according to studies.
With that said, there is a deeper lesson to be had for us thought leaders.
What made Frankl unique was not just his ideas, it was his process to develop them. We can use these lessons to manufacture ideas that:
Give our life meaning
Change the world
Provide us with a lifelong vocation