The essential work problem: Achievement vs. fulfillment

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I write about work problems a lot. To my mind, most of them come from an over-focus on measurable aspects of work — and a corresponding under-focus on “soft skills” like better management, true leadership, communication, empathy, self-awareness, and the like. We’ve wanted work to be logical for decades. That’s why we throw process at everything. But until our robot overlords come for our jobs, work is still made up of people. As a result, work is inherently an emotional place. When we strip the psychology from work, we create work problems for everyone.

Yesterday I was cleaning my house (Labor Day!) and because I’m a gigantic yuppie, I listened to some Malcolm Gladwell and Tim Ferriss podcasts. I had recently seen I Am Not Your Guru, which is the Netflix movie about Tony Robbins. As a result, I listened to this Ferriss-Robbins episode. It’s 1 hour and 38 minutes long but it’s very powerful. I’d give it a listen someday.

One of the central tenets of the podcast is this idea of “achievement” vs. “fulfillment.” I assume you kinda know what this means and how those words are different, but let’s start by defining them. After that, we can move into how this correlates to work problems.

Work problems: Defining achievement and fulfillment

Probably the easiest way to do this is through the Robin Williams example. This was used in the episode linked above.

Robin Williams made millions of dollars, had a nice house, saw the world, had a beautiful family, and touched millions of people. He achieved a lot.

Robin Williams also chose to end his own life via hanging himself, which makes you think he probably wasn’t that fulfilled.

That’s the essential difference. If you want to go a little bit further, “achievement” tends to be measurable things. You want three kids, or a big house, or $200K/year, or a billion-dollar company. America, where I live, is an achievement-centric culture. We define our successes around measurable, spreadsheet-linked items. This creates work problems, as we’ll address in one second.

Most happiness research of the last two decades has shown a greater focus on fulfillment, but good luck getting there if you’re surrounded by white, rich, male workaholics all the time.

Work problems: Can you find fulfillment at work?

Some can and some do, but I’d argue the number isn’t very high. Most employee engagement statistics point to that. Unemployment numbers are dropping, for example, but more and more people report being unhappy at work. Why? Probably more of a fulfillment issue, I’d argue.

Before we get too deep in a rabbit hole here, let me lay out a few key concepts:

Companies exist to please shareholders. It maybe wasn’t always that way, but it’s that way now. To many executives, employees are also-rans. We’re interchangeable. In such an environment, fulfillment is a vacuum. You’ll never find it. That’s why you see “The Gig Economy” and other stuff rising up recently. Smart people — and some not-so-smart, like me! — are chasing their own thing because the conventional system doesn’t work.

You can find “achievement” in most jobs — you hit your targets, baby! — but finding “fulfillment” is often a much harder journey.

Work problems: Achievement vs. fulfillment and work-life balance

I won’t belabor this point because it’s common sense. We all know work-life balance should be a strategic advantage. If people like working for you and their work-life balance in that role, they’ll probably stay for less money than a competitor might offer. Right there, you just had a corporate win!

But instead of work-life balance actually being a strategic advantage anywhere, it’s typically a massive buzzword.


There are a lot of reasons, corresponding to a lot of work problems: workaholics, Temple of Busy chasers, target-whiffers, clueless middle managers, and no-priority, no-context workplaces. That’s just a small list.

But “work-life balance” is a joke to so many people. It implies you can find this sweet spot of achievement and fulfillment. In a strict organizational context, most cannot.

The worst of the work problems: What happens when achievement is the sole focus?

At many places, it is. You’re trying to make a number. Gotta hit the quarter. If you get X, you’re good. If you miss X, you’re bad. Time for a performance improvement plan, son!

A lot of people I’ve worked with directly tie their self-worth to their jobs. This is probably more common in men — because we can’t give birth, yo! — but it happens in both genders.

OK. So, you tie your self-worth to your job. But you work in an achievement-driven place where the number or the deliverable matters. The context is devoid. The priority doesn’t exist. Management wants to see the digits. Achievement, achievement, achievement.

What happens when you miss a few quarters? Or a project or two slides downhill?

Now you basically hate yourself. There’s no achievement or fulfillment. This is where burnout happens, where depression happens, and where much worse than that happens. That’s the worst of the work problems.

Work problems: Life ain’t black and white

Never has been, never will be. Work isn’t either. But we often try to make it that way. “The goal is productivity,” a manager will screech. In reality, that manager isn’t even a value-add employee — but let’s gloss that over for now. “I need my people focused on customer pain points,” some ass clown bellows. In reality, the CEO never deemed that a goal of this year.

Work is mostly a complex exercise in running around, telling everyone how busy you are, and trying to dump projects off your plate and onto the plate of others. At the same time, everything is — must be! — urgent, despite the fact that for completing 381 urgent tasks this year, you’ll receive a raise of $1,250.

You’re told to focus on achievement. In the process, you lose fulfillment. Happiness slides.

As a result, the smart ones do this:

Instead of focusing on stability, you focus on flexibility.

Flexibility can help you move back towards fulfillment again.

Work problems: Don’t be Robin Williams end-game

I’m not claiming you’ll commit suicide. Most of us will not, and for those that do, the problems were likely deeper.

But when you think about work, think about this achievement vs. fulfillment situation. You can achieve, achieve, and achieve some more — targets locked, targets hit! — but that doesn’t mean you’ve fulfilled yourself.

They are different things, and the misunderstanding causes most of modern work problems.

As Tony Robbins himself says in that podcast, “The idea that achievement matters more than fulfillment is the biggest fucking lie of all-time.”


We all know the old adage. “No one on their death bed,” it begins, “is asking for more work to do.” It’s true. My aunt was on her deathbed maybe 2–3 years ago. She had a decent job, but was she talking about that? Nope. Vacations, daughter, husband, memories, moments.

That’s fulfillment.

But we’re often asked to focus on achievement.

See how this creates work problems?

Any other thoughts on work problems, this issue, or how to manage it better?

My name’s Ted Bauer. If you like articles like this, maybe consider paying me to write some for you.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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