From achievement to personality: navigating the hidden stages of life

What’s after achievement? Are we condemned to aim ever higher! higher! higher! until our hearts quit?

I want the answer to be no.

That’s why I love “The Stages of Life,” a 1930 essay by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Jung doesn’t believe we are designed to chase achievements into our graves. In fact, he warns against it.

Jung believes there is a time to focus on achievement. As we leave childhood and become young adults, “achievement, usefulness and so forth are the ideals that seem to point the way out of the confusions . . . . ” They help us understand our “particular aptitudes”—where we do and don’t excel. As we strive to achieve and be useful, we may join social groups, work jobs, find life partners, start families, and seek “to win for [ourselves] a place in society.”

The danger, according to Jung, is to see this period of achievement as perpetual, rather than temporary:

The nearer we approach to the middle of life, and the better we have succeeded in entrenching ourselves in our personal attitudes and social positions, the more it appears as if we had discovered the right course and the right ideals and principles of behavior. For this reason we suppose them to be eternally valid, and make a virtue of unchangeably clinging to them. We overlook the fact that the social goal is attained at the cost of a diminution of personality.

In other words, if we keep achieving—seeking social validation, praise, and reward at the expense of our personality—we risk conforming ourselves into caricatures we don’t recognize. Ideally, we would instead spend more time exploring our own interests—not because they are deemed prudent, lucrative, or cool by others—but because they are life-giving to us.

Think of the person who paints or writes or sews, not because she wants applause, but because she feels compelled to discover herself through these activities. Think of the person who woodworks, climbs mountains, or studies a subject for the joy of it. To you and me, these people may seem strange. But to them, this is living. Whether others appreciate what these people do is not the point. Their goal is self-discovery through self-expression.

When we shift from a focus on achieving things to a focus on exploring our interests, we begin to transfigure who we are. We may continue to live and create in the world, but now we do so in pursuit of ourselves, not social acceptance or glory. The approval or disapproval of others may coincide with our activities, but concern for them no longer drives us.

Unfortunately, as Jung writes, this important transition is obscured by modern life. It is an offramp without signage, easily missed. In 1930 and today, we lack mentors and institutions to guide us from one stage of life to the next. Without them, we stick to what we know. We go back to the achievement button, hitting it harder and harder in our increasing frustration. We may sense that it’s breaking us down when it used to build us up—a confusing turn of events!—but we’re not sure what else to do.

Jung writes [emphasis mine]:

[T]horoughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as [they previously have]. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.

He clarifies:

For a young person it is almost a sin, or at least a danger, to be too preoccupied with himself; but for the aging person it is a duty and a necessity to devote serious attention to [him or herself].

This devotion is what the stage of personality is all about. As we enter it, we focus less on achievement and more on the call of our own souls. We explore what we hear, not in comparison to others, but for the beautiful sake of it. In short, we let go of “the delusion that the second half of life must be governed by the principles of the first,” and we learn how to live all over again, just as we did when we transitioned from children to young adults.

I welcome your thoughts,


P.S. If you want to read the essay I am citing, a PDF of “The Stage of Life” is available here. It is also in The Portable Jung.

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Finding my values
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