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Book Review: Achievement Addiction by Justine Toh

Thursday, 16 December 2021  | Paul Arnott

It all comes down to grace

Achievement Addiction

By Justine Toh

(Brookvale, NSW: Acorn Press/CPX, 2021)


I was immediately attracted to the invitation to review Justine Toh’s book, Achievement Addiction. Firstly, because I’m a Three on the Enneagram, so I know all about the desire to be validated in order to feel worthy. But, also because I’m a great admirer of Justine’s work as a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and on ABC radio.

The publication of Achievement Addiction is timely, as it coincides with the launch of Grace Jennings-Edquist’s not dissimilar book, The Yes Woman, which opens with this from Gloria Steinem:

No one can do two full-time jobs and have perfect children and cook three meals and be multi-orgasmic till dawn. … Superwoman is the adversary of the women’s movement.

Toh begins by confessing that for her ‘nothing else delivers quite the same high as getting things done – and done really well’. As I type these words, I find myself wondering, ‘What’s wrong with that, doesn’t everyone want to do things really well?’ Maybe. But ‘If someone tells you you’ve done a good job and you feel an intense ripple of pleasure through your soul’, this is probably an indication that you are an achievement addict. Toh quotes Jung, who asserts that while the addict genuinely yearns for God, the source of all satisfaction, ‘addiction warps that spiritual longing by becoming a substitute god’. Achievement addicts are focused on the end goal. If they do things efficiently, what they do will be affirmed, so they can bask in the approving glow of that admiration.

Justine Toh argues that we live in a world that worships hard-won success, citing as an example Australia’s fixation with winning Olympic gold. Other examples can be found on Masterchef, Project Runway and The Biggest Loser, in which ‘contestants always say some version of the same thing: “I want this so badly. I’ll work so hard. I’ve got so much more to show you”. In other words, they’ll prove through their hard work and effort that they deserve to remain in the competition, where apparently the one who tries hardest wins’. Toh asserts that The American Dream, and I suspect The Australian Dream, is based on a meritocratic system that ‘distributes rewards and success on the basis of hard work and deservingness – not riches, rank or any other inherited privilege’.

Our education system is ‘built upon endless drills and assessments, which measure our performance against that of our peers’. I must agree, having attended a high school that streamed students into classes that ranged from the ‘brightest’ kids to the ‘dumbest’. I ended up in the second ‘dumbest’ class of my year level, and only realised I wasn’t as dumb as I thought when, twenty years later, I achieved second-class honours in a Bachelor of Theology degree.

Justine Toh shares her experience of growing up in an Australian Asian family, with high educational expectations. Her older sister secured admission to the ‘deeply coveted prize’ of a selective public high school, while she didn’t. This resulted in grave fears for her future success on the part of her parents and six years of her living in a ‘fog of shame’, because she had imbibed the myth that her worth was directly tied to the quality of her work. So, she worked long and hard to prepare for her final high school exams, which taught her ‘the compulsion – to work, work, work: to prove myself, to justify my existence’.

Achievement Addiction’s description of the Asian Tiger mother, courtesy of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011), confirms the best and the worst of Chinese parenting. But being Chinese, Toh gets away with the critique, which would otherwise be labelled racist. She also points out the existence of a significant amount of ‘white’ tiger parenting and cites, as an example, ‘over enthusiastic barrackers at children’s sport’, which I recall to my embarrassment.

One of Toh’s most potent insights is to point out the link between our achievement-addicted culture and the market economy. She argues that our economy ‘prizes competition, rewards individual initiative and puts a price on everything - even people’. She suggests that everyone is ‘treated as a commodity and assigned a market value, depending on our abilities, experience and intelligence’. When our egalitarian instinct rebels at such an idea, we need to remind ourselves of the difference between a surgeon’s salary and that of a roadworker. Our society dictates that, if someone spends ten years of their life working hard to become a skilled medical practitioner, they are more valuable than an unskilled labourer.

Another danger of achievement-addiction is that, when ‘our sense of identity is no larger than our work, and our work ends, we can feel utterly lost’. Toh asserts that ‘not only does such a belief set us up to feel permanently insecure, but it provides no solid basis for identity to equip us to withstand the shocks of life: a change of circumstances, losing our job, unexpected illness or even simply retirement’. Clergy are especially vulnerable here.

Justine Toh’s reflections on motherhood are both perceptive and humorous. ‘Becoming a mum can bring you to the end of yourself. You used to eat, and now another human feeds on you.’ I particularly like her descriptions of idealised motherhood:

Some mums on social media look amazing. At one extreme end you’ve got mum influencers showing off their buttery, stretch mark-free skin and compact baby bumps. Or posts of the whole family clad in matchy-matchy pastel. That’s if mum is wearing anything, rather than posing naked (tastefully) on her resort-worthy balcony because all your maternity clothing is in storage, and nothing is quite fitting anymore.

Caring for children is challenging enough without also ‘being spotlessly made-up, maintaining your figure, having your home look photo shoot-ready, and taking endless selfies of all of the above’.

Toh rebuffs the Australian dream of property ownership, living as she does in Sydney where the median house price is now $1.3 million - though house prices all around the nation continue to skyrocket, thanks to the lack of internal fortitude of both the major federal political parties to do anything to make prices more affordable. However, the myth, which she describes as ‘the ultimate pleasure-pain project’, persists in the belief that you ‘can still own your own home, provided you are willing to work hard enough’.

Justine Toh goes to the heart of the matter when she writes that, while the achievement addicted see the world as ‘a lonely husk emptied of ultimate meaning, by strength of will and sheer determination they can prevail and make something of themselves’. Put theologically, such a person would be ‘the closest thing to god in a godless universe. This is the existential secret of achievement addiction: you want to earn your own salvation. You want to be your own god, and the basis of all meaning’ (My italics). What a sad, lonely place to end up.

As an example of where this kind of thinking can lead, Toh references Jessie Tu’s novel, A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, which tells the story of Jena Lin, a former violin prodigy trying to revive her career after a public breakdown at the age of 15. Jena uses sex to attempt to fill the void left by the loss of fame. But, in the end she admits there is a gaping hole in her life that is ultimately unfillable, no matter how much she endeavours to find purpose and meaning through endless sexual encounters. ‘This is the plight of the achievement addict. Like Jena, they’re a lonely girl in a lonely world. With a void that nothing seems able to fill.’

In her section on meritocracy, Toh reveals her disdain for the much-loved The West Wing TV series, which she critiques by suggesting that ‘if we rely on our achievements to secure our identity we will be tempted to relate to others on the basis of our achievements’. I must admit I always felt The West Wing’s main players were too smart by half. Toh quotes British Sociologist, Michael Young, who suggests that

the meritocratic ideal that hard work + perseverance = success is double edged. If hard work was the arbiter of success … society would be divided between meritocracy’s ‘winners’ – the deserving-haves – and ‘losers’ – the undeserving have-nots. The winners … would feel they’ve rightly earned their success and position in life – and look down on everyone else.

Toh’s comments about Donald Trump’s populist success surprised me, as I could rarely detect much good in Trump, but what she suggests gave me pause for thought. She observes that Trump’s channelling of the anger and anxiety of working-class people and that his promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ was more than empty rhetoric. Toh suggests that his promise had to do with ‘restoring something vital – something keenly human – that had been unfairly stripped away. Not merely status, income, prospects, or even a reliably middle-class existence – but dignity’.

When it comes down to it, Toh believes that at the heart of achievement addiction is the dissolution of common bonds between us:

It’s hard to remember that we’re all part of the same human team when some players get a louder roar from the crowd than others. Currently our achievement obsessed culture tends to single out the clever and the credentialled for praise and high pay, which makes it harder for those of us with different abilities and experience to be recognised.

In the final part of Achievement Addiction, Justine Toh uses the Broadway musical Hamilton to point to Alexander Hamilton’s ‘workism … the pursuit of ultimate meaning and satisfaction through achievement’. As a counter to workism she cites Jesus’s parable of the workers in the vineyard. Those hired late in the day are paid the same amount as those who laboured for the whole day. When the workers who worked the entire day complain, the vineyard owner tells them that he has the right to do whatever he wants with his money. ‘The last will be first and the first will be last.’ This reverses all our expectations. Meritocracy meets its match in Jesus. Justine Toh confesses that this outrages her: ‘I want to be recognised for my hard work, and I count being recognised as getting a reward that’s consistent with my efforts. But in God’s economy, it seems, no one deserves more or less on the basis of how hard or long they toil’.

In a world obsessed with merit it all comes down to grace.  


Paul Arnott is the author of No Time to Say Goodbye and Live the Moment. He is currently writing a history of Independent Australian Christian Publishing 1970-2000.

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