A quick story upfront

This week I made something that I thought looked pretty nice. It wasn’t very difficult for me and the end result was exactly how I wanted it to be. But my family really loved it. I got compliments and high praise from nearly all of them. Now, my family is always pretty complimentary, but this was different. It really meant a lot to them and they couldn’t have made it themselves and that is why they were so happy that I made it.

I’m sharing this story, because I found it very interesting to observe this reaction with regards to this project. It gave me a new perspective on what achievements can be. Clearly I achieved something in their eyes, which I didn’t see as an achievement. And the compliments were lovely but felt a bit out of place. What did I do that made them so proud?

What are achievements?

A baby’s first steps. Winning a basketball game. Finishing a race. Walking 10.000 steps in a day. Eating 10 hard-boiled egg in 1 minute. Climbing the Mt. Everest. Discovering a cure for cancer. Getting a new high score in Threes. Turning 1 year old. Getting to the next level in Angry Birds. A baby’s first words. Winning a race. Graduating from high school or university. Getting a 9 for a project. Finishing an XL bag of M&M’s. Getting a 6 for an assignment. Turning 23 years old. Making something that makes people happy. Getting a compliment. Finishing reading a book. Finishing writing a book. Turning 78 years old.

When thinking about achievements, it struck me how different they can be. Things can be achieved on so many different levels. They are dependent on many factors, like age or skill level. A baby’s first steps are always great, it’ll be recorded, posted and talked about for weeks. But what about my first steps every single morning, there’s no mention of that. Let’s say I’ve broken my ankle and have been in a wheelchair for 2 months. All of a sudden my new first steps will be talked about again.

Let’s compare these achievements and there assumed reactions.

  • I ran a 1K race and finished (age 10). “Wow, so great. Congratulations!”
  • I ran a 1K race and finished (age 23). “Mmkay.”
  • I ran a 10K race and finished. “Wow, cool man. How did it go? What was you time?”
  • I ran a marathon. “What!? Wow, that is amazing, congratulations! Which one?”
  • I won the New York marathon. “Hall of Fame! Money. Flowers. Fame. Newspapers. Photos.”
  • I’ve been in a wheelchair for 5 years and ran a 1K race. “Impossible. Amazing! Tweet. Post. Photos. Tears of happiness.”

Achievements are basically accomplished goals. The more difficult the goal is to reach, the bigger the achievement. And the bigger the achievement, the more likely people want to reward and/or share it. Yet they are also be very personal. I might be really happy with achieving my daily goal of 10.000 steps, while a waitress (someone who walks around all day) might laugh at those 10.000 and a video gamer might think “couldn’t care less”. A professional athlete might want to win a 10K race, while I’m happy with just finishing it in under 50 minutes and my mom is already proud of me if I finish it at all. However, while I’m happy with being graded a 6 for an assignment, my mom might want me to get an 8.

What I’m trying to explain with all these examples is that achievements are made from a few core factors. I think the most important ones are: – A goal, something to work towards – The difficulty of reaching that goal – Your skill level of the activity towards that goal – Your personal perception or interpretation of these factors – Someone else’s perception or interpretation of these factors

Rewards, compliments and sharing

So now you have scored 3564 in Threes; You’ll tweet about it, people read it, done. Your kid speaks his first words; You’ll record it, post it on Facebook, 103 views, 89 likes, lots of comments and talk about it for weeks. You finished a 10K race for the 5th time; You receive a medal, hang it around your neck until you get home, you’ll post a selfie, get 15 likes and a compliment from your mom. You get awarded with MVP of the year by your coach; You get a trophy in front of about 80 fellow basketball players from different teams, applause, weeks long recognition, compliments, you get home and place it in a nice visible spot where it will collect dust for years.

There are all kinds of rewards: trophies and medals, retweets, favourites and likes, but also applause, compliments and promotions. And they reward you in different ways. 

A trophy is a physical object that you receive from a 3rd party that thinks your achievement is worth this rewarding. Usually this trophy is handed to you in a place where other people are watching, it is made in limited quantity (± top 3 spots) and you can give it a (prime) spot in your house so visitors can see it as well. So you get 3rd party recognition, public recognition, a physical reward, long-lasting display and a memory of your achievement.

A “Facebook Like” is a completely different reward. It’s a reaction to a thing you had posted. It is public recognition and a digital reward, but usually does not have long-lasting value. However, it was an achievement that you, yourself, thought was worth sharing, so you wanted to show others that you reached your goal. This is a fundamental, yet interesting, difference from a trophy. You, not a 3rd party, are recognising your own achievement and you want other people to know about it.

And then there is a medal. Of course, there are all kinds of medals, but I’m looking at the medal you get when you finish a race. Everyone that finished it, gets one. So it’s not really limited anymore, it is 3rd party recognition (or tradition), a physical reward and a long-lasting reminder. But since you can wear it, the public recognition is something that you can choose. You can wear it for a week and get lots of public recognition, you can not wear it and get no public display. You can hang it in you house, throw it in a box, post a selfie wearing it or make a collage of all your medals. The thing is, a medal is a wearable reward. Wearing it makes you feel proud and good that you reached your goal. It shows others that you are proud and that they might be proud of you as well.

Rewards are a consequence of achievements, intended to appreciate you reaching your goal. They can be small like compliments, big like trophies, or conscious and public like Likes or medals. Every reward is about transferring that appreciation, sharing it. Someone is sharing with you that you did a good job, you are sharing with the world that you reached your goal, your coach is sharing with you how much he values you in front of the whole club, you are sharing with your family that your son can now walk, your family is sharing with you how proud they are of your son’s steps, your mom is sharing with her colleagues how proud she is with you. Sharing appreciation is at the core of rewarding achievements.


In the context of achievements, the medal, as an object, is a reward. It is both personal and public as well as both bold and subtle, depending on how you receive and use the reward. It can be a reminder of the goal you had, a memory to cherish. Or an encouragement towards a new goal. It can be tradition to receive it, or a complete surprise. But above all, it is intended to appreciate you reaching your goal and to the share that with others.