As we saw in my last post, one of the difficulties in defining achievement is that it seems to be a relative term. When we think about achievement, we generally take various factors into consideration, whether or not we are conscious of this.

Achievement looks different for someone who comes from a wealthy, highly educated background compared to someone who does not share in such privileges. We might expect someone who fits the former description to do well, to succeed in their work, to climb the corporate ladder, or whatever. But we would not necessarily expect someone who fits the latter description to do as well.

The point is that people begin at different places: Some of us get a big head start in life, and others are disadvantaged in comparison.

If the privileged person does well, we will recognize their achievements. But if an underprivileged person does just as well, this will be regarded as a great achievement. We implicitly understand that the underprivileged person has had to make up the difference in starting from behind, which makes their achievement all the more remarkable.

We see this principle at work in reverse, too. The point is that people begin at different places: Some of us get a big head start in life, and others are disadvantaged in comparison.Consider an average day’s work. You put in the hours required, you fulfill your basic responsibilities, and you earn an honest income. You do not under-perform, but you also don’t excel. This would be a typical workday for the majority of people. Would we consider such a day’s work a great achievement?

It depends. For someone who is highly trained, who has been given plenty of opportunities, and is highly capable, a workday like that might be perfectly acceptable, but it would not be regarded a great achievement. It’s just an average day of work. But then consider the person who suffers from chronic depression, whose first challenge of the day is simply to get out of bed in the morning. All of a sudden the picture changes. Now we can recognize that a full day of productive work for such a person represents a great achievement. Just getting out of bed is an achievement.

We implicitly recognize that people start from different places on the spectrum of advantage and disadvantage. And that’s why we love a good rags-to-riches story: we recognize how impressive it is for someone who starts with nothing to make it to the very top.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love Abraham Lincoln. His story is literally from the log cabin to the White House, from poverty to president. Not only did Lincoln come from poverty, he had virtually no education—two years of schooling, at most. But he educated himself through reading everything he could lay his hands on. It is impressive enough that he became a successful lawyer, coming from such a background. How much more impressive that he became a congressman? How much more impressive that he became president? How much more impressive that he is generally regarded the greatest president the United States has ever known?

Our recognition of achievement is relative. Various factors shape how we evaluate it. What is a great achievement for some is no big deal for others. One person’s “normal” might be an outstanding achievement for someone else.

I think the factor that lies beneath the relativity of achievement is potential. I’ll explore this in my next post. After that, it will be time to see what the Bible has to say about all of this.