“What Have You Accomplished in Your Life?”

Carol A. Hand

I was 28 when one of my commune colleagues asked me this question, forty years ago, and the only honest answer I could think of at the time was “Nothing.” The response felt true at the time, although in retrospect, I know I only thought about “accomplishment” on a superficial level as that which was seen as noteworthy from a socially constructed frame of reference. I had years of college education but no degrees because I kept switching focus – from chemistry and biology to literature and philosophy. I loved to learn so I took classes in many disciplines just because they sounded interesting. But I didn’t have a diploma, so where was the evidence I had accomplished something?

I had worked as a volunteer in Appalachia when I was 19 and learned to relate to the Kentuckians in the hills who referred to me as “teeny bopper.” I would have stayed but there was so much more I wanted to learn and experience. I volunteered as a tutor and mentor with Black and Latino youth in Chicago and on the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin and learned to care deeply about all of the youth I met. I was honored by their friendship and kindness, but there was still more to learn so I left the protective walls of the Catholic women’s college I attended and finally ended up in Madison, Wisconsin at the time of student protests. What evidence did I take with me that I had accomplished anything during my years of volunteering? During my time In Madison? Honestly, all I had accomplished was the birth of my daughter and the end of a brief relationship with her father. My daughter was eighteen months old when we left for the commune.

What had I accomplished in my time at the commune? I certainly had a lot of new experiences. I had worked as a donut finisher – a job that left my hands raw from the chemicals in glazes and fillings. I worked as a receptionist and nurse’s aide with elders, and in a horrific institution that housed (and abused) people with disabilities. I started the community daycare center with two other mothers for many young children at the community who previously roamed about with no consistent meals or care. I even learned how to do simple plumbing in the process of putting a sink into the old building we used for the daycare center. I traveled to the south to promote the commune radio show, served as the liaison between the 200 members of the commune and its leadership, and was the booking agent and lightshow designer for a mobile disco. But what evidence did I have to show that I had accomplished anything of value in a world that only valued status, titles and material success?

In retirement, I can look back and ask the same question. The degrees I finally completed and titles I have held aren’t evidence I accomplished anything of real and lasting value. As in the past, it was the people whose lives were intertwined with mine during the journey that I remember. I remember the love, work and laughter we shared, the innocence lost and the wisdom gained.

Recently I have been purging clutter. What do I do with the evidence that some things I did made a difference, at least momentarily, in the lives of students and community members? Do I need to hang on to old heart-felt thank you cards and gifts that take up space in files, cupboards, and shelves? The copies of papers, publications, awards, gifts, and thank you notes are merely things that are not alive. Even though each evokes memories of other times for me, I doubt that my daughter will appreciate all of the clutter as her primary inheritance.

Has anything I’ve taught, written, or helped create made people’s lives better? I hope so. Is it important to cling to tangible proof that a life that has been lived doing the best one could has made a difference to anyone else? As I ask this question, I realize I already know the answer. The answer can only come from within. We write because there is a story in our heart that needs to be shared. We live our art – whatever it is – because it is our sacred responsibility to breathe love into being. Life is about the journey, not collecting and hanging on to tangible evidence in order to prove our life was meaningful to anyone else. If asked this same question today, I would quote Emerson.

emerson quote

And after reflection, I don’t think this is an appropriate question to ask anyone else, although I must admit it’s tempting to ask legislators and the One Percent a slightly modified version – “What have you REALLY accomplished in your life that benefits others?” Still, there are far more meaningful questions to ask about those things over which I have some control. What do I no longer need or use that might be of use to others? What can I do today and in the time remaining to bring kindness, peace, honesty, beauty, and love into the lives of others?

As Kahlil Gibran (2002) observes:

All you have shall some day be given; Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors….

See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving. For in truth it is life that gives unto life – while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness. (pp, 21-22).

Work Cited:

Kahlil Gibran (2002). The Prophet. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf Publisher.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

53 thoughts on ““What Have You Accomplished in Your Life?”

  1. “The answer can only come from within. We write because there is a story in our heart that needs to be shared. We live our art – whatever it is – because it is our sacred responsibility to breathe love into being.”

    This is so beautiful, and exactly what I needed to hear (or read). When I start to doubt what I am writing, I will remember this, and to continue breathing love into being.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lately I’ve found myself citing the character of Pedro Archanjo in Jorge Amado’s novel, Tent of Miracles. He’s described as a man who wasn’t interested in moving up in life but only forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautifully written and inspiring as always…it reminds me of my job as career and settlement counsellor for newcomers to Canada: my work is the opposite to “what have you accomplished?”…many have been working at Walmart or Tim Hortons, cleaning washrooms and standing for hours with a smile…all this after having bachelors, masters and even PhDs…the best comes from a Pilipino client who shared: “survival jobs make us humble, we find friends and common ground in unexpected places” (she used to be a high level manager in her country). Accomplishments have nothing to do with titles or status; they have to do with the experiences and the difference your life has made in this world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing these important stories and experiences, Sylvia. I so appreciate your insights – I always feel as though your comments take ideas and dialogue to deeper levels 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The real question is, is there any accomplishment in life on the cultural treadmill?
    The illusion in which we live has guide posts and summits and successes.
    There are yard sticks and bench marks and certificates.

    The illusion in which we live is a lie that has been perpetrated upon us by our fathers and mothers and aunts and uncles and friends and enemies. The lie is not a deliberate lie any longer.

    The lie is a culmination and those who perpetrate it on us are only passing on what was perpetrated onto them.

    You see, fish in the ocean can’t see the forest for the trees.

    The path is singular and the accomplishments are the light that shows others the way
    by doing life which is presented to each to do. The real secret is to get out of the way of oneself.


    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s good to hear from you, Tube. It’s true that we have been effectively socialized and colonized in so many ways that remain invisible.

      I love the insight – “… fish in the ocean can’t see the forest for the trees.” It reminds me of the Einstein quote about genius. “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” So here’s to challenging the worth of socially-constructed accomplishments and yardsticks – something you do very skillfully 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Life gives unto life, and we are the witnesses…this is something I have seen this year too…but it is a beautiful process to watch. I think that when we join (or become aware that we are part of) the whole, and we get to see the difference that makes, we see that the world belongs to everybody. We share because of our own hearts, and it adds to the whole (in what ever way, good or bad). But achievements are part of all of us, shared voices and different relationships where all of us contribute and shape something else.

    You, Carol, have contributed a lot to my world view, and I am grateful.

    Liked by 2 people

        1. I am deeply grateful for your support and friendship Nicci, and I’m inspired by your kind heart and commitment to actions that make the world a better place.


  6. Wonderful piece! I didn’t feel accomplished until I found my passion. I was wrong. Our whole lives are a myriad of important events leading up to and preparing us for what we were meant to ultimately do in our lives. That is something to relish in. Your comments regarding ‘things’ and what to do with them resonated with me having grown up amidst the chaos of a hoarder’s paradise. I feel much relief and my life has actually been enriched by purging most things from my past including old letters/cards and any memorabilia that holds me back emotionally and diverts me from making room for new adventures. It does not mean that I care not about those memories, it just means I’ve opened a wider avenue for new ones. Decluttering my home declutters my mind. In my paid job of moving elderly people to new locations, I see the frustration and often times, a lot of guilt from family members now left with the task of figuring out what to do with all of the ‘stuff’. ‘Letting go’ in itself is a major accomplishment and one that your offspring will appreciate.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s true Carol, most write because there is a story in their heart, and you do a fine job of it, of which I’m most grateful that you share. However, I write not from any story in my heart, but rather from the anger that rages in my soul, that alone.

    Peace, strength, and courage to you strong one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing important perspectives, Peter. Just my humble opinion, but I wonder if your passionate anger is sparked because of harm done to beings you love deeply.

      Peace to you as well, dear friend.


  8. I have been pondering the question of “What have you accomplished in your life?” and the first thought that came to mind is that I learned to be creative and have tried to share this concept with others.
    When I was 14 someone laughed at me and said I was Poor, that my dad had nothing and that the entire family was Poor. I could not comprehend what they were talking about..I had a home and food to eat and clothes to wear and I was a happy person…how could I possibly be Poor? Looking back, I believe the person who was picking on me was actually a poor person. Poor in attitude,respect,manners,values.
    Here I am now at the age of 71 and financially I am at the poverty level!! I am still not Poor!! I have a happy heart, and I have learned to be creative in my shopping and living adventures. I have accumulated all the Things that the “unpoor” have..e-readers,computer, tons of top of the line baking equipment,an apartment with an awesome view,good sturdy shoes (lol) AND I have enough so that I can share with others. I have never been poor even though my wages have been low. My choice of jobs filled my heart and not my purse and I believe that is an accomplishment to be proud of because I have always had “enough”. My sister views my life as wasted as compared to her lofty accomplishments which are stored safely in the bank to be used when she is old. I chose to enjoy each day and my Creator helped to make that happen.
    Thanks Carol for causing me to re-think this accomplishment idea! I am satisfied with my life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Shirley Ann, thank you for sharing stories about your experiences and the wisdom and compassion you gained. I’m grateful that this question inspired you to take the time to think about your life and realize that you filled your heart and not your purse and continue to live simply, enjoy each day, and share with others – all truly valuable accomplishments. 🙂


  9. “Still, there are far more meaningful questions to ask about those things over which I have some control. What do I no longer need or use that might be of use to others? What can I do today and in the time remaining to bring kindness, peace, honesty, beauty, and love into the lives of others?”…I like how you reframed the question to broaden the perspective. It’s like when we ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As if there’s some mythical point who we “be” when we grow up or what we accomplish is a static, finished work.

    Rather, who we are becoming and where we have been are dynamic, constantly changing and evolving (hopefully). I don’t think we were meant to be truly satisfied in the spiritual sense. It is the longing that both drives us and sustains us. A thoughtful and challenging essay, Carol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for deepening the conversation, Jeff, and highlighting the centrality of process. Arriving at a static destination symbolizes the end of our curiosity, learning, and creativity.


  10. “But what evidence did I have to show that I had accomplished anything of value…?” By the time I got to this part in your post, Carol, I finally took a second to exhale. At 28, you had already accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime, made yourself part of groups–learning about and helping–that many people wouldn’t consider important. At 28, maybe it’s good we can’t answer that question. Maybe it’s always good to think we haven’t done enough so we never stop trying to do more.

    I love de-cluttering (so why does more clutter find its way back!).

    This is such a beautiful post, Carol. Rest assured–you make my life better for having known and learned from all you’ve shared.❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love your insight about the need to never stop doing more, Mandy. It made me realize that a title or degree or award for one individual is of no value if it isn’t used as a foundation to help others.

      And yes, de-cluttering does tend to be short-lived 🙂

      Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful comments, Mandy ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  11. In my view, this single minded emphasis on accomplishments is part and parcel of the artificial culture of individualism Wall Street advertisers and neoconservatives try to force down our throats. We aren’t individuals – this is a collective delusion – thus it’s meaningless to focus on individual accomplishments.

    In reality we are merely cells of a much larger organism. In my view, Americans could avoid a lot of pain and misery by giving up their false consciousness focused on individual desires, needs and accomplishments and learned to view their lives as a tiny part of a collective whole.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Very thoughtful, very profound. Well, just reading your posts inspires me, so there, you’ve already made a difference 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for being so kind, Shery 🙂 I feel the same about your posts – the depth and beauty of your poetry is inspiring, as is your incredible storytelling!


  13. “We live our art – whatever it is – because it is our sacred responsibility to breathe love into being. Life is about the journey, not collecting and hanging on to tangible evidence in order to prove our life was meaningful to anyone else.” YES. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Shery, says it all. But, I still have to say, I think all of your stories really will make a wonderful book and should be expanded on, so many lessons to share from your varied and interesting experiences. You lived multiculturalism. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Carol, what a beatiful, heart felt reflective piece. Therein lies one of many gifts that you have and offer. Your life is a beautiful tapestry of love, giving and exploration. Following our hearts is the gift of our lives. Blessings to you, dear Carol.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. us humans seem to only value “achievment” by tangible things in this world..hmmm…

    “To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded”

    I have never read this before…this to me is what success is…thank you for sharing this for I am putting this on my fridge today for this to me is what success in this world is all about!!!!!
    In fact, I have been spending too much time in this arena lately, too-Did I accomplish much with my life?????….I wish my mind would shut-up sometimes! You are not alone for feeling this way—-
    I am copying this ( quote) and putting it on my fridge today. thank you!!!!! I am not spending another year pondering if ” I made a difference in this worlds”…it seems when we turn 50 and pass through this next stage of life…we think of our past + worry—- did I do enough….no more today….

    I use to read books about people that had died and came back from death…yeah, it was a stage I went through:-( when I thought 15 years ago– in 1999, I would not be here today….thankfully this stage passed!
    I read one common theme(s) through all the “near death experiences”…a “great light”…..+ they did not want to come back ….I feel when we all pass on and meet our great creator:-) our creator will choose from our life things we thought were not all that significant or made a difference…….for our intelligence in this world- is limited………I feel-the “heroes” of our creator will be the “someones”– that this world thought were not all that important or made a difference……..but to the creator- they were the silent heroes of this world:-)

    You , my friend..will be one of those heroes….:-)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you want, I can email a copy of the photo of Emerson’s poem for your refrigerator. (I retyped the poem from a magnet on my refrigerator 🙂 into a Powerpoint slide and saved it as a jpeg.)

      I have read accounts of near-death experiences, something my mother described as well, although it’s not something I have experienced personally.

      I appreciate your kind words, Robbie. It’s funny. One of my favorite books is A Woman of No Importance: A Novel by Allen Crafton and Robert E. Gard (1974). It’s the story of an ordinary woman who lived through challenging times, yet whose simple contributions rippled outward to improve the lives of so many others (similar to the old film starring Jimmy Stuart). I think each of us is a hero in our own ways although we may never know the positive (and negative) affects our actions have had on the lives of others. I’m grateful to have supportive and thoughtful friends like you who serve as my inspirations.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was thinking of Jimmy Stewart movie ” It’s a wonderful life” when I thought about how we are all important to people in our life + if we were not in it-well- you know the rest:-)
        I would love the jpeg!!!! Please e-mail it to me for I retyped it on my office word + put it on my fridge . I read it to my husband-thank you for a great poem to remind me of what is important in life!

        Liked by 1 person

  17. + what I meant to say..came to me a bit later-in case you misunderstood me is-by this worlds standards you are hero + by the other you are a hero….too many things going on right now at my house to be in deep thought!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Carol, look how many people you have touched with this single post! Sharing with us your stories is a precious gift, but the insight and love that accompanies each is even more more of an accomplishment. You are an incredible catalyst for change in our world. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I asked this question often. I learn with old age like the ancient poets. Laughter, time with family and knowing true love. True love is holding your first children and learning. You life had gain value with the birth of the new life to care and love. Thank you for sharing the amazing blog and thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Ahh Gibran,,, after my own heart .. Yes what have we accomplished? Love, …even to have shown Love to one other being for even a moment is a life accomplishment to be hailed. What a wonderfully reflective post Carol. Peace


    1. It’s good to hear from you, Ray! Thank you for sharing such important insights about true accomplishments, and for your kind words. Peace to you, too.


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