I am surrounded by overachievers. I have been ever since I was young; at first, it was because my parents ensured that I was spending time with other children who were demonstrating potential, and then it became a conscious choice of mine to surround myself by people who could inspire me and motivate me to be better than I was. I’ve always espoused the notion that it was never good to be the smartest person in the room, and that you are a reflection of the people who are closest to you. As such, it made sense that my circle of friends—even acquaintances and those I correspond sporadically, really—are people who are incredibly smart, driven, motivated, and accomplished.
The merits of such an approach were obvious to me growing up: healthy competition in high school encouraged me to pay more attention to my production, and having smart people around me in college encouraged me to devote more time to my intellectual pursuits than I probably would have without their impetus. In my early 20s, the career and family achievements of the people I knew and cared for helped give me drive and focus for what I wanted to accomplish; by then, it wasn’t competition, but instead a recognition that if the people around me could do amazing things, maybe I could push myself to do amazing things as well.
I’ve been lucky and privileged to have had a pretty eventful—some would say, successful—career in the past decade or so since I graduated from university. I have had the chance to live and work in several cities around the world, and to contribute to impactful projects at recognizable organizations, all in the public sector. I was motivated by the overachievers in my life to overachieve, at least in my career, myself.
There were other parts of my life, however, that were less fulfilled, and it was in this arena that the dark side of overachievement began feeling oppressive. While friends were getting married, having children, buying homes, and saving for their retirement, I was jumping from city to city and in no state to begin thinking of these so-called “grownup” parts of life. I was happy for my friends who were having all these personal accomplishments—I realized very quickly after high school that competition wasn’t a very good motivator for me—but I couldn’t help but think that I was falling behind, and that I needed to fix that lag.
Three years ago, a confluence of things happened that caused me to (overly-critically) evaluate my life and (unhealthily) compare where I was to others in my world. This was not a good time for me, but it was also exactly what I needed.
I spent a long time in cognitive-behavioral therapy (something I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone looking for some guidance at a particularly trying time of life) and learned many things about myself and how I see life. The revelations that came through CBT were manifold, and I can’t go into all of them here, but one of the ones that was clear is that the notion of overachievement had become unhealthy for me. Instead of being inspired and motivated by the accomplishments of others, I was judging myself and finding myself lacking.
The resolution of all the CBT included a new self-realization that I was okay, that I didn’t have to always be pushing myself to do more. These days, I have a better sense of who I am and a deeper appreciation of what I’ve already done. What I am now, the relationships I have with the people I care for—these are all achievements that I need to celebrate. I don’t need to do everything, and more importantly, I don’t need to feel bad about not doing everything, either.
Last week on Quartz, Andrew Yang, founder and CEO of Venture for America, wrote a piece titled “The dark side of America’s achievement culture.” In it, he argues that the culture of achievement that we have created is actually a hindrance to the full realization of our potential, that by measuring ourselves against our accomplishments, we are actually hindering the realization of our potential:
In his book Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz describes the current generation of strivers as “driven to achieve without knowing why.” And then they become paralyzed when they’re not sure how to proceed.
I jokingly call the hang-ups associated with a drive to achieve as “the Achievement Demons.” When I was growing up, I’d study for days trying to get good grades. When I’d get an “A,” I’d feel elation for about 30 seconds, and then a feeling of emptiness. Rinse and repeat. […]
I’d say it took me about seven years after leaving the law firm to let the demons go—to not feel like I was always falling behind my own expectations, or what my peers were doing, or what my parents thought, or my own supposed potential; to view my time intrinsically, as well as instrumentally. And this was the point at which I was able to meaningfully contribute to the success of an organization (and form healthy relationships), in large part because I was more at ease with myself and others.
I’ve learned my demons aren’t just mine. Thousands of young people share the same thirst to achieve that I had (and still have)—rising out of family pressures, alienation, and an identity that they’re smart or talented or special or destined to do something significant. On the plus side, it can make them hard-charging, industrious, and willing to put themselves out there. On the flip side, it can be paralyzing. It can lead to depression, a sense of isolation, even self-destruction. I think it’s harder in an era of social media, where there’s always something you’re missing. FOMO (fear of missing out) is the enemy of valuing your own time.
In the piece, he describes a few ways to battle those demons and come to a place where you can be at peace with who you are and what you do. These include changing context for comparison, finding value beyond the résumé, and taking care of yourself; some of these methods seem obvious, but it was important for me to see them reiterated here and shared widely.
I won’t pretend that I still don’t battle those demons, but I am definitely better at contextualizing them. Therapy was good for me for many reasons, but one was that it gave me methods to process and deal with the achievement demons in a way that works uniquely for me.
I still surround myself by people smarter than I am, more accomplished than I am. I still relish in the achievement of others, and I am still proud to say that the people in my life are all overachievers in their own way, whatever that term has come to mean. These days, I am better at celebrating their achievement without using it to judge myself. These days, I use the accomplishments of the people I love not to push me to do more, to go further, to attempt the impossible, but instead to inspire me to appreciate what is possible.