Working hard to achieve academic and professional success is commendable. We look to high achievers with impressive track records as role models to admire and aspire to. And yet, in their relentless pursuit of achievement at any cost, the high achiever – or, more negatively phrased, the over-achiever – will inevitably neglect other things that matter. Those things will include your health and the burnout that is all but guaranteed at some point, your relationships with your loved ones, and in many ways your own happiness. Beware the dark side – beware the curse of the high achiever.
What is a high achiever?
If you’re familiar with the Enneagram personality types, the achiever is Enneagram Type 3: “the success-oriented, pragmatic type: adaptable, excelling, driven, and image-conscious”.
The high achiever is highly driven to get results. They are highly motivated. They are doers. They combine talent, drive and hard work to get things done and their achievements, as a result, are impressive.
Where does this drive to achieve come from? It may well be rooted in your personality. It is also likely to have developed out of a childhood and education where you were driven to prove yourself – to your parents, often, or to your teachers, your peers, even to yourself. Achievement brings love and praise, and this lesson can be learned and internalised at an early age.
Many of us will self-identify as high achievers and it feels like a badge of honour. So what’s the problem? Is a drive to achieve such a bad thing? What’s all this talk of the curse of the high achiever?
The curse of the high achiever
When I first started drafting this article, I called it ‘The curse of the high performer’. There’s a subtle difference, however, between ‘performer’ and ‘achiever’. A focus on performing optimally feels more nuanced and balanced versus a focus on achieving, and it’s the dark side of this drive to achieve that I want to explore here.
So what are some of the symptoms of this relentless pursuit of achievement?
Reliant on external validation
The high achiever is motivated by outward recognition, status and image. You may be overly concerned with what other people think, looking for approval and reassurance and getting obsessed with any negative feedback or criticism. This can also lead to constantly second-guessing yourself as you don’t trust your own judgement and anyway your standards as impossibly high.
Losing sight of what really matters
The desire to look good will have influenced you in choosing your degree subject and university, the career and industry, and the various steps you’ve taken up the ladder since then. Significant weight is placed on impressive job titles and prestigious institutions that look good on your CV, perhaps to the detriment of considering what you really want and value personally.
For the high achiever, nothing is ever enough, and you’re only as good as your last accomplishment. You’re always onto the next thing, forgetting to celebrate what you have achieved and pushing yourself further and further to achieve more and more. What, then, is the point, if you never arrive at your destination?
Ridden with guilt
You equate high achievement with hard work and you feel guilty as soon as you’re not giving 100%. That means you’ll feel guilty if you’re focused on work to the detriment of your family life, and guilty when you’re taking time away from work as well. You can never do enough and you certainly won’t ever allow yourself to do something ‘just because’, for fun. Even your hobbies become zones of achievement.
Afraid of failure
The drive to perform and to do well can keep you in your comfort zone, where you know that you can get results. You expect perfection and you may be reluctant to take risks and do something where you can’t be certain of success. The more accomplished you become, the more you need to preserve that success and the image and status that you’ve built, and so you can get stuck doing what you’ve always done at the expense of growth and learning.
You believe, probably quite rightly, that you can do things better yourself and so you end up taking on way too much, failing to delegate, and reluctant to rely on other people’s help. More to the point, the fact that you are so accomplished can mean that others are intimidated by you and so they assume that you don’t need or want any help, and they won’t dare to challenge you and your thinking. This can get very lonely.
So what can you do to get some of that balance back in your life? To bring yourself back into the light? To overcome the curse of the high achiever?
Slow down. Be present and enjoy what’s in front of you – reap the rewards of all that hard work that you’ve been putting in for so long!
Take a step back – take some time off, ideally – and reflect on what you value, what really matters to you, and what you want to focus on going forward.
Swallow your pride and allow yourself to be a little vulnerable. Take a risk. Ask for help. Do something because you feel like doing it, without any pressure or expectation to perform or achieve.
Do you recognise yourself in the label, ‘high achiever’? I look forward to your thoughts.