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The Paradox of High Achievement

For as long as I have known myself, I’ve been a "high-achiever," meaning I'm motivated to accomplish things. This is neither good or bad, because achievement, in and of itself, means very little. But, I've always felt validated by achieving goals-big or small- and figured out early that success wins people over. Respect, admiration, envy, gratitude—all of these are common reactions to success, and I loved being on the receiving end of each of them. I knew that earning straight A’s would win praise from my parents and teachers, and I quickly figured out that success in school is, correctly or not, associated with success in work and in life.

I’ve spent a good deal of my life chasing accolades. Maintaining a perfect 4.0, excelling in athletics, even writing, have all been ways to gain recognition or be seen. Working harder than anyone else became my go-to method of achieving, and sometimes, it worked. I'm sure many people feel this way, in a country and culture that value hard work and tangible accomplishments above nearly anything else.

Rugged Individualism.

Pulling oneself up by one’s boot straps.

Rags to riches.

All of these tropes are deeply rooted in America’s conscious, and reinforced everywhere. The coaches, players, fans, and associations that praise athletic “hustlers.” The workplace culture that praises a different kind of hustler, alongside the omnipresent side gigs and 80-hour work weeks. The general inclination of Americans to work more, under the guise that more is somehow better. This idea is reminiscent of the notion that bigger is better, which I think we can all agree isn’t the case.

Achievement follows logical, linear patterns of thought: if I work this much, I will earn this much rapport/productivity/social capital to make it to the next level, whatever that level may be. If I earn good grades I will get a good job, be able to afford life, be able to enjoy life (which again, isn’t unilaterally true).

Valerie Bertinelli said, "Happiness is a choice." I believe this is true, and it's even more true that how much or how little we achieve has little to do with how happy we can be. Happiness cannot grow directly from achievement because, while the soil in which achievement is planted is rich, happiness also needs sunshine and rain. Catch my drift? Achievement is only a small part of life, and therefore a small part of happiness.

Growing up, I wanted to succeed so people would notice me. I though that if people noticed me, they might like me, and then I would be happy. The problem with this strain of happiness is that it is deeply flawed, temporary, and stems from a place of insecurity and ingratitude. People will undoubtedly notice you if you do great things. They won’t however, continue to notice you unless you continue to do great things, one-upping yourself for good measure. At the heart of this self-inflicted one-up-man-ship is seeking approval, identity, or love from someone or something other than yourself. I have been there-I might still be there-and it feels a lot like running on a hamster wheel, getting nowhere fast. Really, getting nowhere at all.

I read here that women may be extra susceptible to seeking achievement as a way to be seen because we have historically not been seen or heard. When we are not heard, our actions speak for us and the motivation to achieve is heightened. Doubly crushing it must then, be when our achievements are doubted, understated, or credited to someone else, which women experience more often and more harshly than men.

The thing I've learned about high-achievers, simply by being one, is that the drive to succeed is a behavior, not an accomplishment. The paradox of high-achievers is simply that we are often unhappy. I set my bar incredibly high, but "the bar" isn't real. When I fall short of "the bar," I feel unnecessarily and unhealthily disappointed in myself, a reaction I've purposely begun to rectify simply by offering myself kindness and gratitude (and therapy).

I've also noticed that high-achievers have difficulty admitting when they're wrong. This is annoying to other people, and inflicts unnecessary pressure; the need to be right is undoubtedly based in fear. Additionally, high-achievers judge themselves more than anyone else could possible judge them. The old universal truth remains: we are our own worst critics. The root of self-criticism, and the deep, frantic desire to achieve more often come from a place of fear: fear of "falling short," financial ruin, silence, personal traumas, et cetera.

Achievement, drive, and hard work are incredibly important traits, and do often lead to success. However, there is a fine line between "going the extra mile" and wrapping your entire identity in your accomplishments.

Sometimes, when I'm lying in bed struggling to sleep, my brain is consumed by anxious, unrealistic worries. Sometimes when I'm awake and have empty time, I become similarly anxious and worried. This is frustrating because I do not desire a frantic, distracted life, nor do I want my interaction with others to serve as distraction from my own trauma or pain.

My primary takeaway is that the drive and desire to achieve can consume a person. I've told myself hundreds of versions of: "if you achieve X, you will feel happy or content or fulfilled," without realizing that I can feel happy, content, and fulfilled just by being me.

P.S. In an attempt to gain comfort with stillness and silence, I've begun meditating using the Headspace app (available in IOS and Android-this is a totally free, non-sponsored plug). I started with 3 minutes, and have worked my way up to 5, meditating every night before bed. I highly, highly reccomend.


Sarah Rose

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