It hasn’t been an unproductive time for the Ninja: the last few months have seen some of the most strenuous challenges of my professional career. Sometimes, life just isn’t exciting enough to blog about. There is no time to glorify the experience and polish it up for content. Instead, it consists of working late nights in a Red Bull-induced haze, popping junk food and not seeing daylight for, well, days.
Sometime before the madness of my Ninja endurance marathon, I seem to recall my good friend Phoenix of ¡PLAM! sharing a podcast on the Hidden Demons of High Achievers. Sounded fitting enough, since I couldn’t at the time see the end to my massive workfest. I put it on as background noise, found myself more and more drawn to this episode of the Harvard Business Review interview.
High Achievers have essentially become an accepted archetype of today’s career-driven boys and girls. There’s a certain smug satisfaction to pulling off that impossible deadline; receiving the recognition and reward of a job well done; operating at a breakneck productivity level and still appearing like you have it all. You’re leaner, meaner, require less down-time, and essentially leave your coworkers shaking their heads, wondering how you do it. Well, here’s how…
“High Achievers Are Actually Pretty Stupid”
The basic clause of author Tom Delong, in Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success: high achievers are actually pretty stupid individuals, as they rarely learn from their mistakes. Self-trained from a bright young age to excel, high achievers set the standard early on – their best will always be miles above everyone else’s. This creates a cycle of seemingly superhuman accomplishments, each with a slightly higher threshold before the internal satisfication meter is topped up. High, too, are warm fuzzy feelings of confidence and self-worth as their appreciative audience encourages and propels them to greater heights. Better accomplishments. Better payoff.
It all goes very well for the high achiever, until it doesn’t. Until you nod off after pulling the impossible (the last twenty times you did it). Until your calendar is so full of multi-coloured Gmail calendars that it’s hard to see any white space in between. Until you are handed a task that you’re not sure you have the ability/know-how to accomplish, but you’re too scared to ask for help. After all, you’ve already helpfully programmed everyone’s speed dial to the The Resident Expert-On-Crack.
Yeah that’s right. I’m lookin’ at You.
Scared Into Perfection
The secret of high achievers is that they’re all a bunch of scared wusses. You’ve gotta be on point, all of the time. You’ve got Important people to meet, Important meetings to go to, Important deadlines to meet. Your coping strategies consist of working as hard as you possibly can for short bursts of genius, followed by a lull as you gear up towards the next project in line.
I’d be pretty frustrated with that cycle, too. (And in no way did I use this image solely for the sake of doing so. Credit to this guy.)
And When You Fail…
Because sooner or later, something doesn’t go your way, the first thing you’ll do is go to the people who propped you up and reveal your deepest, darkest failure. But, because you’re such a Shiny Pillar of Awesomeness, the audience gives you exactly what you want to hear – you’re doing so well, you’re so wonderful, your life is so perfect, that you have absolutely nothing to worry about! They give you a pat on the back, bake you some cookies, and send you on your way to have some R&R.
You Ain’t So Special After All
All of these studies into the culture of high achievers unnecessarily complicate the matter, I believe. The bottom line is this: High achievers pride themselves on being something “more than”, when compared to your average person. To me, this thinking boils down to only one thing – Originality. Everyone wants to be original, from the blog writers carving out their niche to C-level execs wondering how they worked through the night yet again. Everyone wants to stick out and be recognized for who they are and what they bring
to the table to the world. How they matter – and more importantly, if they matter. Having a life that is too bright, too full, too busy seems to be the perfect attention grab.
Why do I think we’re going down this path? Original, creative ideas are hard to come by, especially when you’re confined by specific corporate directives. It’s a scary feeling to be the only one talking in the boardroom while everyone simply listens. And stares. Unoriginal, uncreative hard work? Well, that’s just a walk in the park in comparison.
Instead of lumping ‘those people’ into a category by themselves, it’s key to recognize that we all get the HA Bug from time to time. This is not a special breed of Super Human, but rather individuals stressed to the max and toeing the line of burnout. If our too-fast society would stop singing empty praises of High Achievers, and start recognizing this as something similar to the effects of a drug taken too often, then we’d be getting somewhere.