The Achiever's Dilemma

Aug 31, 2020

Working harder, longer, faster may be the way to climb the first part of your career ladder. But is there an end in sight? Decades of drive can easily turn into a grueling treadmill of effort and exhaustion. That's a dangerous place to be in the middle of a crisis. Now is the time to purposely navigate, not mindlessly execute. Stepping back to allow others to step up has its benefits.

There is hardly a senior executive that I coach who isn't in some way caught in what I call the "Achiever's Dilemma." Their success is a testament to their stamina, but increasingly the "good soldier" drive feels more like a tyrannical trap.

Getting stuff done matters. Of course! Executing with excellence is important, sure. In times of crisis and complexity, however, what we need to "execute" changes as new data, insights, and needs emerge. Dexterity actually matters more than drive. If we're too busy racing down the highway to bother to stop for gas or ask for directions, where are we heading anyway? We could easily be on the path to no where.

For those who bring natural talent and years of experience to achieving, this mindset can be insidious. The beliefs underlying an Achiever's core identity make suggestions to "loosen up" hollow and unhelpful. The message that achieving makes us worthy starts early, so challenging that assumption should be done with compassion and care.

Three myths, in particular, tend to trap serious Achievers:

1. Because I can, I should.

Equating competency with a calling is a fatal trap. Nothing squelches joy and long term fulfillment more that choosing a path based on ability without true aspiration. Smart, talented, hard-working people can do a LOT of things. That doesn't mean they should. 

"Shoulds" are soul-crushing over time. They hog mental and emotional space, leaving no room for real desire. After decades of being a good student (even when school is far behind them), an Achiever confuses excelling with enjoying. Both are possible, but when the action of achieving consistently drowns out the intrinsic joy of accomplishment, the circular trap has been set.

2. Because I did, I do.

This is the "no good deed goes unpunished" dilemma. You picked up slack for someone and are still doing it. You volunteered once (begrudgingly) and five years later you're still chairing the committee. You started putting away the coffee mugs and now are the default office maintenance staff. Achievers find their reluctant "yes" turn into an interminable "forever."

Breaking out of past obligations means breaking up with past obligations. Your good intentions have a statute of limitations. It's quitting time. That's not failure; it's moving forward.

3. If I don't, no one will.

This one is tricky because it's tainted with hubris and a bit of maryrtdom. It's true, it may take someone else longer. They may not do it as well as you, or up to your standards. But the truth is that your over-functioning is allowing others to under-function. 

If you're in the "no one else will" mindset, you may be unconsciously projecting resentment and disdain. In fact, you may be disempowering others by assuming you are going to have to save the day, sending a subtle message that you don't really have confidence in their ability. 

The antidote? Remember that you have choice. Much more than you realize. No one will set the boundary for you. You aren't being graded. Let the dishes sit there. Walk away. Say no. Thanks, but no thanks.

I guarantee others will start to step up when you start to step back.

If any of this is resonating, here's the key question:

Are you driving your Achiever or is your Achiever driving you?

The hallmark of adult development (and leadership) is being able to observe and make choices about how we show up for life. If our achieving (or anything!) is purely reflexive, we are trapped by habit and unconscious assumptions about how the world is and how we operate within it. 

Crisis gives us a good reason to stop and reflect - in fact, it demands it. Whatever your main mode (achieving, care-taking, communicating, analyzing), now is a good time to step back and ask "why," "in service of what," "at what expense," and "for what outcome?"

Crisis is actually a time for more being and less doing. In fact, the more you can just "be" with uncertainty and change, the less you might actually have to do. A lot of our doing (i.e. achieving) is a nervous response to the anxiety of feeling helpless.

Stay curious, stay agile. DO because something is needed, not because you're in the treadmill trap.

What a relief. You are not alone.


P.S. Lots more to come on this topic!


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