high achiever

When It's Time to Stretch

 

In the last year, the goals I've set have a different feel to them. My current approach, so different from my old-school control-all-the-things-push-hustle-grind, is solid. Every goal I set is aligned with an intention. I balance between taking inspired action and allowing information, next steps, and opportunities to flow in. Generally speaking, when it comes to goals, I have high confidence in achieving the desired outcome because I know what I'm capable of and that my approach is tailored to my strengths and the way I operate. 

This time, it's different. 

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Until a few days ago, I wasn't able to put my finger on just why this goal of putting a book into the world feels so other. I tend to have a lot more highs and lows in my thinking. Sometimes, I'm super confident and pumped about it all, and other times, self-doubt creeps in and asks, "Why exactly do you think you can pull this off?" And by "this," I mean not just having a published book, but putting out content that makes an impact on many people on a scale far beyond what I've done so far in my professional life. 

I have no evidence I can do this. 

We get exposed to a lot of collective thinking that exposes us to this idea that accomplishing big things has to be hard. There's an attachment to the idea that struggle is required. We are also told that it's about who we know. But let's face it—most of us don't know people, as in we don't have connections in high places. We have ideas but no way of gauging whether other people will think they are any good beyond talking to those close to us. Most of the time, all of the above stops people from taking action in the direction of doing something that feels like a major stretch. And by stretch, I mean you truly have no evidence that you can make it happen. 

So what? If every single human thought that way, invention would be dead. Why did the Wright brothers believe we could fly? Why did scientists believe we could prevent disease through vaccination? Why did anyone in their right mind believe we could travel to outer space?

It's called faith. Belief in what you cannot see and for which there is no evidence. It's powerful. It requires you to top off your tank of self-belief and to keep that baby as full as you can, even if you waver from time to time. And if you haven't done the deep work to determine why that tank is leaky or how to reprogram your old ways of thinking and habits to stop talking yourself down and seeing yourself as incapable, life is going to be a relatively dull ride instead of the exhilarating experience it could be if you can find the faith in yourself that allows you take chances. 

Do you have a secret longing to do something that feels too scary to contemplate? Is it because you don't have the evidence you can make it happen? It's time to stretch


 

Familiar, Creeping Dread

 

For years and years of my adult life, I felt a recurrent, familiar dread in the rhythm of the work week. Before the dread set in, there was some buoyancy. Once the weekend was in sight, it started to feel like rolling downhill instead of slogging my way up. I used to say that Thursday was my favorite day of the week. For me, the end of the Thursday work day felt lighter than the preceding days. People tended to be in a good - at least, better - mood on Fridays, with everyone looking forward to their reprieve from the grind. I remember making plans for just how awesome my Friday evening was going to be, filled with relaxation and doing things like watching a movie with a vodka tonic in hand, only to find myself depleted, exhausted, and barely able to keep my eyes open at 9 pm. What a waste, I would think to myself, that one of the two nights I can truly enjoy every week goes down in this sad way, with plans unrealized and the need to recover taking over all other plans.

Saturday was always the best day of the week. It was the one day where I would wake up refreshed and even if there was a lot to do, I knew I'd be hanging out with my family, prioritizing at least one or two fun things to do along with taking care of household needs, errands, etc. Inevitably, the familiar pang would arrive on Saturday evening, a precursor to Sunday, knowing that the ability to be present would slowly seep away as the end of the weekend approached. And that was when the dread would really kick in. Sunday afternoon. My mind started moving forward into the work week, thinking through what needed to be done, who I'd be meeting with, what fires might pop up, which team members were going to be in conflict - the list went on.

Sunday night was the worst. It was more the exception than the rule that I would get a decent night's sleep before the work week began. I would go to bed at a reasonable time and watch the hours tick by. I would do the thing that insomniacs do, telling myself "Five hours of sleep is fine, I can work with that" and then "If I don't get at least four hours of sleep, this is going to be a rough week" and my mind would finally shut down around that time, allowing me a few precious hours of rest, but not nearly enough to keep me energized as the week progressed.

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Dread was such a regular in my life that I didn't question it much. I knew a lot of people who felt just like I did. We talked about the dis-ease of Sunday like it was a fact of life. One of my friends calls it the "Sunday scaries." Like so many other not-so-good aspects of my mindset at that point, I registered that it was there, and that it sucked, but it fell into the category of "the price we pay." As in, we must in some way "pay", or more accurately, sacrifice, in order to have the other benefits that come from staying in a particular situation. This is such a regular and consistent bit of messaging in our culture of success that we resign ourselves to it.

But actually, it's bullshit.

You do not have to accept dread as a fact of life. You do not have to fall in line with the "pay the price" concept of success. I'm not telling you to run out and quit your job, because that isn't the answer. No matter where you work, if you have already bought into the foundational trap of accepting a limited concept of "this is the way the world is," your experience of life will remain consistent. That is, you will get more of what you're resigned to. Ask yourself the following:

  • What in my experience lends itself to dread? Is it the hours I work? Not prioritizing my need to refuel, e.g. exercise, eat, sleep, etc.?

  • What am I tolerating? What have I resigned myself to? When am I saying "that's just the way it is?"

  • Are there other places in my life where something similar is happening? (I'll give you a hint - the answer is "yes") Where else are you deciding to go along because it is what it is?

Once you've identified these areas, you'll begin to see the pattern and can start thinking about ways to change what you're accepting as the sacrifice you're not happy making. What can you do differently? Where can you shift your priorities? To avoid crashing and burning, take it one small step at a time and make a single change before you move on to the next.


 

the Dark Side of Achieving

There's a lot about being a high achiever that works for me. I love me some lists. The satisfaction I feel when I get to cross something off my list is a mini-high that keeps me going. If I do something that wasn't on my list, I'll add just so I can cross it off (admit it - you do it, too). My calendar is my best friend. It lays out my day in an organized way so that I know what I'm doing when and what I'm focusing on for the day. I can be type A about details. I can stay high-level when it makes sense, but I do like to know the ins and outs of any given situation. There's more, but I'm sure you get the gist. All of this works for me. Except for when it didn't. 

The double-edged sword of being a high achiever is that the same qualities that make you so awesome can also limit your forward movement.

When I first left my day-job, what I expected to be a brilliant sensation of freedom and lightness was instead a weird fog through which I meandered. I didn't know what to spend my time on. Hell, I couldn't even think straight. It was like someone had reached into my skull and mashed a bunch of neurons around. Obviously, I knew what I needed to be working on, but the gap between that and getting started felt more like a chasm. What the hell was my problem??

I'll tell you what my problem was: no one was telling me what to do.

I didn't have outside input for my list. Outlook was gone from my life and it had ruled my days for so long that living without it meant I spent too much time thinking about what to do first or next. When I made my own lists, I realized with anxiety that everything on it was new to me. I hadn't done a lot of it before, so there was no quick "I'll just knock this out" and move on available to me. I had been a speed-doer all my life.

Efficient like a machine until this experience showed me that my efficiency came from a place of mindlessness.

My list used to full of to-dos that I could get through quickly, without a lot of thought required because I had reached "expert" status on the tasks and activities that filled my days. You may be asking, "What's wrong with that? Isn't that a good thing?"

It's not a good thing when you realize you can do most of your life on autopilot. Where's the energy? The inspiration? 

The lives of high achievers are hyper-focused on accomplishment. You have to be productive, busy, efficient. Your tasks are measurable - there is an end product that you can see or touch. It's working for you, right? People tell you how good you are, the boss notices so you get the raise/bonus/promotion. You're rewarded for being this way.

But operating in this manner begins to narrow the tunnel around your mind.

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Doing is more important than being. Making sure everyone else gets what they need trumps any fleeting desire you may have for putting yourself on your to-do list. This is the stuff of burnout, my friends. It's repetitive. What used to be exciting can become rote. You do it to get through it. You start living for the weekends and rushing through your list so you can avoid opening your laptop at night. 

Life is not about moving from task to the next. You aren't here simply to produce and achieve. You're here to be. To experience. 

So how do you fix it? You begin by putting yourself on the list. 

Each day, put one thing on your to-do list that is all about YOU. It doesn't matter how small it is. Five minutes for meditation or journaling, a ten-minute walk, thirty minutes for a coffee meeting with a friend, the workout that you keep meaning to do but haven't made the time for. Once it's on your list, HONOR IT.

You should not be the first thing to get booted from your list.

If it makes you uncomfortable to think about putting yourself on the list and keeping yourself there, good. That's natural. You're not used to being a priority, and that little voice in your mind is going to pipe up with all kinds of useless input like "Are you sure you should be doing this?", "You don't have time for this", or "It's selfish - you should be doing x, y or z." This is your opportunity to tune in and see what's really going on in your mind. What are you telling yourself? How are you keeping yourself stuck? Observe, jot it down, then do the thing that's for you, anyway. 

I want to hear from you! How did it feel? What did you realize? 

Are you a high achiever in need of a mental reset?

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Here are 5 questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do you feel like something is missing from your life, but can’t quite identify what it is?

  2. Do you hope that the next raise or bonus will make you feel better, only to find out that it only brings temporary relief?

  3. Have you hit that high-title job status...and you’re still not happy?

  4. Are you stuck in survival mode, too busy to put yourself first?

  5. Do you wonder if there must be something wrong with you and worry that you’ll never be satisfied?

If you answered yes, or even felt a “maybe” to one of all of these questions,

You are likely a high achiever.

This doesn’t mean you’re a major stress case, in fact, maybe you’re doing okay, but you still feel as if there should be something more.  

I am a high achiever, and not so long ago, I answered yes to all of those questions.

I felt like something was missing. Big time. I had no idea what it is was or how to get it.

I wanted more money to make it better.  Instead, the more money I made, the less awesome I felt. Each money goal I achieved put a spotlight on the reality that the money couldn’t fill the void or make my life better internally.

I had the job I always wanted and was the least happy I’d ever been. At the height of my career, managing a business unit with high visibility, where I thought I always wanted to be, making more money than I ever had, I was miserable.

I was stuck in the loop of doing, rarely taking the time out to put myself first.
As strange as it may sound, I didn’t know how to put myself first. It was a foreign concept. I would feel guilty when I attempted to, as if taking the time for me was exceedingly self-indulgent.

I worried that something was fundamentally wrong with me. I had everything I wanted but was so unsatisfied. It made no sense to me why I was restless and unfulfilled.  I thought, “I’m damaged in some fundamental way. Why can’t I be happy?”

If any of this sounds familiar to you, take heart. There’s nothing wrong with you. But your bar is too freaking low when it comes to what you expect for YOU. You can be amazing and wondrous and a force to behold professionally and simultaneously ignore who you are as a human, continuing to expect your professional success to magically create feelings of excitement, inspiration, fulfillment, [insert favorite word here].

High-achievers come to a place of stagnation because survival is good enough. You rarely tip the balance into truly experiencing your life more often than not. You grind it out. To want more is unrealistic and perhaps even silly. After all, this is what your parents did and your friends do now.

Suck it up, buttercup. Maybe buy an expensive toy or take an extravagant trip to fill the void. Deal with it and settle in. This is your life.

Right? RIGHT??

When I examined my own experience, I realized that though the circumstances of our lives varied, many of my coworkers felt similarly to me. They had it “all”, but it didn’t feel like much. They were exhausted, put upon, bored, anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, stressed out, running on fumes, irritable, frustrated–the list goes on. Oddly, it reassured me that I wasn’t alone. Not in a misery-loves-company kind of way, but in a way that sparked the thought that we all shared something in common that could be identified with the right tools, if I could find them.

I did some research and decided to start by reading self-help books. I scanned summaries, looked at reviews, and ultimately decided to begin with books that had a more spiritual bent because every business-oriented book out there felt much too “corporate” and formulaic to me. I made progress. Each book had something valuable and insightful to offer that would move me a few steps forward, but ultimately I would get stuck again. The way I operated was so ingrained and embedded that getting my brain to think in new ways was harder than I anticipated.

I kept at it. It took time and energy, trial and error. Now it’s my mission to share what I’ve learned with other high achievers so you can do the work with guidance and clarity around what to do and why.

As successful as you are, you can’t take your life to the next level without doing the deep work to transform the way you see yourself and raise the bar for what you expect from life.

The way you live has been dictated from the outside with little to no input from you. How can you possibly expect fulfillment if what you want isn’t at the heart of all you do?

How to begin? As you go through your day, pay attention to your mental chatter. Do you find yourself saying "“I’ll be okay,” “It will be fine,” “I’m alright” or other words that suggest you are settling? Write it down. The only thing you need to do right now is be aware. It can be very uncomfortable to admit consciously, but it’s the first and necessary step in the direction of living a life that’s aligned to you.

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