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How Being an Overachiever Can Come Back to Bite You

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How being an overachiever can lead to burnout

As a product manager, Lisa’s job is to make decisions. What product should the company start developing? How should that product be designed? Should it be for businesses or consumers? When should it launch? How should the product be marketed? There are hundreds of questions that need to be answered in order to drive the vision, strategy, and direction for each product Lisa’s in charge of.

The only problem was that Lisa couldn’t make a single decision on her own. Whenever she would attempt to make a judgment call, fear came rushing to the surface. Her inner critic shouted, “You have no idea what you’re doing!”.

On an intellectual level, Lisa knew that in most situations (at work and otherwise), there’s usually not one “right” choice. Nevertheless, she strived to make the best decision possible. She worried about steering her team in the wrong direction and felt the heavyweight of the CEO’s expectations to raise company revenue. So she’d stay stuck in indecision, essentially procrastinating until she was forced to make a call one way or another.

Lisa didn’t like living with a sense of internal stress and panic. She felt as if she couldn’t get out of her own way, which is when she came to me for coaching. 

When asked, Lisa would tell you that she’s a perfectionist and that the reason she’s scared of making the wrong decision is that she’s afraid to fail. But, as an expert in psychology, I know that’s not the whole story. Lisa, like many of the other clients I work with, has what I call an “Honor Roll Hangover.”

What is the Honor Roll Hangover?

The Honor Roll Hangover is essentially psychological baggage from our time spent in school. When we’re in school, we learn that there’s a clear path to success, namely by following the rules and being a “good” student.

We grow up with a fixed, rigid belief system about what it takes to achieve confidence and success in life. Get straight A’s, be on the honor roll, get into a “good” college, choose a “good” major, graduate with honors—at every turn, we’re rewarded for achieving and demonstrating we are “good enough.”

The only question is how high we climb the ladder and how many gold stars we can collect.

But the working world doesn’t operate that way. The definition of success at work is much murkier than it is in school. The real world is messy, and what constitutes A+ effort is no longer defined by an authority figure like a teacher or parent.

In 1995, a researcher from Boston College named Karen Arnold published a study tracking the workplace success of high school valedictorians after graduation. While everyone in the study did reasonably well in life–pursuing safe professions like accounting, law, or nursing–their progress (and happiness) stalled early on.

Arnold hypothesized that the reason these students did better in school than in their careers is that schools reward rule-followers, whereas the working world values flexible thinking and problem-solving. The valedictorians were poised to be leaders, yet at a young age got so caught up in others’ expectations and rules that they never learned how to trust their own desires and decisions.   

This research begins to explain why there’s a difference between a successful student and a successful employee. But I also contend that there’s an even bigger gap between a successful employee and a happy person. I believe that’s because, in today’s working world, you have to make your own barometer of success. There’s no one setting goals for you to reach other than yourself.

How to Find What You’re Looking For

Many of the clients I work with, Lisa included, don’t even know what they’re working towards, what their end goal is, or what their ideal life would even look like.

For example, I helped Lisa create a professional development plan as part of our work together. I asked her to create a few objectives and milestones she’d like to reach over the next few months. One of the objectives she wrote down was to “define the success of projects by the right criteria.” When I asked her what the “right” criteria were, she couldn’t answer me. She had no idea. What we came to realize is that Lisa had never thought through the standards she was holding herself to. Though she could admit she was trying to make every decision perfectly, Lisa had no idea what “perfect” meant!

Sobering up from The Honor Roll Hangover takes time. Remember, you’re undoing decades of conditioning and programming. The first step, however, is self-awareness. Begin to notice when you feel driven by other people’s expectations or an outsized urge to achieve, regardless of the costs (including your own health). 

Here are a few other questions to ask yourself: 

  • Is how I am spending my time reflecting my personal values and the life I want to create?
  • By what (or who’s) metrics am I measuring my success by?
  • How would you define “success” if you had every guarantee you’d reach your goals?
  • In what areas am I placing unrealistic expectations on myself? 
  • How might people-pleasing be holding me back? 
  • What do I need to stop doing or delegate? 
  • How will I tell when I’ve “made” it or feel like I’ve done enough?
  • How can I take one imperfect step today? 

Take five minutes today to think about your responses and see what comes up for you. The answers may surprise and enlighten you.

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Hi, I'm Melody

I help smart, sensitive high-achievers overcome insecurity and overwhelm so they can thrive in the workplace.

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