The Dark Side of Achievement: Four Lessons from the Other Side
I have had the privilege for the last two decades to work with many incredibly motivated, talented, smart, high-achieving and successful people on a daily basis. I am a first-hand witness to accomplishments and achievements that are truly extraordinary, and to the unseen, behind the scenes sweat and drive it takes to garner this success.
I also have a front row seat to the stress, anxiety, and personal health & welfare imbalance that often prevails along this journey.
Strangely, I had a haunting impromptu conversation about this dark side of achievement a few evenings ago with a new acquaintance that I think highlights some perils more than I can attempt to. We can certainly all learn something from his story.
My husband and I were having dinner with a few people we are just getting to know, and each person was informally going around the table telling his/her “story”. Bob’s (not his real name of course) story was compelling.
Bob was a high flyer working for one of the top investment banking firms on Wall Street. He ran an area managing amounts of money with so many zeros that you and I couldn’t even imagine possible. He was well rewarded for his efforts, and reaped the many fringe benefits that came with his achievement and success. The money and all the luxuries you can possibly buy were his. But there was also an inordinate amount of unseen stress and anxiety that accompanied these achievements. He simply ignored it.
Ignored until one day his body made him notice. No, he didn’t have a physical heart attack episode. His episode was one that crept up on him in a totally different manner. I would characterize it more like a “soul attack”. He woke up one day and just froze. He literally couldn’t do it anymore. He got up, got dressed for work and just sat on his couch for three days, until the authorities came to his house at the request of his employer—wondering what had happened to him.
He had a nervous breakdown.
I asked him what he had learned from this experience in hindsight. Here is the gist of the lessons he shared with me:
1. Don’t take yourself so seriously
The achievement and the validation and material things they brought him were like drugs that his whole being became addicted to. He started to believe he was invincible and somehow better than others. This fueled a vicious cycle and fear of losing it all and a constant need to prove himself through more and more achievement. As he describes it, his ego convinced him that he was invincible. He had become “superman”, forgetting that he was not immune to the human condition we all experience together.
2. Don’t lose sight of who you are
Bob now carries a picture of himself at age 10 in his wallet and looks at it daily. Why? It reminds him that he still needs to nurture and take care of himself. It reminds him to ask himself if he is honoring what is truly important to him and if he is staying true to his core self.
3. Take time to reflect regularly and ask yourself what you want
At some point during his ride on Wall Street, he stopped having fun and actually hated the job. The stress and anxiety had taken their toll and he wasn’t enjoying anything. He was filling the holes with more achievement and alcohol. What he didn’t do is stop and ask himself what he truly wanted. He kept going through the motions until his body spoke up and woke him from his self-induced stupor.
4. This life is not a dress rehearsal
He spoke of coming out of his experience with a renewed sense of appreciation of every moment as a precious commodity. He plays golf regularly and nurtures the relationship(s) he treasures. He marvels at the glorious sunsets he witnesses. He expresses himself authentically and tells people what he thinks. He doesn’t try to impress others but instead is in service to others.
Chalk this up as an extreme case? Good story, but this could never happen to you?
Maybe this is an extreme example. But Bob’s lessons can apply to us all and the story serves as a stark reminder.
A reminder of the fragility of our joint human condition and the attention to self-care we all need.
A reminder to pay attention and pause on a regular basis during our achievement journeys with some simple questions:
“Am I having fun?”
“Am I taking care of myself?”
“Am I being true to myself?”
“Is this what I really want?”