I admit it. I am an overachiever. It's a side of me that's hard to ignore. It shows up everywhere--in personality tests, self-assessments, my astrological sign, and even in tarot card readings! To make matters worse, I'm the product of a Taiwanese American immigrant family run by a black belt-level, master Tiger Mom. Yes, I'm that stereotype, too.
I spent the first ten years of my life after college racking up accomplishments: the Teach for America teacher who exceeded expectations every year, straight A Master's student at Harvard, Fulbright scholar who took it upon herself to co-write a manual for fellow grantees, and the nonprofit director of three different full-time education programs. None of these accomplishments were merely to feed my self-esteem. I was on a mission to close the achievement gap in every public school or district that I worked in.
I managed my teams with the same degree of perfectionism and focused on doing as much as possible in the shortest amount of time possible. Working in public schools, I felt like every second wasted was detrimental to a child's success in life. My team had big goals, long meetings, lots of processes, and massive to-do lists.
At some point along the path, something started to shift in me. I didn't have a heart attack or a health crisis from the stress. I just looked myself in the mirror one day and really didn't like what I saw: an unhealthy, Type A, goal-driven person who moved too fast and always felt behind.
I had an overly active work life, a dormant, obligatory social life and no inner life. By inner life, I mean taking time to look inside to see how things were really going. The irony was that I was coaching teachers to reflect on their teaching practices and notice their impact on students. I was a hypocrite for not doing the same for myself in my own life.
When I took the time to look inside, I saw a tired body that wasn't properly nourished, a busy mind that couldn't stop thinking, and a wandering spirit that was uncertain about its purpose.
I started to pay closer attention to who I was at work and my relationship with work. I was on the senior leadership team actively trying to change our unhealthy work culture, but deep down I also knew that this culture fed, rewarded, and justified my identity as an overachiever.
I observed that too much structure and too many rules from my bosses stifled me. I thrived when I had the challenge to create new approaches and programs from scratch even under the most ambiguous circumstances. I was often more productive when my work schedule was in-sync with my natural rhythms. Nighttime was when I could be the most creative and mornings were better suited for emails and less cognitively demanding tasks. I also craved community at work. Friendships with co-workers kept me going when I felt tired and depleted.
As my awareness grew, I found myself adjusting my priorities and creating space for change. I made small tweaks like forcing myself to eat lunch away from my desk, spending more time with loved ones, and spending less time on making things "perfect" at work. Those baby steps eventually led to bigger and bolder moves.
I am still an achiever at the core and find myself committing to more than I can handle at times, but I now have a different purpose and a new way of working. I make time for reflection and stillness as part of my creative process and focus on making work fun and joyful in addition to being productive.
What scares me about the future is how much the desire and expectation for achievement can damage the human spirit and create competitive divides between individuals, teams, and communities. The pressure to be "the best" in schools and workplaces has harmful social consequences.
This past month, I've attended talks with Dr. Dan Siegel at the UCLA School of Medicine, who stresses that the most detrimental thing we can teach our kids is the individualistic notion of ourself as a separate physical body disconnected from others and the world, and Dr. Otto Scharmer at The Presence Institute at MIT, who describes the root of our global socioeconomic challenges stemming from the disconnect with ourself, others, and nature.
I can't help but see the common thread here: the need to put an end to organizing our lives around our individual accomplishments and to find ways to build connected communities. My current mission is to create inviting spaces for people (myself first!) to let their guard down and be their most authentic and healthy selves. My team and I are building Challenge Hive, a virtual community-building platform for people to connect meaningfully by cultivating shared values and positive practices like gratitude, kindness, authenticity, courageous communication and integrity.
I believe we need more joy, compassion, and integration in order to heal the increasingly chaotic and divided world we live in today.
I will proudly be an achiever for this new ideal of success.
Belinda Liu is a teacher, connector, creator, and explorer. She is the co-founder and CEO of Tech urSelf, a startup on a mission to catalyze self-transformation and community-building through the intentional use of technology. Want to learn more about her latest creation, or share your personal story? Connect with Belinda at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @techurself.