I come from good, strong, achievement-oriented stock. My father was a Fulbright Scholar with two Ph.Ds who integrated Virginia Beach, faced down death threats from the KKK in Alabama, integrated the neighborhood where I spent my early-mid childhood and built an academic and college administration career. My mother is accomplished in her own right, with a Ph.D and several groundbreaking career firsts of her own. My grandparents were also obscenely accomplished -- on both sides -- and I come from a long line of ministers and college graduates dating back to the 1800s, when African-Americans didn't often earn college degrees.
I imagine I was expected to achieve from the start. My mother swears I spoke in full sentences by the time I was 8 months old, stood on my head at age 1 and read at the eighth grade level by the time I was 3 (though that one seems a little far-fetched to me), but somewhere along the way, I got the mistaken notion that achievement isn't enough, that if I wanted to be worth anything in this life, I needed to super-achieve. The problem is, 'super-achieverdom,' as I call it -- not to be confused with achievement or something as mundane as success -- is a precarious, soul-stealing and ultimately losing game.
I followed the super-achiever playbook and got into all the right schools. After my second summer of law school, I was offered the fancy, big law firm job. And then, I walked away -- the way you only do if you're young and have no idea what it actually costs to live. I don't regret it one bit.
I didn't walk away from achievement, mind you. I still wanted achievement, both the big explosive achievements the world stands up and takes note of, and the quieter achievements we often overlook. But achievement and super-achieverdom are not the same thing.
Super-achieverdom is to achievement what meth is to a nice glass of wine: its less healthy, more destructive, distant cousin.
Achievement arises naturally from who you are. It follows your inner compass, even when all around you are certain you're headed the wrong way. Super-achieverdom, on the other hand, proceeds from an external locus of control. It seeks to get us validation at any cost by keeping you on the officially sanctioned, tried-and-true path. Super-achievers, I've noticed, often go to law school, medical school or business school -- not because they have a burning passion or reason, unique to them, to do so, but because, well, it's the next logical step on the generic ladder to success.
Achievement asks: "Who am I, what are my passions and talents, what do I have to give?" Super-achieverdom seeks to prove: "I am somebody, I am OK." Here's the secret: you are somebody, you are OK. Achievement knows you're somebody. It spurs you on to be who you uniquely are -- and gives you the confidence that who you are is always enough. You'll have to figure out how to turn who you are into a life that sustains you, materially and spiritually, but achievement can always find a way.
You know you're a super-achiever, pejorative sense, if, despite your many accomplishments, you feel like you're not enough. Or, if you're so afraid to fail that you won't take even smart, calculated risks to arrive at a cherished goal, whether that's navigating a new career path, or simply making time in your schedule for hobbies and pleasures that enhance your life.
5 reasons why super-achieverdom is overrated:
1. It keeps you from the failure that leads to success.
Failure is often a necessary stop on the path to success. We learned to walk, talk, ride a bike and do just about everything we know how to do by failing first. It's also worth mentioning that some of the most meteoric successes (Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison and Einstein come to mind) followed crushing failures -- or protracted periods during which failure, or meager, modest successes, were the norm.
2. It constrains the imagination.
Super-achieverdom is all about results. It wants the blue ribbon! It wants the Academy Award! The thing is, all that focus on results, results, results, keeps you from taking the necessary leaps of imagination or leaps of faith that often proceed the discovery or creation of something truly great. After all, the tried-and-true path can only lead you where man has already gone, whereas the imaginative possibilities lie in the unknown places that we travel to only when we don't care what other people think. Because here's the thing about true, original, internal locus of control achievements: they seem impossible or nonsensical or foolhardy until you get there first and plant your flag.
3. It makes you small.
They may not look it, or even know it, but those addicted to super-achieverdom are scared -- that they aren't enough, that they won't be loved, that if they stop tap-dancing, everyone will know, the emperor has no clothes. The anecdote to that madness is to remember that your success didn't make you; you made your success -- and, if need be, you can make some more.
4. It makes you to think others are small.
If you believe you are your achievements, you'll believe others are as well, and you'll miss the opportunity to see others as they really are and to receive the gifts they have to offer, however modest or flashy they may be.
5. It blocks joy.
True joy comes from having an inner confidence neither triumph or failure can touch. To get there, you must let super-achieverdom go.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.