Are your high achiever habits helping...or hurting you?
You’re bright, hard working and committed to excellence in your work. You might even consider yourself a high achiever or a ‘Type A’ personality, whether or not you admit it out loud.
You have a set of traits and strengths that enable you to be successful in your career. While there are many benefits, if your strengths are overplayed or not used in balance, they can end up creating challenges for you and others around you, at work and at home. Unchecked, these traits can lead to counter-productive or dysfunctional behaviour that may derail you or lead to self-sabotage in your career.
Having worked for more than a decade in a high performance organisation and been lucky to be surrounded by talented colleagues, below are five common traits I’ve noticed in high achievers, and the potential downsides. (Admittedly I speak partly from experience, having fallen into some of these traps myself!)
So, time for some #realtalk. Do you recognise yourself in any of the below too?
1. Driven to achieve
High achievers are motivated, driven, determined and passionate. They bring energy and a willingness - more like an internal motivation or a need - to work hard. They like to stretch themselves and they rise to a challenge.
However, your constant need for achievement may mean that you don’t feel good about yourself unless you’re achieving: progressing through your to-do list or producing something tangible. Your work is never-ending, because you never feel like you’ve done enough - there’s always more you could be doing.
Your family and friends might complain you’re a workaholic. (Or maybe they’re more polite, and drop subtle hints or gentle jokes that you choose to ignore.) Even though you say you value your family and friends, the choices you make about how you spend your time and energy don’t always reflect that. Perhaps you find it difficult to switch off or hard to enjoy down time, whether it’s on the weekends or on holidays.
Your identity and self-worth are dependent on, or closely intertwined with, your achievements and accomplishments.
After all, you’ve always been told that success requires hard work. Back at school, you were motivated by the desire to get good grades or praise. These days, you continue to crave external validation and feedback.
You may not think of yourself as competitive, but because your self-esteem comes from your success, it requires feeling ‘special’ or above average compared to others.
In a Harvard Business Review article discussing the ‘curse of being a high achiever’, Professor Thomas DeLong and psychiatrist Sara DeLong observe that high achievers ‘obsessively compare themselves with others, which can lead to a chronic sense of insufficiency’.
High achievers generally take their work seriously. They have a strong sense of duty and obligation, taking ownership for anything they commit to and diligently following through to completion. They like to be known as reliable.
Challenges can occur if your sense of responsibility means that you don’t like letting anyone down.
You may find it hard to say no and become over-committed, stretching yourself thin.
You are dependable: you keep your word and you’re conscientious about fulfilling your commitments and delivering what others have asked of you.
But you may not always differentiate between urgent and important, or you don’t prioritise, so you treat everything as important.
You care deeply about doing a good job and are so eager to please that you may find it hard to honour your boundaries and remember to take care of yourself.
You stay up late to get work done and sacrifice your health and wellbeing to achieve success.
In airline-speak, you don’t put your own oxygen mask on first, before assisting others around you.
All of this can lead to your sustainability or work/life balance suffering, and you feeling overworked, overwhelmed, exhausted and on the path to burnout.
High achievers are productive, the kind of people who get stuff done. They enjoy being busy and accomplishing tasks.
But sometimes this means you’re so focussed on efficiency and completing your to-do list as fast as possible that your relationships can be transactional.
Secretly, you might think that providing transparency to colleagues and stakeholders is a waste of your time. Because you’re smart and you learn things quickly, you wonder why it takes other people so long to ‘get it’ and there’s an impatient part of you that resents having to slow down to ‘bring others along on the journey’.
You might not regularly pause to reflect, which means you may not always be strategic about where you invest your energy.
This can result in you not working on the highest impact activities, or overly focussing on short term wins that may not be fully aligned with long term goals.
When you’re managing others, your natural instinct may be to direct or instruct, rather than coach, empower and give others the space to grow, try new things and make mistakes.
You may even be so busy being ‘busy’ and climbing the career ladder that you don’t question where the ladder is taking you...
...until one day you look around and wonder, “How did I get here?”, realising you’ve ended up somewhere that isn’t fulfilling for you.
4. High standards
High achievers don’t get to where they are without delivering high quality work. They strive for excellence, and are not content with the status quo or producing ‘average’ or sloppy output.
However, this can mean that you’re never satisfied.
You focus on weaknesses and flaws, and you can be so hard on yourself.
You don’t fully appreciate the progress you’ve made and celebrate your achievements. You neglect to fully enjoy the journey while you’re waiting until the moment you become ‘successful’.
You may shy away from trying new things or taking risks because you have an image or reputation to maintain and you’re terrified of making mistakes or looking incompetent.
But this causes you to miss out on valuable experiences that might help you in the long run or be critical to achieving your bigger goals.
As Thomas DeLong and Sara DeLong remark,
“Many high performers would rather do the wrong thing well than the right thing poorly…Doing the right thing poorly is painful for high achievers. It’s much more satisfying to do something well, even if it’s not the best use of your time.”
Maybe your high standards hold you back in a different way, such as procrastination. Or avoiding asking for help, because you don’t want to tarnish the shiny veneer of perfection you have worked so hard to polish.
As a manager, you may find it difficult to let go of control to delegate and trust others. Your team probably can’t do things as well or as quickly as you can, so it’s tempting to do more yourself. When you do delegate, you might micro-manage.
Taken to the extreme, you may be a perfectionist.
Perfectionists set impossibly high standards and believe that perfection is what’s required for them to be accepted or worthy. They are harshly critical of themselves when they fail to live up to those unreasonable expectations.
You may be a perfectionist without even realising it. Or you may admit it to your colleagues with an apologetic smile or a self-deprecating laugh, while being quietly proud of this trait, deep down believing it’s contributed to your success. You’re not the only one who feels this way: the idea of ‘good perfectionism’ is widespread, according to David Smith and W. Brad Johnson, who recently wrote about perfectionism in Harvard Business Review.
Smith and Johnson point out,
“Perfectionism and the desire to excel are not different locations on the same continuum; they are entirely different constructs. The notion of good perfectionism turns out to be a hopeless oxymoron. If perfectionists are successful at work, it is in spite of their perfectionism, not because of it.”
The high achievers I work with are often in professional services or corporate jobs that require them to demonstrate strong analytical skills. They’re logical, rigorous and data-driven, proud of their ability to be objective.
In their work environments, intellectual reasoning reigns supreme. Emotional intelligence is often dismissed as ‘soft skills’. (Being quick to judge can come easily too.) However, the focus on smarts can lead high achievers to forget that organisations are comprised of people, so any change must be grounded in that context and understanding in order to have real impact.
On a more personal level, high achievers often miss out on the wisdom from other sources of intelligence. We may think we’re rational creatures, but emotions influence our decision making, whether we’re conscious of it or not. And science now suggests that we have complex neural networks or ‘brains’ in our heart and gut, providing support for the age-old notions of ‘following your heart’ and ‘trusting your gut instinct’.
By habitually over-emphasising the intellect and ‘objective’ data and information, you may find that you automatically turn outward for advice and hesitate to trust yourself or your own intuition.
Albert Einstein spoke about the importance of intuition in his work as a physicist. He also said,
“The search and striving for truth and knowledge is one of the highest of man’s qualities…We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead, it can only serve; and it is not fastidious in its choices of a leader…The intellect has a sharp eye for methods and tools, but is blind to ends and values.”
It can be a fine line between flourishing high achiever and dysfunctional over-achiever. How do we tell the difference?
The answer may lie in the emotional experience: how do you feel as you're striving and driving and achieving?
Are you energised and excited about what you’re doing, even if it’s challenging? Or is it stressful and burning you out?
Are you thriving, or merely surviving?
If your high achieving habits are holding you back or hurting you, don’t worry – you’re not alone.
The first step is to start with awareness. Gentle and curious. Notice how you’re feeling, without judging what comes up or criticising yourself for it. Awareness enables you to make more intentional choices.
And if you’re looking to take it a step further, here are 4 simple strategies to help you find greater fulfilment as a high achiever.
If you know a friend or colleague who might value these perspectives, please share this post. I’d love to spark more honest conversations about achievement and fulfilment. Thank you for being part of this important dialogue.
If you want to continue the conversation, leave a comment below to let me know - which of these five strengths or related challenges resonated most strongly with you?