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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

The paradox of the high achiever: winning “the rat race” and losing happiness [Wise Wednesdays]

What do you do after you’ve won the rat race?...

When Alexandra and I met 3 years ago, she felt overwhelmed by work. She wanted coaching to help her create a career in a different city. She wanted more intellectual challenge and inspiration, to work on exciting projects that allowed her to make a real contribution. She wanted to lead her own hospital service. She also wanted to create a healthy and meaningful relationship with someone special, as well as reconnect with her creativity.

Today, she’s sought after by the top hospitals in the country, recognised through national excellence awards and an invited speaker internationally. She’s created the rest, too. She enjoys travelling with her partner and has revived old hobbies.

She’s managed to create all of it.

Her 2016 dream has come true.

But now she’s starting to feel restless again. She wonders whether she’s not doing enough or too much or the wrong thing altogether. And it’s overwhelming.

Sure some time management and prioritisation can help a bit…

But you see, the truth is high achievers find it difficult to let go of the need to perform. That’s why one challenge has to be followed by the next. And why their schedules have to be packed…

I speak from experience…

It’s the paradox of the high achiever.

The habits that helped you succeed in the past are what’s getting in the way of your happiness and fulfilment today - a theme I’ve explored over the past three years with the myth of Sisyphus here, the high achiever’s secret dream here and whether it’s OK to be bored here. It’s also at the core theme of the book I’m writing “The Success Trap” coming out next year.

Echoing the observation of Harvard political philosophy professor, Michael Sandel: if you happen to have skills and talents that society values, you’ll be rewarded for your performance from a young age. Achieving becomes your way of living. But you had no real choice in the matter to start with.

So high performers have less control than they think…

But where does this flaw in thinking lead to?

Last week, I had a conversation with the managing director in an aviation, aerospace and defense investment banking team. A self-declared alpha male, he told me that he felt he had won the rat race.

I asked him what was keeping him in the rat race if he had already won it…

His answer shocked me for a moment. But was ultimately unsurprising.

It reminded me of two hard-earned lessons from my own experience:

1) You can’t win the rat race


Because it’s not real.

The milestones are invented, socially constructed. It’s an illusion fuelled by the compulsion to win. And it leads to dysfunctional behaviours.

Or as Marshall Goldsmith, coach to CEOs and leaders around the world, puts it: “the main blind spot underpinning all problem behaviours in leaders is winning too much”.

While the motivation for the race may differ: for one person it's money and power (hard rat race) for another it's achievement and recognition (soft rat race), and for yet another it's connection and contribution (rat race "light"),

If the motivating drive is a compulsion - the compulsion to succeed, perform, win - the result is the same: there is no end.

(In Buddhist psychology, it's called the hungry ghost effect - the ghost’s hunger will never be satiated.)

2) If you win the rat race, you're still a rat (Lily Tomlin)

The prevalence of sociopathic, narcissistic and machiavellian behaviours increases as you go up the echelons of management and leadership in organisations…

Know your ecosystem and choose who you surround yourself with wisely. And if you feel you have no choice, consider the hard choice.

Will knowing this help my client break out of the paradox of the high achiever?

She can. If she chooses.

Two phrases I hear often are: “I don’t know why I waited so long to make the leap!” and “Wow, things are falling into place with less effort!”

You just need a little commitment and courage to let go. Then your deeper intelligence can guide you out of a tangled forest of illusions and back to true fulfilment.


Coach to rebels

Wanna talk? Email me.


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