All my life, I’ve achieved amazing things. I have a master’s degree, I’ve traveled the world, I’ve started multiple businesses. Those in my life regularly commented about how successful I was.
But after spending time with a life coach and therapist over the last couple of years, I realized that it was all because, unbeknownst to me, I was addicted to being extraordinary. Being extraordinary was, I felt, the only good thing about me. I therefore nearly destroyed my health and sanity doing what I had to do to be extraordinary. Outside of achievement, I was empty.
This is the story of how I moved past achievement addiction and found myself.
This sounds like some sort of humblebrag, but it’s really not. I was desperate to achieve because I thought that’s all I was. I had no identity outside of doing amazing things.
I started achieving really young and I liked it. I liked how people talked about me – I liked the feeling. I liked it too much. I put everything into it and I never developed a self outside of those things I had accomplished. I thought that if I accomplished, I wouldn’t need a self. If I didn’t accomplish, I felt like total shit and I felt like I deserved it because I didn’t accomplish. That would teach me to never underachieve again!
When I was young, my accomplishments came in the form of singing and playing piano. As young as 14 years old, I was singing professionally at weddings and funerals, singing the national anthem in packed stadiums, recording demos in a studio, and competing in national vocal competitions around the country.
Being addicted to achievement is kind of like being addicted to drugs. When it works out, it’s like you’re flying. Whether you’re high on drugs or you win first prize, you’re in ecstasy… until you come down. The drugs wear off. You don’t even place in the competition. Your business doesn’t go as well as you planned. Then you’re in a living hell.
I remember one time when I was in 10th grade and I didn’t get accepted into an all-state women’s choir. I cried and cried and cried. You’d have thought there was a death in the family. To me, there was: A death of the only self I had ever known. Without this achievement, I felt worthless.
We all fail. Things don’t work out the way we expect, despite our best efforts. You can control output, but you can’t control outcomes. (Trust me, I’ve spent my whole life trying.) If the wins don’t define who we are, we can bounce back somewhat easily when we lose. But if we have no identity outside of success, then failure feels literally like the end of the world.
I believe this is why South Korea has the world’s highest suicide rate. Having been a teacher in South Korea, I have seen firsthand how achievement is stressed to Korean children. Their parents love them and want their children to have a secure and bright future, but in doing so, they neglect to teach their children that they are still loved even when they don’t achieve. Parents think telling that their children that they are perfect just the way they are will make them slack off. But really, it just breaks their souls. For some Koreans, this is literally fatal. When I said it feels like the end of the world, I am not exaggerating.
I personally believe this was the fate of Oklahoma City businessman Aubrey McClendon. As founder and CEO of Chesapeake Energy, he was a god in Oklahoma. He was known as a workaholic and a charismatic, caring, and genius business man and leader.
On March 2, 2016, McClendon died in a single-occupant, single-vehicle car crash. His Chevy Tahoe left no skid marks as it dove head-first into a concrete viaduct under a bridge at 9am. He was wearing no seatbelt and going 78 miles per hour. He was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time. The accident took place the day after his indictment by a federal grand jury accusing him of violating antitrust laws from 2007 to 2012, during which time he was CEO at Chesapeake Energy.
While the official classification of the incident was an accident, most people, including me, believe the death was a suicide. This absolutely breaks my heart. I wish I could have told Aubrey that nothing he has ever done makes him less than enough. That he is not his role as CEO of Chesapeake. That he is allowed to make mistakes, even big ones. That he is worthy no matter what he does, doesn’t do, achieves, or doesn’t achieve.
Yes. Achievement addiction kills.
All my life, through an unbelievable amount of stress I didn’t even realize I was under, I had kept everything in my life “just so” in order to keep my fragile achievement identity intact.
But when things did not go as I’d planned in my business, I felt like my world was over. After doing a lot of work on myself, speaking with my therapist, working with coaches, and reading a bunch of books, I realized the crazy truth:
I didn’t know who I was outside of my business. My travels. My performances. My achievements. I was an empty shell of a human.
Then one day, it slowly dawned on me: The only way to discover who I really was, outside of my achievements, was to stop achieving to create my identity. Quit my achievement addiction cold turkey. Without that crutch, I would learn who Anna is underneath. The real Anna.
I’m not saying achievement is bad. Achievement addiction is not like alcohol addiction. It’s more like eating and shopping addictions: You can’t simply quit it. You can’t stop eating or stop shopping. You must manage it. And that’s how I live now.
Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that having a job you love makes your life just “average”. That’s just how messed up my mindset was. I now know the truth: That living a balanced, happy life is true achievement.
There is nothing wrong with achievement, per se, either. I’ve come to learn over the last couple of years that the important part is not what you do, but why you do it. Eating is great as long as you’re eating because you’re hungry, not because you’re lonely, depressed, or bored. Achieving is great as long as it’s because you want to and not because you need to in order to have an identity or feel like you are worthy.
Does this mean that I’m not a person who likes travel and business and music? No (though at times during my addiction recovery, I certainly wondered). There are millions of ways to achieve. The ones I chose are the ones that are aligned with my gifts and interests.
I am also very grateful for this past because it showed me what I am truly capable of. That I can travel the world. That I can start a business. That I can perform. That I can do anything I set my mind to. Without my achievement addiction, I might never have learned what I can really do when I put my mind to it. Seeing my life at my highest potential is a priceless gift for which I’m so thankful.
To take a break from the story for a minute, this tells me that we can all do anything we set our minds to. We are all capable of achieving in our own unique ways. I am just like you: I am gifted and interested in some things and not gifted and not interested in other things. I followed those gifts through and achieved, even though it was for the wrong reasons. You and I both can follow our gifts through just as easily for the right reasons and achieve incredible things, making the world a better place in the process.
Over the last several months, I have begun getting to know myself for the first time in my life. I’ve learned that I am energetic and enthusiastic and stubborn; I’m awesome at starting things and not so good at finishing things.
I like all types of Asian food. I hate celery and even the utterance of the word “licorice.”
I like to wear gold but not so much silver.
I love happy TV shows and hate disturbing ones (never watched Breaking Bad!).
I love real estate, old homes, and HGTV.
I have learned lots and lots of other things about me that I thought weren’t important but they make up the stuff of who I am.
Recovering from achievement addiction has also helped me more deeply understand those around me as well as realize, for the first time, that other people are not their achievements, either (just imagine living your whole life this way!).
These days, instead of focusing my energy on being a success and achieving, I focus my energy on taking care of myself (eating right, exercising, getting rest, having a balanced social and work life), doing the things I enjoy rather than those I think are achievements, and bringing light and positivity to everyone I cross paths with. That’s more than enough to keep my life full. It’s been a miraculous time.
Realizing these truths about yourself through personal development is kind of like having a huge smudge cleaned off your glasses. No one else will notice, but for you, the one wearing the glasses, every moment of every day is better. You have a whole new outlook. You feel like the world has opened up.
The road to happiness is definitely not always what you expect. You, reader, have probably also found yourself in situations you never thought you’d be in. If so, you can relate to how I feel to some extent.
For the first time, I’m learning what life is about. It’s not about success. It’s not about achievement. Those things will come to you when you follow your bliss, and anyway, “success” and “achievement” mean something different to us all.
I hope in your life, you succeed in knowing who you truly are – your true essence – and that you realize you are enough, exactly as you are now. This is achievement in my book.
Originally published at www.annawickham.com